Master Baptiste Yoga teacher Leah Cullis, who will lead Yoga Journal’s upcoming online course Pillars of Power Yoga (sign up here to be the first to know when this fitness- and focus-boosting course launches), offers 10 poses that tone your abs and strengthen your core, helping you tap into your personal power on and off the mat.
The core is the power source within the body, so strong abs are so much more than something to strive for in the summer. Powerful abdominal muscles support your everyday movements, improve your posture, and stabilize your lower back. On the mat, strong abs create more efficient movements throughout every pose. There is power in moving from your physical center and cultivating core strength. Off the mat, this deep source of strength allows you to move through the world with more grace and ease, and puts you in touch with your personal power.
These 10 poses target the crucial core muscles, as well as engage and empower your total-body strength. In this sequence, we’ll focus on toning and strengthening your abs. I suggest starting with 3–5 rounds of both Sun Salutation A and Sun Salutation B as a warm-up.
Cat Pose Crunches
Come to tabletop on your hands and knees, with your hands rooted under your shoulders and knees under your hips. Tuck your toes to help you stabilize. Lift your low belly up and in so your core is engaged and your back is long. Reach your right arm forward at shoulder height, turn your palm to the left wall and spark open your fingers. Extend your left heel to the back wall at hip level and flex your foot. On your exhale, hug your right elbow and left knee in to touch. Round your back in a Cat Pose, lifting your low belly up. With your inhale, extend your right arm forward and left leg back. Exhale, hug into the crunch. Keep going one breath per movement for 5 rounds. Return to all fours. Repeat on the other side.
Plank is an igniting pose that cultivates both upper and lower body strength and connection at the core. Stack your shoulders over your wrists and extend your heels to the back of your mat. Press your outer shins in and firm your leg muscles to the bones. Extend your crown forward and reach your heels back. Lengthen your tailbone toward your heels and lift your low belly up and in, stoking your inner fire at your core as you hold for 10 breaths.
Side Plank integrates the upper and lower body and uses your own body weight as resistance to tone and strengthen the abs and arms. Ground down through your lower hand and lift your opposite arm to the sky. Press the outer edge of your lower foot into the floor, stack and flex your feet, and hug your leg muscles to the bones. Press your tailbone toward your heels, and lift the pit of your belly up and in to build your inner fire in your core. Look to your top hand and spread your fingers wide. Lift your hips as high as you can and open your chest as you expand from the inside out. Hold for 5–10 breaths. Return to Plank, pause and hug into your centerline. Repeat on the other side.
Dolphin Plank activates and tones all the muscles in your core. From Plank, transition down to your forearms. Press your inner forearms, elbows, and palms firmly against the floor, and create a straight line from your shoulders to your heels. Broaden across your collarbone, and melt your thoracic spine (middle and upper back) in. Anchor your tailbone down toward your heels and hug your low belly up. Activate your leg muscles and press your heels toward the back of your mat as you lengthen the crown of your head forward. Set your gaze straight down at the mat and breathe 10 full Ujjayi breaths.
Revolved Chair Pose
Revolved Chair Pose tones the core and strengthens the middle and lower back as it squeezes and rinses the organs of the midsection. Bring your feet together at the center of your mat and sit deeply into Chair Pose. Keep your big toes together, ground down through all four corners of your feet, and shift your weight back into your heels. Lengthen your tailbone and lift your low belly. Draw your hands to heart center. On an inhale, lengthen your spine, and on your exhale, twist and hook your opposite tricep over opposite thigh. Continue to ride your breath, extending on the inhale and twisting deeper with each exhale. Hold for 5–10 breaths, move through Chair Pose to re-center, and then repeat on the other side.
Crescent Lunge is a full-body pose that trains all the muscles to work as one unit. With a long stance, ground down into all four corners of your front foot. Stack your back heel over the ball of your back foot and hug skin to muscle and muscle to bone. Hug your inner thighs in toward one another, square both hips to the front of the mat, and draw in toward your centerline. From the floor to your core, lift up, and from your core to the floor, root down. Extend your arms and chest high. Hold for 5–10 deep breaths.
Half Moon Pose
Half Moon helps to develop both stability and flexibility as you draw into your core and radiate out in all directions. Step to the top of your mat and come into a Standing Forward Bend to set up. Ground down into the four corners of your right foot, and from your core strength, lift your left leg up and in line with your hip, parallel to the floor, and flex your foot. Plant your right hand about 12 inches or more in front of your standing foot, in line with your pinkie toe, and lift onto your fingertips. Place your left hand on your left hip. Lift the front of your pelvis toward your belly button. With your core engaged, stack your hips and open them toward the left side wall. Activate your center by pulling your belly button toward your spine. You can build up from here by extending your left arm to the sky or lifting your bottom hand or both hands to heart center to cultivate even more abdominal strength. Hold for 5 breaths and transition to the other side.
Triangle Pose variation
Triangle is an expansive pose that requires deep roots through your legs to lift up into your core and cultivate abdominal strength. Take a wide stance on your mat and align your heels and your front foot at 12 o’clock. Seal the outer edges of both feet and lift your inner arches. From your hips to your heels, root down to create a solid foundation at the earth. Lift the energy up your legs, hug your muscles to the bones, and draw your energy into your core. Straighten both legs while keeping a micro-bend at your front knee. Place your bottom hand to the outside of your leg and press into your fingertips. Catch your top hip with your top hand, engage your core, and twist your chest high. Knit your front ribs together. To strengthen your abs even more, keep your torso as it is, lift your bottom hand, and reach toward the front wall, with your bicep by your ear. Reach both arms overhead to fire up and tone your core even more. Hold for 5 balanced breaths. Bring both hands to your hips. Lifting from your core strength, stand up and switch sides.
Boat Pose creates total body integration and balance while strengthening and toning the abdominal wall and supporting the low back. Sit up straight, lift your legs off the floor, and balance on your seat. Catch behind your knees and extend your heels high. Activate your feet, press the inner arches together, and fan your toes open. Extend your hands forward and spread your fingers. To modify, bend your knees to bring your shins parallel to the ground and keep your hands behind your knees for more support. Draw your upper arm bones back and broaden across your chest. Engage your low belly and lift your chest up and open. Balance as you breathe deeply and hold for 5–10 breaths.
Crow Pose is an upper body and core strengthener that leads to balance and lightness when done on the hands. On the back, it creates serious ab strengthening. Lie down on your back and stretch long, lifting your heels 6 inches off the ground and reaching your arms overhead. Engage your center by pulling your belly button to your spine, and firm your legs. Take a deep breath in, and with your exhale, round up, curl into a tight ball, and come into Crow on your back. Hug your knees against the back of your arms, close to your armpits, and hollow out your midsection. Press the inner arches of your feet together and awaken your toes to ignite the power line up to your core. Repeat the extensions on your inhales and contractions on your exhales for 10 rounds of breath.