I think the core is one of the most important areas of the body to strengthen. Many of my clients want to tone their abs for vanity purposes and think crunches will do the trick. In reality, it’s best to work the entire core region from hips to shoulders, and to focus on the deepest layer of abdominals (aka the transverse abdominals). Regular crunches mostly work the rectus abdominus — or outer layer of abs — and this really isn’t functional training, nor will it get you the shapely, toned midsection you really want.
Some of the best ways to work your core muscles are through full-body movements such as Plank Poses, Boat Poses, lunges, squats, Warrior Poses and standing balances like the Tree Pose. You can also hone in on your obliques and rectus if you do abdominal exercises that start with the transverses engaged, then call upon the next two layers to help out. My favorite ab exercises are listed below in order of good, better and best. Try to incorporate at least one of these into your daily workout — and remember to keep your abs engaged throughout the day as you sit and stand. (Imagine that your abdominals are like a sponge that you are gently squeezing.)
Practicing Tree Pose is an excellent way to strengthen and tone your core region. Balancing on one leg forces the transverse abdominals to engage. Holding the pose for a few deep, full breaths will work the entire core region, including the obliques and buttocks. Try holding for five to eight deep breaths, and make sure to do both sides.
The how-to: Stand tall and lift your left leg up, placing the foot on the inner right thigh as high up as it can go. Press firmly into your supporting leg and draw your lower abdominals in and up (as if zipping up a tight pair of jeans). Keep your gaze steady and engage your buttocks and thighs. Imagine your ribs floating up off of your hips and lengthen through the sides of your waist.
Better: Boat Pose
Boat is one of my favorite abdominal exercises because it really forces you to use your deep abdominals. Boat Pose is great for toning the waist and lower abs, as well as for strengthening the pelvic-floor muscles.
The how-to: Start seated with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Hinge your upper body back slightly as you lift your legs up in the air to forty-five degrees. If it’s too challenging to hold the legs straight, you can bend the knees so the shins are parallel to the floor. Breathe deeply and hold for five breaths. Lower down and repeat two more times.
Best: Plank Pose
By far one of the best ways to work your core and midsection is through holding Plank. Plank Pose engages almost every muscle in the body and fires up the deep transversus abs, as well as the obliques and a little bit of the rectus abdominals. Learning to brace yourself in Plank and building up to a one- or two-minute hold will tighten and tone your core section and keep you stable and strong.
The how-to: Start on all fours with your hands under your shoulders and knees under your hips. Press your legs straight back behind you one at a time, lengthening from your head to your heels. Try to form one straight line without lifting or dropping your hips. Keep engaging your core, hips, legs, shoulders and arms. Breathe deeply and try to work up to one or two minutes holding the pose.