Building Functional Core Strength with Yoga Asanas

Julie Gudmestad is a long-term Iyengar Yoga teacher and founder of Gudmestad Yoga in Portland, Oregon. She is a licensed physical therapist and widely known for her Anatomy of a Yogi column that she wrote for Yoga Journal for nearly a decade. In this interview, she discusses the importance of core strengthening, why traditional crunches won't work, and how a regular practice of yoga asana can help build true, functional core strength.

YogaUOnline: Core strengthening has long been a buzzword in the fitness world, and there is great emphasis particularly on abdominal strengthening in most fitness programs. Why is core strengthening considered to be so important?

Julie Gudmestad: Core strengthening has to do with building proper support for the pelvis and the spine. In thirty-five years of working with people with back, pelvis, and hip problems I’ve repeatedly observed the importance of strengthening the muscles that are supposed to be supporting the spine and pelvis. Countless studies too have shown that core strengthening is an important component in relieving and pain and restoring healthy movement.  I could relate dozens of cases with people whose sometimes chronic, severe back pain was greatly improved or even eliminated by strengthening the support system of the core, including the abs.

YogaUOnline: Does yoga strengthen the core and if so, how do yoga postures are best at accomplishing that?

Julie Gudmestad: There’s a great variety of core strengthening that we do in yoga poses. In yoga, the strengthening comes from supporting the weight of our body parts in various orientations to gravity. Sometimes we’re standing, sometimes we’re upside down, sometimes we’re sideways, sometimes we’re face down on the floor, sometimes face up on the floor. Lifting different body parts, be it arm, leg, torso, and so on, in these different positions is going to strengthen a huge variety of muscle groups, according to how gravity is pulling on the body part.

That is how a lot of abdominal strengthening happens in yoga, and people aren’t even aware of it.yoga for core strength Standing poses are a great example. In the sideways standing poses, like Triangle, Extended Side Angle pose, and Half Moon pose, your torso muscles including the obliques and the transversus abdominus are contracting to hold up the weight of your torso, which is parallel to the floor. The side abdomen flank muscles are contracting to hold up the weight of your torso.

If you also are rotating your torso, which we are doing in those sideways poses, you get a double whammy. It’s fabulous strengthening of the obliques in particular, as they hold up the weight of the body as you go sideways and rotating the torso at the same time.

One of the things that I love about core strengthening in yoga is that we’re training muscle patterns. Lots of times, when you go to the weight room, you’re isolating a particular muscle. If you’re sitting in a machine and everything is supported and you’re isolating one muscle, e.g. the biceps, that’s fine if you lack strength in that muscle and you’re trying to build it up towards normal strength. But in yoga, we’re actually training muscles to work together in functional patterns, which is really valuable for basically, life on this planet!

If you just have an extremely strong, but isolated bicep, you haven’t necessarily strengthened the other muscles that you need to strengthen, that is, the muscles that stabilize the scapula and the spine. So you’ve got this big, strong bicep but the rest of the muscle patterning that you need to actually do a functional activity isn’t there. I’ve seen a fair number of injuries in weight lifters, because they had isolated certain muscles and gotten them really strong, but not the rest of the team.

YogaUOnline: When most people do core strengthening, they focus on crunches and abdominal work. But you have been saying in your writings that excessive abdominal strengthening can actually be counterproductive?

Julie Gudmestad: Yes, it can be counterproductive on a couple of important fronts. Firstly, if you strengthen the front, you also need to strengthen the back. If you only focus on working the front of the body, the abdominals and the chest get shorter and shorter, and at the same time, the back muscles get weak and overstretched. The result is often that the person gets pulled over by short abdominals into a slumped position.

The action of the abdominals is to flex the spine or forward bend the spine, and if they get overly short and tight, the person gets permanent trapped in this flexed position. And that creates all sorts of problems. Some people get neck pain, headaches, or jaw problems, because if you’re slumped forward you end up with a forward head posture, which puts a lot of stress on the neck and the muscles that support the neck. When people get rounded over, it also limits the movement of the diaphragm, and that has implications for your ability to breathe normally and take a full breath, which of course has huge health implications.

An overly flexed position can also contribute to low back problems as well, because it can take the normal curve out of the low back. This flattening of the normal lumbar curve can contribute to disc injuries, because the person’s movement patterns are organized around that rounded-over flat back position. And that puts pressure on the intervertebral discs and sets the stage for serious disc injuries.

So one of the first things that you have to do with many of those people is train them how to lengthen the front body to help restore the normal curve of the low back and allow the back to heal.

YogaUOnline: So people don’t get chronically locked in that position.

Julie Gudmestad: No, they can definitely reverse it. That’s the message that I find myself saying often to people. Even you’ve had a serious injury, you can restore normal alignment, unless the bones are fused. But you have to work at it. You have to change your movement habits. You have to change your muscle balance. It doesn’t have to be odious, but you have to be persistent and work at it regularly. I’ve seen tremendous changes in thirty-five years of working with people with these kinds of issues. That’s the good news.

YogaUOnline: What about our yoga practice, do overly tight abs impact our practice?

Julie Gudmestad: Yes, if the abs are tight, it will limit your ability to do any kind of back bending poses. The most obvious example is when the mid-back, the thoracic spine is stuck in flexion. If a person with a flexed upper back is trying to do Bridge Pose, he or she just can’t get their back lifted up very much off the floor.

Similarly, if a student like that tries to lift up to do a Cobra pose, he or she won’t be able to come up very high off the floor, because the front body is short and holds the chest close to the pelvis in the front. So they can’t go into any or very much extension at all.

YogaUOnline: How can teachers spot these people in class?

Julie Gudmestad: If you line up people on hands and knees and look at how much the spine can move  in a simple Cat-Cow pose, you can see which people have very little extension of the spine. Extension is supposed to be a normal movement of the spine, but if they’re very short in the front body, even on hands and knees, they won’t have very much extension.

It can and will change over time, but there are a lot of layers of muscle in the abdomen and in the chest, including the pectorals and the intercostals, the muscles between the ribs. If that’s all short in the front, it won’t change overnight. It takes time.

YogaUOnline: Right. Very interesting. You have a course coming up on Yoga U Online called “Freeing the Breath: Keys to Releasing and Retraining the Abdominals.” Could you tell us about that and you will be covering?

Julie Gudmestad: Well, the focus is on balancing the abdominal muscles, but I will be placing almost as much focus on the breathing muscles, and especially the diaphragm. We will look at how overly short and tight and strong abdominals can affect our breathing negatively. And breathing, of course, is the central part of yoga practice.

We will learn some simple ways of strengthening the abdominals, because they do need to be strong. But I will show how to set up your practice to help keep the abdominals strong, without having a negative impact on breathing. You will learn how to assess whether if there are limitations in terms of abdominal tightening in your own body and for yoga teachers, how to observe it in your yoga students. We will then look at how people, who already have too short or tight abs, can open them back up and restore more normal breathing patterns.

For more information, see also Julie Gudmestad's 2-part online yoga course:

Freeing the Breath: Keys to Releasing and Retraining the Abdominals