Jumping Back To Plank: What's the Big Deal?

All my life in the yoga world, I have heard the instruction that one should never jump back into plank pose. Instead of landing in plank, this core yoga rule goes, we should land directly in chaturanga dandasana - in other words, we should always jump into the bottom of a push-up and never jump into the top of a push-up. The reasons usually cited for this instruction are that jumping back into plank is injurious for any number of body parts including the wrists, shoulders, low back, knees, ankles, and big toes.

I used to believe and teach this yoga rule as well, but in more recent times I have changed my perspective on the issue. I don't think that there is anything inherently wrong with jumping back into plank pose, and I think the widespread prohibition of this movement mostly serves to create some unnecessary fear and worry about our yoga practice.

Here are my main reasons for this viewpoint - I hope you use them to examine your beliefs and then come to your own conclusion about the "never jump to plank" rule!
 

Reason #1: You can certainly injure yourself jumping into plank, but...

I definitely agree that it's possible to injure oneself while jumping into plank pose. If you lack the ability to engage through your core, press strongly through your arms, and land lightly, some areas of your body may experience a higher-than-optimal level of stress, which could lead to injury. But I fail to see how this is different from so many other movements in yoga that can also be injurious if one lacks proper technique and body awareness - yet we don't make blanket statements about the importance of "never" doing most of these other movements.

If we jump back to plank with no arms, will this protect our shoulders? :)

If we jump back to plank with no arms, will this protect our shoulders? :)

One yoga transition that stands out to me as especially risky for the body if one lacks the proper strength and control is, ironically, jumping straight into chaturanga. Even though chaturanga is traditionally considered the safer asana to jump into, this pose is actually much more challenging to execute skillfully than plank pose. Chaturanga involves much higher loads to the neck, shoulders, and spine than plank pose does, and these loads are significantly higher if we jump into the pose (especially if we slam down with a lot of velocity like many yogis do) instead of lower slowly into it. In fact, so many yoga students lack the foundational skills to practice chaturanga well that I created a whole online tutorial on how to approach this pose with integrity.

I would suggest that contrary to popular teachings, one is at greater risk of injury from performing a sloppy jump-back into chaturanga than they are from performing a sloppy jump-back into plank pose.

 

Reason #2: Jumping Into Plank Is Commonly Practiced In Other Movement Systems Without Concern Or Widespread Injury

The "burpee", a common warm-up exercise that includes a jump-back to plank.

The "burpee", a common warm-up exercise that includes a jump-back to plank.

If you ever visit a gym or other fitness setting, a common movement used for warming up that you'd likely see is something called a burpee. (Yes, I agree that this is an odd name for an exercise, but a fun trivia note is that the burpee is named after the person who founded it - a physiologist named Royal H. Burpee.)

To perform a burpee, one begins in a standing position, lowers down into a squat, jumps back into plank pose with straight arms, often performs one push-up, jumps forward again into a squat, and then jumps up and lands back in a standing position. A typical "set" of burpees is anywhere from 10-15 done in a row, and people typically perform at least 3 sets (and often many more) in one workout. In addition to this classic exercise, there are many variations, such as the one-leg burpee, in which one jumps back into a one-legged plank instead of a traditional plank, the side burpee, in which one jumps into a variation of side plank, and the one-arm burpee, in which the entire movement is performed with one arm lifted.

In addition, multiple research studies have been done by exercise scientists which include the burpee as a movement alongside other classic fitness exercises. (Examples here and here.)

The fact that the burpee, which involves jumping back into plank pose repetitively, is so prevalent in the fitness world and is also included in research studies suggests to me that it has not been found by fitness professionals or sports scientists to be particularly injurious for the body.

 

Reason #3: Jumping Into Plank Could Actually Have Some Benefits

To be honest, even though I don't believe that jumping into plank pose is inherently dangerous, I don't tend to teach this movement very often in my yoga classes. But I do believe that jumping into plank (and chaturanga for that matter) could have some benefits for the body that we often overlook when we focus on fear and worry about this transition instead.

