Words by Louisa Thomas

The term ‘core strengthening’ has become a buzz word in recent years with yoga and pilates studios, gyms and fitness programmes offering the promise of a strong core that will be the envy of all. But do washboard-flat abs or a toned tum always equal a strong core? And what exactly does it mean to have a strong core?

The core area is often misunderstood as being purely the abdomen. In fact, the core includes the bulk of the torso, but in particular the muscles, bones, ligaments and fascia of the abdomen, pelvis, and lower back. As the ribs are attached to the spine, and the spine to the pelvis, it figures that the ribs also play a part in core strengthening. And the legs are attached to the pelvis, so they must have a role too, mustn’t they? And above the spine is the neck and head, so surely to carry around on average 12kg of skull and all its contents must also have an impact on the spine, and in turn the core. And the muscles of the shoulders area run across the back and into the pelvis, so we can’t leave out the shoulders… We could continue mapping the body in this way, but suffice to say, the core cannot really be separated from any other part of the body, as no part of the body functions in isolation. The core really is just that – the centre of our body.

With that in mind, it seems logical that isolated and repetitive work on the abdomen is not going to cut it for effective core strengthening. Doing 50 navasanas a day may give you a toned tum, it may even help you to shift a few pounds, but a strong core needs to be able to provide its function of supporting your viscera and keeping you upright and mobile throughout the day, during a range of movements and activities, without you having to ask it to engage. There’s little use in having a perfect 6-pack if you have to brace yourself every time you bend down to pick up something off the floor. Likewise, post pregnancy women often hit the gym to shift their baby weight, but realise as soon as they step on the treadmill that perhaps their pelvic floor isn’t up to the run after all.

Training the core effectively starts with optimal breathing.

As with all yoga, we always come back to the breath as the breath sets the tone for what the body and mind are doing. Many of us are chronic belly breathers, which is not optimal for a strong core. Breathing into the belly throughout the day causes the muscles to become tense and over-worked, so when we call on them to support us, for example if lifting something heavy, they may not always respond. Preferable is breath that allows the ribs to move 3-dimensionally, providing movement and flexibility in the ribs and spine. When the spine can move freely, the prana flows in the body and we are able to perform our normal activity with less chance of injury.

The core cannot function fully if it is surrounded by tension and restriction, so work to mobilise the hips and shoulders is also crucial to building a strong core. If we create a vacuum in the abdominal cavity every time we lift our arms to reach overhead because the shoulders are restricted, the core doesn’t stand a chance at performing optimally. Similarly, if we pull the pelvis out of alignment every time we walk because the hips are weak, or tight, we are working with a shaky foundation.

Being able to move the trunk in its full range, without compromising the pelvis or shoulders, trains the core to work in a way that is natural and reflexive. Yoga asana such as trikonasana, parivrtta parsvakonasana and utkatasana train the core to work in a range of directions, while supporting the trunk and facilitating full rib breathing.

We will be exploring a range of movements, stretches and techniques to train the core to work reflexively and optimally during the upcoming Strong Woman workshop on 1st April. The workshop is open to anyone who wants to rebalance their core, and will be of particular benefit to women who have had children, regardless of how long ago.

I hope to see you there.