Core Concept: Soften Your Middle for a Stronger Core

Think of the word “core,” and terms like “hard" and “tight” likely come to mind. But the secret 
to a strong middle is actually to soften in your practice. This sequence shows you how.
side plank variation, vasistasana

Think of the word “core,” and terms like “hard” and “tight” likely come to mind. But the secret to a strong middle is actually to soften in your practice. This sequence shows you how.

One year ago, Karly Treacy, a Los Angeles–based vinyasa teacher, went to a doctor’s appointment. A fit, healthy mother of three, she expected to hear, “Everything looks great!” Instead, her doctor told her that after having three babies in three years, her pelvic floor muscles were so weak she had developed pelvic organ prolapse (POP), in which internal organs like the bladder and bowels drop into the lower belly.

The longtime runner and yoga and Pilates teacher was shocked. After all, she’d spent years working her abs and religiously did Kegels to strengthen her pelvic floor muscles—part of the larger group of muscles we refer to as the “core.” How were these muscles not strong enough to do something as basic as keep her organs in place? Treacy’s doc had a surprising answer: She’d actually been overworking her pelvic floor, causing an overtightening that led to weakness, not strength.

“Think about what a tight muscle looks like,” says Treacy. “It lives in a shortened, contracted state, and because it’s not pliable, it’s actually not as strong as it could be.”

Of course, learning how to soften in order to strengthen is counterintuitive to the way many of us think about working our core. But what Treacy learned from her work with pelvic floor specialists is that to encourage these muscles to get stronger, you actually need to decrease tension.

“Working this way may look easy, but it’s some of the most challenging core work you will do—and it will give you the flattest abs you can get,” says Treacy. Whether you’re a new mom dealing with the kind of post-baby issues Treacy faced or you’re looking to boost your core strength, follow the sequence to get your strongest, most responsive core and pelvic floor muscles yet.

See alsoYoga for Moms: Re-establishing a Connection to Your Core

Practice Tip

Oftentimes, there’s a “bearing down” feeling that can happen when you do deep core and pelvic floor work, as with the Vasisthasana (Side Plank Pose) variation, shown above. That’s the opposite of what you’re going for and actually the kind of overtightening that can cause problems. In these postures, try to feel a sense of lifting up from the pelvic floor and through the side waists.

Soften to Strengthen

After Treacy’s fateful doctor’s appointment, she turned her go-to ab routine on its head, ditching the bicycle crunches and three-minute Forearm Plank holds that had been her staples. Instead, she stabilized her core via the specific yoga poses in the following sequence. Treacy also learned the right way to do Kegels, which—news flash!—are important for both women and men to do. The best part? “By learning how to work, but not overwork, your abdominals and pelvic floor muscles, the ab and pelvic floor exercises you do will be far more effective,” says Treacy, “which means you’ll see results sooner.”

Join the Kegel Revolution

For years, women were taught that to do a Kegel (a.k.a., a pelvic floor exercise), they should squeeze the muscles that activate when you stop the flow of urine. As for men? They were (and still mostly are) under the impression that pelvic floor work wasn’t necessary. It’s time for these two myths to be busted, says Treacy. Pelvic floor weakness affects both women and men. What’s more, squeezing those muscles that stop the flow of urine often leads to a tightening of the wrong muscles, which in turn can lead to everything from urinary incontinence and pain during sex to pelvic organ prolapse (POP) and more.

See alsoBuild Supple Strength in the Pelvic Floor

The Right Way to Do a Kegel

Picture the pelvic floor muscles between your two sitting bones. Inhale, and as you exhale, draw the muscles together as if they were the two halves of an elevator door closing to meet in the middle. Once this door is closed, lift the elevator up and then release. Next, imagine the pelvic floor muscles between your pubic bone and tailbone. Inhale, and as you exhale, draw those muscles together in the same elevator-door fashion, lift the elevator, and then release. Now, draw all four elevator doors together at once, meeting at one point in the middle, then lift and release. Repeat 5 times, and rest. Aim to repeat this Kegel practice 2 to 3 times a week.

See alsoA Woman’s Guide to Mula Bandha