There is a type of fitness training called plyometrics which utilizes jumping exercises to increase a person's power, or the speed at which they can use their strength during a task. Plyometrics are also known to enhance one's endurance and agility, and several studies have actually shown that they can increase bone density (examples here, here, and here).

There is some debate about whether a burpee (a.k.a. the fitness world's version of "jumping into plank") can technically be considered a plyometric exercise. But I believe there is enough crossover between the two to suggest that they would offer some similar benefits.

An example of a plyometric exercise.

An example of a plyometric exercise.

Additionally, we know that movement variability is important for neural learning, tissue health, and overall graceful aging, so the argument could be made that learning how to jump back skillfully into both plank and chaturanga - and not just one or the other - could be beneficial.

 

Reason #4: There Are No Inherently Bad Movements

You might recall a controversial blog post I wrote earlier this year called Are Some Movements Inherently Bad? (also re-published in Yoga International with a far more angry comment thread here.) In this post, I argued that instead of looking at a movement as inherently bad and damaging for the body, we should reverse our reasoning and instead look at an individual body and ask if it is adapted and prepared to handle the loads of that particular movement.

For example, a beginning yoga student with an office-working, sedentary lifestyle who has never borne weight on her arms might be prone to injury if she tries jumping into plank (and even more so if she tries jumping into chaturanga - yikes!) But because the biological reality of our bodies is that they adapt to become stronger to the loads they experience on a regular basis, most practiced yogis who have a good sense of body control and core stabilization should be able to jump lightly into plank pose without causing injury.

 

CONCLUSION

To be clear, I'm certainly not suggesting that all yoga teachers run out and start teaching everyone to jump into plank during every vinyasa. I'm simply questioning the reasoning behind the ubiquitous "never jump into plank" warning that nearly every yoga teacher learns in their yoga teacher training. Is this transition necessarily dangerous for everyone, and is jumping into chaturanga somehow innately safer? Where do these beliefs stem from? I believe that questioning our biases about these transitions can help us to become more critically-thinking yoga teachers who can serve our individual students better.

A Biomechanics-Informed Response to Yoga Journal: We Do Not Need to Tuck Our Tail In Every Yoga Pose

A Yoga Journal article entitled “Alignment Cues Decoded: ‘Soften Your Front Ribs’” by YogaWorks teacher Alexandria Crow came through my Facebook feed yesterday and I decided to write a response to it. As you might know, I am very interested in seeing our wonderful yoga world update its traditional alignment cuing with the intelligence of biomechanics and modern movement science. I've found that the yoga community can be a surprisngly insular environment in which aspiring yoga teachers learn asana alignment from other yoga teachers who learned their alignment from teachers before them, etc., and at no point in this handing down of information do yogis tend to step outside of the tradition of yoga to learn about anatomy and biomechanics from objective movement professionals who base their teachings in the science of the body.

So when I saw this article come through my feed, I was excited to read it because I was hopeful that it would contribute some new and interesting information to the greater yoga alignment dialog. The magazine Yoga Journal and the large yoga studio chain YogaWorks are both very established entities in the yoga world, so the articles they publish about yoga alignment are considered authoritative by many yogis.

But as I made my way through the article I became progressively disheartened because rather than introduce new and intriguing alignment insights, I found instead a reiteration of some standard old-school yoga cues that biomechanics has long ago proven to be unhelpful and which many movement professionals retired from their teaching years ago.

 

 

A SUMMARY OF THE YOGA JOURNAL ARTICLE

If you don’t have time to read the original article, I’ll give you a summary. The gist of “Alignment Cues Decoded: ‘Soften Your Front Ribs’” is that most people tend to overarch in their lumbar spine/low back area, which results in a forward jutting of their rib cage. In order to fix this misalignment, yoga teachers instruct their students to “soften your front ribs”, but what they really should be cueing (according to the article) is “pull the front of your pelvis up, by lifting your hip points and dropping your tailbone until your lower back is in a natural - not overly arched - curve.” Here's more of an excerpt:
 

“The ribcage puffing forward is what most teachers’ eyes see first, so they say, ‘soften your front ribs’ in an attempt to get students to drop the front of the ribcage toward the pelvis. But the change actually comes from the front of the pelvis, the hips. To fix overarched lower backs and pointy, puffy lower ribs, students have to posteriorly tilt their pelvis at the hip joint bringing their pelvis and lower back into neutral alignment. That reduces the lower back’s arch and shortens the front body, dropping the ribs down.”


