August 17, 2017

The Truth about Core Strength & How to Build It.

“Core” has been a buzzword in the yoga and fitness world for years now. Everyone thinks they understand what core means, but in fact, the term is gravely misunderstood.

The most common misconception is that a strong core means you are always holding your stomach muscles in.

Core is far more than just abdominals and doesn’t have anything to do with holding your stomach taut.

Instead, picture yourself wearing a half-wetsuit that covers your entire torso, from your hips, around your midriff and all the way up to your shoulders: this is how big and expansive the core is.

When we delve deeper, there are also two layers of the core. These are often referred to as the inner cylinder of support (deep core) and the outer cylinder of support (superficial core). The inner cylinder is comprised of four muscles that work together to produce intersegmental support (support from one vertebra to the next). These four muscles are the transverse abdominis, the pelvic floor (specifically the levator ani), the diaphragm and the multifidi. The outer cylinder of support wraps around the torso toward the upper-body from the hips and pelvis. The outer cylinder includes the gluteals, the latissimus dorsi, the back extensors, and the obliques, to name a few.

The key to understanding the importance of these two cylinders of support lies in how they work together.

Many of us don’t know that the outer cylinder of support depends on the inner cylinder. The muscles of the inner cylinder act like a vacuum pack that keeps the spine secure. This stability provides a base of support for the muscles of the outer cylinder whose job is to move our bodies around in space. This is how the inner and outer core muscles are designed to work: in unison.

Most of the time, when it comes to core, we focus on working the muscles we can see; the ones that have sex appeal (the visible “6-pack”). The irony is that these muscles, while important, are not part of our core. They need to be strong to move us around but they perform no function when it comes to direct support for the spine. Also, the muscles of the inner cylinder are accessed in subtle ways that require patience and practice. In fact, when you start training the inner cylinder, it often feels like you are doing nothing and confusion sets in. Understandably, these muscles are easily overlooked. These two factors contribute to a misunderstanding of what “core” means and can lead, in some cases, to core weakness, because the wrong muscles are targeted.

We need to understand the interplay between the two cylinders to be able to toggle back and forth between the two to create truly integrated support around our spine. When we have a double cylinder of support, our bodies are lithe and can move freely and powerfully. What often happens when we are trying to get strong in our core is that we get rigid. Rigidity can cause issues in our back, hips,  and even our necks, leading to poor posture and restricted breathing (yes, even for yogis!). This is because the inner cylinder cannot do its job proficiently.

True core strength and control translates to resiliency, elasticity, and tone and creates good movement in the hips and shoulders, free breathing, and a full range of pain-free motion in the spine.

Here are six exercises (three for the inner cylinder and three for the outer cylinder) to build integrated core support to increase mobility, strength, and balance and reduce chances of injury or chronic pain on and off the yoga mat:

Inner Cylinder Exercises

Split Stance Rocking

Stand with left foot forward and right foot back. Rock forward onto left foot and then back onto right foot. Do 20 repetitions, then switch to other side.

This exercise targets lumbar multifidi muscles, deep along the spine. These are essential inner cylinder muscles that provide significant support for the lumbar spine. You won’t feel the multifidi during this exercise, but afterward, you may feel like there is more space and mobility in your lower back.


Belly to Spine Activation

Stand with hands around your waist. Take a breath and expand your torso in all directions. As you exhale, cinch waist in. Take another breath and expand. Exhale and cinch. Do 10 to 15 repetitions and make sure the contraction in the abdominal wall is minimal.

This exercise targets the diaphragm and transversus abdominis (the deepest abdominal muscle). These are two deep, inner cylinder muscles.


Lower Belly to Spine Pulsing Activation

Stand with one hand against your lower belly. Start to take small, staccato breaths. On each exhale press the lower belly toward the spine. Do 10 to 15 repetitions and make sure the contraction you create in the abdominal wall is minimal.

This exercise targets the diaphragm and transversus abdominis (the deepest abdominal muscle). These are two deep, inner cylinder muscles.


Outer Cylinder Exercises 

Hip Hinge

Stand with hands on hip creases. Hinge forward from hips approximately 30-40º, then reverse to tall standing. Do six to 10 repetitions. This exercise targets the gluteus maximus muscles bilaterally (on both sides). These muscles are an important component of the outer cylinder.


Quadruped Arm/Leg Reach

Start on hands and knees with a slight downward dip in your lower back. Press lower belly to spine (for deep, inner cylinder activation) and press down with left arm and right leg. This activates the abdominal obliques (outer cylinder muscles). Next, reach right arm and left leg long to the height of the torso. Reverse to the start position.

You can alternate from side to side, or, do a number of repetitions with one set of limbs and then switch. In either case, do six to 10 repetitions, keeping torso steady and supported.

This exercise targets what is sometimes referred to as the back track of the body, targeting hamstrings, gluteus maximus, and back extensors.


Side Bridge

Lie on your side, propped up tall on your right arm. Position knees slightly forward of hips, bent at 90º. Stay tall on supporting arm and press legs into floor. Lift waist and hips to create a long diagonal from shoulders to knees. Lower down to start position. Do six repetitions and repeat on other side.

This exercise targets the side of the torso from armpit to hip and includes outer cylinder muscles for lateral support.



Relephant Reads! Check out Margot’s videos on upper-body strength and hip stretching here:

How to Tell if we have Real Upper-body Strength & 5 Ways to Build It.

The Problem with Stretching Tight Hips & 6 things to Do Instead.


Author: Margot McKinnon
Image: Pexels
Editor: Emily Bartran
Copy Editor: Travis May 
Social Editor: Lieselle Davidson

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