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If you’re a fitness junkie (guilty!), you know how important it is to build core strength. While your regular workouts already build core strength on their own, adding extra core work to your routine can make a tremendous difference. But what are the most effective moves for building functional strength in your core?
Dr. Sara Solomon, BSc PT, DMD, creator of Strength Academy, is an expert in building functional core strength that you can apply in a variety of exercise disciplines, including some very impressive pole-dancing routines. Rather than focusing on the aesthetics of the abs, Solomon takes a more anatomical approach to building core strength. Notably, developing the transversus abdominis (TVA).
“The TVA is a very important deep core muscle because it is your body’s primary stabilizer,” Solomon explains. “Having a strong TVA provides the foundation required to get stronger and more mobile.” She says that focusing exclusively on your superficial rectus abdominis (aka your six-pack) with endless crunches can exacerbate existing weaknesses in your TVA. This can lead to issues including lower-back pain, tight hips, and diastasis recti, a condition in which the rectus abdominal muscles separate. “That’s why it’s so important not to neglect your TVA,” Solomon says.
To build core strength and avoid these and other problems, Solomon recommends just two movements. As with any challenging new move, the mantra for both these exercises is practice, practice, practice. “Remember, we all struggle when we first learn something,” Solomon says. “Make the effort to keep going. Keep giving it your all. The best way to succeed is to consistently show up. Enjoy the experience of figuring out your body.”
2 Simple Moves to Build Core Strength
1. Stomach Vacuum or Uddiyana Bandha
While some of you may be familiar with this as a bodybuilder exercise, the stomach vacuum, or Uddiyana Bandha, is actually a classic yoga move and one of three bandha practices for strengthening and toning the abdominal muscles. It also can be used to practice meditative, controlled breathing and to energize the body.
“It feels like the contents of your abdomen are being gently tugged upward by suction,” Solomon says.“This gets the diaphragm to move upward and out of the way.” As she explains, this move helps you connect with your entire core: TVA, diaphragm, and pelvic floor.
How to: Stand up straight with your arms overhead and take a deep breath in through your nose. Exhale as you fold forward and place your hands on your thighs. Be sure to exhale all the air out, even when you think you’ve reached the end, by using your abs to push as much air out as you possibly can.
Next, fully relax your belly and engage your pelvic floor. This creates a lock. Make a swallowing action with your throat, and when you feel your throat muscles tighten, hold it. This creates the throat lock. Keeping your hands on your thighs, take a fake inhalation with your mouth closed and your throat still locked. Do this by rising up slightly while in the bent-over position. The pressure created by your diaphragm trying to draw air into the lungs causes your abdominal contents to be sucked in and upward. This should create a hollow cave or “vacuum” in your lower abdomen.
Hold the vacuum here as long as you feel comfortable. Solomon recommends no longer than 10 seconds for beginners. At the end of the hold, gently release the suction and slowly inhale, standing back up. Take some slow, deep breaths. Solomon recommends 5 solid attempts on an empty stomach every morning. According to Solomon, it’s best to hold off during menstruation.
According to Solomon, the L-sit is the ultimate test of core strength. It’s a chance to see how your body is working in synergy and if the TVA is engaging correctly. “The L-sit, when performed in a way that gets the hips back behind the hands, will really target your TVA,” Solomon says.
How to: Place your hands on either side of your hips and draw your hips slightly toward the wall behind you. (In yoga, this is Dandasana or Staff Pose.) Press into your hands and lift your hips off the ground. Keeping your legs straight and your toes pointed away from you, engage your abs and attempt to lift your legs off the ground
Solomon recommends using yoga blocks on the lowest level beneath your hands to add height, which will make it easier when you’re starting out. “Don’t worry if you cannot lift your legs off the ground at the beginning,” Solomon says. “Just focus on pushing hard into the yoga blocks and getting the hips back.”
Breathe calmly through your nose to help you connect to your TVA. (Do not hold your breath!) Focus on finding a “hellish” feeling in your TVA. Try to hold for 30 seconds or as long as you can. Repeat for five solid attempts. Do this exercise three to four times a week.