Does that make sense? In order to fix the common issue of jutting-forward ribs, yogis need to tuck their pelves. Alexandria’s advice is well-intentioned and is certainly a commonly-held belief in the yoga world, but this perspective has been outdated by modern movement science for years now.

Here is the biomechanics to explain why tucking our pelvis does not fix our ribs-forward issue. Alexandria implies in her article that most people have a forward-tilted pelvis (also called an anterior pelvic tilt), which needs to be brought back to neutral with a posterior tilt, or tuck. But the anatomical truth is that the overwhelming majority of us present with pelves which are actually tucked under (also called posteriorly-tilted), which is the opposite of forward-tilted. We sit in so many chairs with rounded spines and tucked-under hips for the majority of our time that our body can’t help but adapt to this shape.

(As a side note, I must point out that no postural rules apply to everyone and there are of course some people who don’t have chronically tucked pelves. But when we’re discussing general yoga cues, we’re talking about common movement patterns and postural imbalances that apply to the majority of the students we tend to see. We’re trying to be as helpful as we can teaching in a group class setting.)

But then why would Alexandria and so many other yoga teachers and yoga teacher training programs like the ones at YogaWorks teach that most people have forward-tilted pelves that need tucking? Great question - I’m so glad you asked! It’s because in addition to having a tucked pelvis, most people also present with a forward translation of their rib cage, also called rib thrust or rib shear.

Here's me with my ribs forward - do you see that my lumbar curve looks exaggerated here?

Here's me with my ribs forward - do you see that my lumbar curve looks exaggerated here?

This is the same image, but with a rib cage overlayed because rib cages are cool. :)

This is the same image, but with a rib cage overlayed because rib cages are cool. :)

When one’s rib cage has moved forward, it creates the overly-arched spine that Alexandria correctly sees in her students, but the mistake that too many yoga teachers make is in assuming that this excessive arch (also called hyperlordosis) is coming from below - from of the pelvis. Yes it’s true, as Alexandria points out in her article, that when your pelvis moves, your lumbar spine moves along with it. But it’s also true that when your rib cage moves, your lumbar spine moves too. The hyperlordosis that we all-too-often see in our students isn’t the result of a pelvis that is anteriorly-tilted from below - it’s the result of a rib cage that has sheared forward from above. The fix is therefore not to tuck your pelvis under, or to do any of these other cues that the YJ article suggest that mean the same thing, like:

-pull the front of your pelvis up
-lift your hip points
-drop your tailbone

I repeat, the fix is not to tuck the pelvis. Tucking the pelvis when we're already tucked leads to major body imbalances that we don't need to delve into right now - but it's not what we want to be doing. The correct fix is to return the rib cage to neutral, which you could certainly cue as “soften your front ribs” (but there are many other ways to convey this same action).

As I wrote about in my Core Strength Fiction & Facts article, it’s time to retire the indiscriminate use of the “tuck your tail” cue. Yes, there are specific times when we do want to work a posterior tilt of our pelvis - absolutely! But as yoga teachers who integrate anatomy and body intelligence into our teaching, it’s our responsibility to learn when these specific times are and to use this cue only at those times. In the YJ article, we are recommended to tuck our pelvis in all of these poses:

-tadasana (mountain pose)
-utkatasana (chair pose)
-adho mukha svanasana (down dog)
-adho mukha vrksasana (handstand)
-high crescent lunge
-warrior 1
-warrior 2
-trikonasana (triangle pose)
-”and so many more!”

However, the only poses from that long list in which most of us would be well-advised to work a tuck of our pelvis are high crescent lunge and warrior 1 - and that’s it!
 

IN CONCLUSION...

