Monday, July 02, 2007

Core works

I've had several people ask me recently what they can do to improve their core muscles, so I thought I'd assemble this post for them...

Even when I'm teaching 45 minute classes, I still usually include at least 5 minutes of core work.

It is usually comprised of a combination of stuff. I have them do crunches of various varieties to stave off boredom.

Try these for a taste:

(1) bicycle crunches: lying on your back, interlock fingers behind head (not neck); draw knees into chest; extend right leg forward and off the floor; draw right elbow to outside of left knee; then alternate by extending the left leg while drawing in the right knee, and taking your left elbow to the outside of your right knee; continue alternating (and breathing) for 30-60 seconds at your own (best) pace.

Tips: Keep your neck neutrally long -- not leaning way forward, and not drawn forward by your hands. Tightly bending your neck can do damage, especially with the side-to-side motion of this practice. Make the crunches harder by keeping your back curled up even as you rotate from one side to the other. I usually coach my students to keep their shoulder blades entirely off the floor, though most of them can't manage that for very many reps, and the longer they go, the more uncurled their backs tend to get.

(2) oblique crunches: lying on your back, interlock fingers behind head (not neck), draw both knees into your chest, then drop them, together, to the right side, while keeping your shoulders flat on the mat. Then crunch by lifting your head, neck, shoulders, and back straight up to the ceiling on an exhale; hold for two or three counts, then inhale back down to the mat. Repeat for 30-45 seconds at your own best pace. Then bring your knees back to center, and drop them to the left, repeating on that side for the same amount of time.

Tips: To make this harder, lift your feet and knees slightly off the floor. As with bicycle crunches, try to keep your shoulder blades entirely off the floor for all of the reps. Work to isolate the obliques. In actuality, you can't stop using your psoas muscles in this sequence, but you can start to distinguish between the rectus abdominus (six-pack) muscles and the obliques, usually by feel, since the obliques are smaller (thinner) muscles and will fatigue and start hurting faster than the abdominus. See, e.g., here. One vanity-driven result of doing lots of oblique crunches is you tend to build up your anterior serratus muscles, which look kind of cool when you do twists.

(3) Pelvic lift crunches: Interlock your fingers behind your head; recline on your mat. Draw your legs up, while keeping your sacrum on the mat, feet together. Then lift your feet straight up, toward the ceiling. This motion is no more than an inch or two for the most flexible and strong yogis. For some, their hips don't leave the floor at all, but the muscles that would lift, if they could, are fully engaged. Then on an exhale, lift the heart straight up toward the ceiling, as well, lifting until the shoulder blades leave the ground. Then, while maintaining both pelvis and shoulder blades off the mat, pulse up for as long as you can. (Note, this one can be really hard.)

One tip for all crunches: there's nothing like really loud, really fast, rhythmic music to crunch by.

Beyond crunches, I put my classes into Downward-facing Dog, have them lift one leg straight back and up, and then draw the knee of the extended leg in to their noses (for most this requires, and I encourage, them to arch their backs and shift their weight forward, over their arms). I have them hold for two to five counts, then re-extend the leg; and repeat the sequence three to five times on each side. Sometimes, when I'm feeling perverse, I have them draw the knee first to the nose, then on the second extension, to the armpit on the same side as the leg, then on the third extension to the elbow of the opposite arm, which requires both a crunch and a twist.

Finally (and my favorite) I also have them practice Boat pose, which is tough to get in terms of alignment, but is outstanding when it comes to working the psoas and abdominals. I frequently have them alternate between Boat and East Stretch as a kind of counter-pose to the gut-cramping that happens if you hold Boat for extended periods.

Finally, if you're looking for kicks, you can do crunches while in Boat pose by drawing your extended legs a few inches toward your extended torso, then a few inches away from it.