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Want to unleash the true potential of your middle? Turns out crunches—yes, the exercise you’ve avoided for years in favor of holding Plank—are key to a stronger core and more stable yoga practice. Here’s how to do crunches so they serve you in every pose and help you score the core of your dreams.
Yogis know that a strong core is crucial. Physically, it’s what helps you stay balanced, move from one pose to the next with muscular integrity, and maintain a healthy spine. Emotionally, your core is arguably your most important body part: It’s the way you show up spiritually and ethically in the world. And given that the practice of yoga is really about connecting to your truest self, core work is key to developing an even stronger sense of self.
Despite all this, it can be tempting to rush through core work or see it as merely a necessary evil. I know it’s not everyone’s favorite portion of yoga class—I hear your grunts when I’m teaching!—but here’s another way to look at it: By working your core with intention, you’ll be better able to recruit your core muscles throughout your entire practice, helping you engage the back body during forward bends (preventing over-rounding and over-stretching of the low back) and the front body during backbends (avoiding pushing past what your body can manage).
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my years of practicing and teaching is that how we work in poses is as important as the poses themselves. Doing the yoga crunch outlined below will engage your core muscles in such a way that you’re able to find that same “work” in each pose of the Safe, Core-Supported Backbending Sequence, not only helping you strengthen your core but also preparing you for your fullest—and safest—expression of each pose.
The Yoga Crunch, Explained
For years, abdominal crunches have gotten a bad rap. Yes, they only work the front-body core muscles, and the core muscles wrap around the entire midsection. That’s why Plank Pose gets so much love: It engages all of the core. However, knowing how to isolate the front core muscles (specifically the transverse abdominis (TA) and psoas) is incredibly important—especially when it comes to backbends. Learn how to isolate your TA and psoas in a yoga crunch and you’ll be better able to isolate those same muscles when you’re moving in the opposite direction (read: backbends), which is the key to lifting the chest and avoiding “dumping” in your low back.
Enter the “Carpenter Crunch,” so named because it was invented by my teacher, Annie Carpenter, the creator of SmartFLOW Yoga. This four-part move focuses on shortening the front body (called spinal flexion) so that when you do the backbend sequence that follows, you can move into spinal extension with greater safety and ease. Do the 4 steps of this crunch 10 times before you start to flow.
Master the Yoga Crunch in 4 Steps
Step one: Find a neutral spine
Begin by lying on your back, knees bent and feet hip-width apart and flat on the ground. Inhale and reach your arms to the sky; exhale and press your bottom ribs into the mat. Keeping your ribs pressing down, interlace your fingers behind your head.
Step two: Flex your spine
Keep everything the same as in step no. 1, and as you exhale, curl up, rounding your torso (from your shoulders to your tailbone) off the ground. As you curl up, press your navel down toward the ground and bring the bottom of your ribs closer to your pubic bone. This rounding creates spinal flexion.
Step three: Extend your legs
Keep everything the same as in step no. 2, and as you inhale, extend your legs straight from your hips so they’re at a 45-degree angle to the ground (or lower, for a greater challenge). Firm your legs, lifting your kneecaps as you reach through your feet. If you feel any discomfort in your low back, bend your knees or try one leg at a time.
Step four: Round your spine even more
On an exhale, bend your knees and return your feet to the ground. At the very end of your exhale, round your back even more, curling higher and flattening your low back to the ground. Then, return to step no. 1.
About our pro
Teacher and model Tiffany Russo is a Los Angeles–based SmartFLOW yoga teacher and teacher trainer. Learn more at tiffanyrusso.com.