I feel thankful to have realized at a certain point in my yoga path that I had only learned about the body from people within the yoga tradition, and that it might be a good idea to seek some broader, more objective knowledge from movement professionals from outside the yoga world as well. The knowledge I’ve gained (and continue to gain!) from years of studying have given me a profoundly different perspective on the way that yoga approaches the body. Armed with these new understandings, I’m actively working toward helping yogis understand biomechanical alignment and how we can apply this modern-day movement science to our yoga practice to keep our beloved tradition of yoga evolving and current.

I understand that traditions don’t change overnight and that people tend to have ingrained notions about the way the body moves or which alignment cues are optimal that can be challenging to dislodge. But one great first step toward embracing positive change is to not accept at face value something that was written in an article just because the article was published in an established entity like Yoga Journal. Yoga Journal is not the authority on how the body moves- biomechanics and science are the authority.


Related Post: Pelvic-Tucking and Lumbar Flexion: Movements We Shouldn't Be Doing in Yoga?

Related Post: Common Movement Blind Spot #1: The Rib Cage and Pelvis Connection

What Does Your Twist Tell You About The Strength Of Your Core?

We know it’s important to have a strong, functioning core. But did you know that working our core muscles is only one half of the core strength equation? In order for our core to be truly strong, it must also be flexible and supple. As counterintuitive as it may seem, mobilizing our waist area with poses like twists has just as much to do with core strength as “core work” does. However, the traditional alignment we use for our twists in yoga often misses this important core strengthening benefit. In this article, we’ll use biomechanics to uncover some common twisting “cheats” so we can turn our twists into the awesome core-focused poses they should be!


A TIGHT CORE IS A WEAK CORE

(Update, February 2016: I really appreciate the sentiment of this section of this post, but since the time that I wrote it I have learned more and shifted my perspective. The term "tight" does not have an objective, scientific meaning, and there is also currently no evidence that I know of that suggests that strengthening a muscle will cause it to become 'short and tight', even though this a very commonly-held belief. I still love this blog post in general (especially the great photos of twisting alignment below), but this specific section right here is a tad outdated now.)

The first time I heard the statement that tight muscles are weak muscles, I was certainly dubious. Everyone knows that short, tight muscles are strong while long, loose muscles are weak, right? Isn’t that the way the body works? But it turns out that this common belief is actually an anatomy myth that doesn’t hold true once we examine the science of musculoskeletal function. It is correct that in order to be strong, a muscle must be able to contract - but this is only half of the movement equation. For true functional strength a muscle must have the ability to both contract and release.

When we talk about whether a muscle is strong, we’re really referring to how well it can “generate force”. This takes place at the level of the sarcomere, the basic contractile unit of a muscle. When a healthy muscle contracts, its sarcomeres generate force by shortening, and afterward they release and lengthen again so that they’re ready to shorten the next time the muscle is asked to contract. But if we work our muscles so much that they become short and tight, their sarcomeres are now in an overlapped, “locked short” position and can no longer release back to the place where they can contract again. Muscles like these are not functionally strong because they have a very limited ability to generate force.

So what happens to the muscles of our core if we “strengthen” them with a bunch of core work until they become short and tight? We might end up with defined abdominal muscles like your stereotypical six-pack abs, but if at the micro level, our sarcomeres are overlapped and can’t release back to their optimal force-generating position, our core is not physiologically strong.

 

MOBILIZING FOR CORE STRENGTH

For today’s purposes, let’s define the “core” as the area between the rib cage and the pelvis. We now understand that in order for this area to be strong, the muscles and fascia that live there must also be supple. One of the best ways to mobilize these tissues is through twisting. A twist takes place when we rotate our rib cage relative to our pelvis, our pelvis relative to our rib cage, or both at the same time.

Here’s a great visual that demonstrates this movement. My top hand represents a rib cage, my bottom hand is the pelvis, and the blue fabric in between is the muscles and fascia of the core:

No twist has taken place here because the rib cage and pelvis are facing the same direction.

No twist has taken place here because the rib cage and pelvis are facing the same direction.

Successful twist! The rib cage and pelvis have rotated relative to each other (see how the hands have turned?) and there's clearly a twist in the blue fabric.

Successful twist! The rib cage and pelvis have rotated relative to each other (see how the hands have turned?) and there's clearly a twist in the blue fabric.

