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in general (especially the great photos of twisting alignment below), but this specific section right here is a tad outdated now.)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