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The core is the literal center of your body, a key transition zone between your upper and lower limbs. When it is strong, it makes all of your movements more efficient – including those of swim, bike run. As such, it’s important for endurance athletes to train their core muscles, whether in the gym or in the yoga studio. But are you measuring your core strength the right way?
The burning sensation of building core strength can be incredibly satisfying, whether you’re holding Plank Pose or struggling to finish your last set of crunches. That burn might bring you a sense of accomplishment, but it shouldn’t be your only measure of core strength. Additionally, true core strength is not defined by tight, toned muscles, and a flat belly.
The following misconceptions about core strength may be preventing you from fully developing your midsection. By learning how core strength is actually cultivated, you can develop your strength in ways that fully support your training and everyday life.
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3 common misconceptions about core strength
1. It’s all about the six pack
The formal name for the superficial “six pack” muscle, which runs from the base of the sternum and the front ribs to the pubic bone, is the rectus abdominis. You can feel this muscle engage during Plank and Forearm Plank and in arm balances such as Bakasana (Crow or Crane Pose). When it fully contracts, it causes you to scoop your belly and round your low back.
But there’s much more to core strength than the rectus abdominis. A number of muscles surround and support your midsection and enable you to move in all different directions, including the internal and external obliques, transverse abdominis, erector spinae, quadratus lumborum, and the respiratory diaphragm, as well as the pelvic diaphragm.
Explore poses that engage all of these muscles, which could be as simple as adding supermans and Side Planks to your usual routine. While the results aren’t always visible, you will feel the difference in your ability to perform challenging postures with less strain.
2. You must shorten muscles to strengthen them
Concentric contraction, when you draw the two ends of a muscle closer to one another, might be the most common way to build strength. But it’s not the only way.
A muscle can also be strengthened with isometric contractions, which tense the muscle without changing its length. For example, when you stop and hold steady at any point during crunches or maintain Boat Pose.
Strength also develops through eccentric contractions, which engage a muscle as it lengthens under load, such as when you lower your head and shoulders slowly back to the floor after Boat Pose.
A varied approach to core strength training is key to support your everyday movements.
3. Core workouts must exhaust you
A truly functional core is about more than strength alone. Developing your abdominal muscles also includes stretching them in a variety of ways for flexibility and mobility. Your capacity to twist or side bend requires flexibility in the obliques and quadratus lumborum. Your ability to come into backbends relies on elasticity in the rectus abdominis and the other anterior muscles of the core. It’s more important that your workout be thorough and well-rounded than exhausting.
By all means, savor that burn if you like. But don’t let your core strength work end there.
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Rachel Land is a Yoga Medicine instructor offering group and one-on-one yoga sessions in Queenstown New Zealand, as well as on-demand at Practice.YogaMedicine.com. Passionate about the real-world application of her studies in anatomy and alignment, Rachel uses yoga to help her students create strength, stability, and clarity of mind. Rachel also co-hosts the new Yoga Medicine Podcast.