Ideally a twist in our body would mobilize the muscles of our waist in the same way that these hands mobilized the blue fabric. Most of us are actually much stiffer through the waist than we realize, though, meaning that our true twisting range of motion is relatively small. But because of a prevailing idea in yoga that going "deeper" in a pose is better, we tend to bypass placing a load on the tight tissues of our waist in favor of moving where it's already easy for us to move, ending up in a shape that creates the illusion of a twist without mobilizing our core muscles much at all. Let me show you what I mean.

Here’s a wonderful yoga student named Craig (who also just happens to be my husband!)


Here are a few places where Craig can move really well in his body:

He can move nicely at his neck - see how he can turn his head all the way to the side?

He can move nicely at his neck - see how he can turn his head all the way to the side?

He can also move his arms relative to his torso with ease.

He can also move his arms relative to his torso with ease.

In fact, Craig can combine these two movements to create a quite aesthetically-pleasing twist, wouldn’t you say?

But wait... is this a twist? Or does it just appear on the surface to be a twist? Well, if you use your anatomically-informed eyes to look at the Ganesha print on the front of Craig’s shirt, you’ll see that Ganesha is facing straight forward - he didn’t move through space at all. If Ganesha didn’t move, then Craig’s rib cage didn’t move, which means that his core didn’t receive a stretch at all, and this shape was, in fact, a twist “illusion”.

Another easy way to miss your best twist is to lift your chest instead. If we arch our spine when we twist, we’ll feel like we’re deeper in our twist because we moved more, but we’re simply mobilizing a place that wasn’t the target area of our pose - with the added drawback of creating compression in our lumbar spine. This kind of twist looks something like this:

Do you see how Craig has lifted his chest and tilted his rib cage backward in this example? He has also let his head rotate much further around than his rib cage, and if you look closely, you’ll see that his eyes have moved even further around than his head (!), all of which makes Craig feel like he moved deeper into his twist, when in reality his core didn’t rotate much at all.

In this final example, Craig is demonstrating a true core-mobilizing (and therefore core-strengthening!) twist:

He hasn’t arched his spine to create excessive movement in non-optimal places, and the change in angle of Ganesha shows us that he successfully turned his rib cage relative to his pelvis. An aligned twist like this is the essential ingredient to core strength that many of us have been missing. Your body will love it when you find it!

 

IN CONCLUSION...

In our continuing pursuit of an updated yoga practice that’s informed by biomechanics and anatomy, it’s helpful for us to look beyond the oversimplified categories we’ve been taught for our poses. “Spinal twists” and “core work” are actually intimately connected when it comes to core function. And as has become a central theme of my blog posts, in order for our twists to have a beneficial impact on our core, we need to let go of the idea that “deeper is better” and learn to work within our body’s true limits. The path of seeing ourselves accurately and clearly is an essential key to the transformative effects that yoga has to offer!

 

Related Online Class: Twisting-Focused Flow

Related Online Workshop: Anatomy of the Spine for Increased Core Connection

Re-Thinking the Bandhas of Yoga

How many of us have been told to engage our bandhas, or internal locks, for our entire yoga practice? First of all, it doesn’t seem like anyone is able to truly sustain these illusive muscular contractions the whole time they’re on the mat, but second of all, is this even a biomechanically wise feat to ask us to do? Most people don’t actually contract the correct musculature when they try to engage their bandhas, but even if they did, are we really strengthening our core by tightening our muscles in an arbitrary, non-stop way? Or are we instead interfering with our body’s built-in dynamic system of core stability?

 

BANDHAS: A REVIEW

In the yoga world, the bandhas are generally described as muscular contractions of the pelvic floor (mula bandha) and lower belly (uddiyana bandha) that we’re meant to hold throughout our entire practice, releasing them only as we arrive at savasana, our final relaxation pose. (Pilates and some other movement systems teach a similar internal lock method sometimes called abdominal “bracing” or “hollowing”.) The reasons usually given for utilizing the bandhas this way are to connect to our deeper core, to protect our spine, and to feel a sense of “lightness” in our poses (especially those tricky arm balances!)

 

TRAINING THE WRONG MUSCLE IN UDDIYANA BANDHA?

