Core Strength and Its Importance

14 May 2013

If you’ve ever practiced yoga, Pilates or worked with a personal trainer you’ve most likely heard about the importance of engaging or strengthening “the core.” And have you noticed how as soon as you tighten or “firm up” your belly, your posture changes in a positive way? That’s just one example of the power of “core strength!”

The Core Muscles – where they’re located & what they do…

Core strength is totally dependent on the core muscles but what exactly are they? The list of muscles that make up the “core” is somewhat arbitrary and different experts include different muscles and muscle groups. A common consensus is there are 29 pairs of muscles that make up the core. But, rather than go into detail about all 29 pairs let’s just say that the core muscles run the length of the torso and spine; they work together to strengthen and stabilize the pelvis, spine and shoulders, maintaining a solid foundation while transferring energy from the center of the body out through limbs.

Some of the most common core muscles that accomplish this task are:

Rectus Abdominis (the “Abs”) – Located along the front of the abdomen, this is the most well-known abdominal muscle and is often referred to as a “six-pack” due to its appearance in individuals with a well developed musculature. It acts to flex the vertebral column (particularly the lumbar portion), it tenses the anterior abdominal wall assisting in compressing the abdominal contents.

Erector Spinae- This group of three muscles runs along your neck to your lower back. It functions to straighten the back and to rotate it to one side or the other.

Multifidus – Located under the erector spinae along the vertebral column, one of the smallest yet most “powerful” muscles that extends, rotates and gives support to the spine.

External Obliques – Located on the side and front of the abdomen. They flex the trunk forward, support and contain the abdominal contents, assist the breathing mechanism (particularly exhale) and tilt the pelvis.

Internal Obliques – Located under the external obliques, running in the opposite direction. They support the abdominal contents, rotate and flex the spine and play a role in breathing.

Transverse Abdominis (TVA) – Located under the internal obliques, it is the deepest of the abdominal muscles (muscles of your waist) and wraps around your spine for protection and stability.

Hip Flexors – Located in front of the pelvis and upper thigh. They’re several muscles that work together to bring the legs and trunk together allowing you to lift your knees and bend at the waist.

Gluteus medius and minimus – Located at the side of the hip. They function together to pull the thigh away from midline, or “abduct” the thigh.

Gluteus maximus, (hamstring group) – Located in the back of the hip and upper thigh leg. It’s the broad, thick, outermost muscle of the buttocks, involved in the rotation and extension of the thigh.

Hip adductors – Located deep in the inner groin and along the inner thigh. These muscles adduct the hip (pull the thighs together).

Why core strength is considered so important?

Millions of people who share in our modern culture spend a large portion of their day sitting in a work station, in front of a computer screen or just watching TV. Sitting much of the day puts a lot of strain on your lower back and since that’s the part of your body that’s supporting the majority of your weight you need core strength to remain physically functional. When you have a strong core, it protects your body from the harm of remaining seated or inactive most of the day. Sufficient core strength enables you move with more grace, balance and intention, regardless of whether you’re simply walking along, or ascending a flight of stairs.

Why is core strength important during yoga practice?

A strong core works to stabilize your entire body during yoga practice and also outside of the studio, in your regular day to day life. When you neglect to work on maintaining a strengthened core, you increase risk of injury, especially in the lower back. Think specifically about Utkatasana (the Chair Pose). It’s easy to settle into this asana with your “glutes” shifting back, and your stomach area relaxed. After all, there are a lot of things to consider while in this pose (drawing your weight back into your heels, relaxing your shoulders, melting your hips a bit deeper); but think about what happens the moment you suck your belly button in toward your spine, and how this permits your pelvis to become level, which in turn lengthens your lower spine. It even takes just a bit of weight off of your legs and all of a sudden you notice your posture improves in the pose. That’s only one example out of many, so it’s very easy to imagine the impact that a strong core has on every single asana practiced in a power yoga sequence. For instance, a strong core adds grace and stability during the simple transitions from Warrior 2, to extended side angle, and back to reverse Warrior. And that’s nothing when compared to the amount of core strength needed for arm balances and inversions like crow pose, headstand or forearm stand; all asanas that would be virtually impossible without engaging the core!

The next time you’re in a yoga class (or even when practicing at home), think about your core strength during each asana, and each transition, and watch how it transforms your overall experience. And then, continue to think about your core strength after you leave the studio and continue with your daily routine. There’s a good chance this will help you discover more purpose with every movement, even the most simple.

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