Yogis often contract the wrong musculature when they attempt to engage uddiyana bandha. Instead of firing the transverse abdominus (TvA), the abdominal muscle that truly stabilizes our core and is the correct muscle of uddiyana bandha, most yogis unknowingly contract their rectus abdominus, which is our most superficial “six-pack” muscle and doesn’t offer us any core stabilization benefits at all.  

Rectus Abdominus. (Image used with permission from Real Bodywork, Inc.)

Rectus Abdominus. (Image used with permission from Real Bodywork, Inc.)

Transverse Abdominus. (Image used with permission from Real Bodywork, Inc.)

Transverse Abdominus. (Image used with permission from Real Bodywork, Inc.)

Let’s take a brief look at the difference between these two important muscles. When the rectus abdominus contracts, it rounds your spine (spinal flexion) and/or tucks your pelvis (posterior tilt). As I explained in my "Core Strength Fiction & Facts" article, we used to think that tucking our pelvis meant that we were using our deep core and protecting our spine, but we now know that this belief is biomechanically incorrect, although most yoga classes and even some schools of pilates still haven’t caught up to this new word on the street.

In contrast to the rectus abdominus, which loves to tuck your pelvis, the TvA doesn’t move your pelvis or your rib cage at all when it contracts - it simply and magically compresses your abdomen inward like an amazing built-in corset. Due to the way pressures work, this results in a lengthening of the spine and a decompression of the intervertebral discs (those guys that like to bulge and herniate on us when we don’t treat them well). So when your TvA is working in coordination with the other muscles of your deep core, your spine will thank you because it is stabilized and protected. :)

But due to non-optimal breathing patterns and and poor posture habits (as well as the aforementioned outdated belief that we should all tuck our pelves to protect our back), most people’s TvA is not functioning well in their body, and as a result their superficial rectus abdominus becomes significantly more dominant. 9 times out of 10, even if we know about the difference between these two muscles and are specifically attempting to turn on our TvA, we end up unknowingly using our rectus abdominus instead. Crazy but true!

 

THE SELF-CHECK: ARE YOU RECTUS DOMINANT?

The more we understand about how our own muscles are currently functioning, the more mindfulness we’ll cultivate in our body. Before we test whether our rectus likes to dominate our TvA, let’s make sure we know how to correctly turn on our TvA in the first place.

Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Bring your hands around your side waists. Take a full inhale breath, and then exhale and pull your belly button directly inward toward your spine. If the TvA engaged correctly, you'll feel your side waists underneath your hands compress inward toward your spine and your pelvis and rib cage will not have changed position at all. (Remember - if your pelvis tucked, you did not fire your TvA - make sense?)

How did it go? Did it feel like waking up a muscle that you might not have been using much before?

Now let’s test whether our rectus likes to take over during a very simple movement in which our TvA should be working. Lie on your back again with knees bent and feet on the floor with your pelvis and rib cage in neutral. Slide your shirt up toward your ribs so that your abdomen is visible. In order to successfully watch what your belly is doing, either have a mirror alongside of you or use the camera on your phone or computer. (It won’t work if you lift your head and look at your abdomen directly with your eyes.)

Take an inhale, and on your exhale pull your lower belly directly inward toward your spine to engage your TvA, and then lift your left foot off the floor until the heel is in line with your knee. Hold here and observe your abdomen. If it looks like this (relatively flat), you are successfully using your TvA to stabilize your spine - good job!

But if your abdomen looks like this, with your belly swelling up toward the sky into a shape some of my Restorative Exercise Specialist™ friends like to call the “bread loaf” (heh heh), your rectus abdominus has taken over and you have lost your core stability. Don’t move onto the next step if you were baking bread in this first exercise. :)

If your TvA passed this first step, try the exercise again, but this time, lift both feet off the floor until your heels are in line with the knees. Did your belly remain flat and compressed inward, or did your spine move toward an arch and did your belly swell up like rising bread dough? If you saw the bread loaf here, your TvA is not strong enough to stabilize your spine in this shape, and you should not do this exercise or any “core work” that is stronger than this until your TvA is able to adequately handle these loads.

 

THE TVA SHOULD PLAY CENTER STAGE

When we’re doing “core work” in yoga, pilates, or any other movement program, it’s essential that our TvA is working for us if we’re interested in the long-term structural health of our body. Unfortunately, a lot of core work out there is quite strong in nature, and if our TvA is weak or not functioning well (as you may have just discovered is the case with yours), it can’t meet the demand that such core work places on it.

 

BANDHAS, BANDHAS, ALL THE TIME?

Now that we’re clear on how uddiyana bandha works, we need to address this problematic idea that we should be holding a static, steady engagement of our bandhas throughout our entire yoga practice. Our core is designed to be a dynamic system which responds to our varying movements with an increase or decrease of engagement as needed, naturally. If we consciously “tighten our core” all practice long (or even all day long as many, many of us do), we are overriding our body’s natural reflex-driven response to movement and this will effectively weaken our core over time.

Instead of “perma-gripping” our bandhas, we should learn to relax our non-stop hold over these muscles so that they can function in their natural integrated way with the rest of our core stabilization system. And then at key moments of extra effort during our practice (like holding a strong arm balance, lifting up into a backbend, or jumping back into chaturanga) or similar key moments during during daily life (like picking up a grocery bag or putting your child in her car seat), we should add in a clear and refined bandha engagement to help enhance our neuromuscular connection to our deep core.

One of the foundational goals of yoga is to restore flow and health to the body, and learning to work with the natural function of the core instead of overriding it is a huge step toward that goal. Offering this biomechanical insight into the bandhas and the workings of our core is part of a continued effort to keep the living tradition of yoga updated and relevant with the best information we have available today. As always, feel free to let me know if you have any questions or comments!

 

Related Online Workshop: Anatomy of the Spine for Increased Core Connection

Core Strength Fiction & Facts

When many people think about a strong core, they picture someone with “six pack abs” like this fine underwear model man right here. :)  But our functional core is actually much more complex than this oversimplified notion, and whether your abdominals are super defined and underwear model-worthy or not says nothing about how strong your core truly is.  And even if you’ve already learned about the fuller picture of our deeper core, it’s very likely that you have been practicing and/or teaching yoga with an over-reliance on the six-pack muscle without even realizing it.

 

YOUR ABDOMINALS

The six-pack muscle (a.k.a. the rectus abdominus) is actually just the most superficial (closest to the skin) of our four abdominal muscles.  It runs vertically along the front of the abdomen and when it contracts, it pulls the rib cage and pelvis toward each other, usually resulting in a rounded spine (spinal flexion) and/or a tucked pelvis (posterior tilt).

The Rectus Abdominus. (Image used with permission from Real Bodywork, Inc.)

The Rectus Abdominus. (Image used with permission from Real Bodywork, Inc.)

Our other three abdominals are deep to the rectus abdominus.  The internal and external obliques run diagonally across the abdomen and are commonly thought of as muscles that rotate the torso.  The transverse abdominus is our deepest abdominal of all, and when it contracts, it has a corset-like effect of compressing the entire abdomen inward.

 

MY ABDOMINALS ARE MY CORE, RIGHT?

No, your abdominal muscles are actually not your core - at least, not in and of themselves.  Your functional “core” is actually made up of all of the muscles which stabilize your spine as you move - also often referred to as your “core stabilizers”.  Depending on whom you talk to, this can mean up to 40 different muscles - whoa, man!!

Yes, your four abdominal muscles are part of this group, but your core stabilizers also include the multi-layered muscles of your spine, your pelvic floor musculature, your back muscles, your psoas (an important muscle you’ve probably heard a lot about which deserves a whole blog post of its own!), the muscles that stabilize your shoulder blades, and your respiratory diaphragm.

When all of these muscles are functioning well, they will successfully keep your spine stable and protected as you twist, squat, climb, bend over, lift heavy objects, and generally move your way through life.

Once we understand the interconnected role that this large group of muscles plays in stabilizing our spine, it becomes clear that it’s physiologically incomplete to treat the core as simply the abdominals, or worse yet, as just the superficial rectus abdominus.  In fact, because it’s common for our sense of “the core” to be so narrowly-defined, there is often too much emphasis placed on working the six-pack muscle when we do our “core strengthening” exercises, resulting in many (many!) people who have visibly-defined abdominals, but weak cores.

 

WHAT IS THE BENEFIT TO HAVING SIX-PACK ABS?

While six-pack or otherwise flat abs are an aesthetic that our culture finds attractive, they actually offer no physiological benefit to our body.  In fact, not unlike other body aesthetics that our culture idealizes (think high heels and that all-too-common overly-arched spine), creating too much tension in your abdominal area can actually lead to musculoskeletal imbalances which can contribute to health problems with time.  Learning to wean ourselves off of the over-use of the six-pack muscle is therefore an essential step toward restoring balance in our body.

 

DO YOU TUCK YOUR PELVIS TO “PROTECT YOUR SPINE”?

We used to think that one of the best ways to “protect the spine” was to “engage the core” by tucking (posteriorly tilting) our pelvis via contracting our rectus abdominus.  Although new biomechanics info has taught us otherwise, it’s still quite common in many yoga classes and in some schools of pilates to teach students to tuck their pelves throughout their practice.  And surprisingly enough, teachers often instruct a pelvic tuck without even realizing it!  Because most yoga teacher training programs don’t include much anatomy education, their students often ending up memorizing cues to teach during poses without understanding the anatomical action the cue is describing.  Did you know that the instructions “lift your belly”, “tailbone toward your heels” and “tailbone down” are all pelvis-tucking cues?

We now know, however, that not only does tucking our pelvis not innately protect our spine, it also does not necessarily engage our core.

Our natural spinal curves are like built-in shock absorbers or springs in our body.

Our natural spinal curves are like built-in shock absorbers or springs in our body.

Because our pelvis serves as the base of our spine, its orientation in space directly affects the shape the spine.  If the pelvis tucks, it causes our low back, which would otherwise have a natural inward (lordotic) curve, to flatten (hypolordosis).  We now understand, though, that our natural spinal curves are actually crucial to our spine’s optimal functioning.  They serve to “force-dampen” the effect that gravity has on our spine, and can be thought of as our built-in shock-absorbers.  As much as possible, we want to preserve these natural curves and therefore the integrity of our structure by stabilizing our spine. (Update December 2015: This last sentence is a tad outdated now. It basically suggests that keeping a "neutral" spine is preferable all the time, and while this has been a very popular idea for several years, we're now realizing that this belief stems from looking at the body as though it were a two-dimensional structure, and also an innately fragile structure. Today I would write that it's important to keep a stable, neutral spine when our spine is under great load (think weightlifting), but in day-to-day life it's not a big deal to tuck your pelvis - we just don't want to live there (or in any one position) all the time. BUT yoga teachers DO cue way too much pelvis-tucking in yoga, treating it as an almost universal cue throughout all yoga poses, and we instead want to learn to cue a pelvic tuck only when the pose really benefits from it.)

But tucking our pelvis actually does the opposite of stabilizing the spine - it mobilizes the spine by flattening the lumbar curve (spinal flexion).  And because the action of tucking our pelvis comes from the contraction of only our most superficial, “six pack” abdominal muscle, our true core wasn’t asked to work at all when we tucked.

 

THE BIGGER PICTURE

The big picture of core stabilization isn’t quite as black-and-white as this, and there are of course some instances in which we do want to work a posterior pelvic tilt.  But the idea that we should “lift our belly”, “move our tailbone toward our heels”, or otherwise tuck our pelvis indiscriminately throughout our yoga practice in order to create core stability is outdated and biomechanically incorrect.

In upcoming blog posts, I’ll offer more insight into our core as well as ways to make sure we’re turning on our deeper core for true stabilization.  The more we understand our body and refine how we move, the more overall mindfulness we’ll cultivate both on and off the yoga mat.  As always, if you have any questions or comments, feel free to let me know!

 

Related Post: Pelvic-Tucking and Lumbar Flexion: Movements We Shouldn't Do In Yoga?

Related Online Workshop: Anatomy of the Spine for Increased Core Connection