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5 Moves That Are Missing from Your Core Workouts

By , Jill Miller, Creator of Yoga Tune UpĀ® and CoregeousĀ®
In college I was a dancer, and Pilates was part of my daily training. Somehow I would ''get through'' the mat classes, just going through the motions, but miraculously, I was never sore. My roommate, on the other hand, would be doubled over the next morning, whining in agony as the DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) would remind her of class several hours after it ended. It took me years to figure out that the reason I wasn't sore was that I didn't know how to recruit my innermost abdominals. I was skimming the surface without going very deep. Once I learned how to engage and target the internal abdominals, I was able to redefine my abs from the inside-out.

And that is exactly what I am going to show you how to do today!

Your core musculature is made up of layers of tissues, arranged in an oblong soft-tissue canister-like shape. Most of us are familiar with the 6-pack (actually a 10-pack) rectus abdominals, the external and internal obliques, and the corset-like transverse abdominals. But there’s more than that. There are deeper linings to the canister!

At the basin of the canister, there are numerous large and small pelvic floor and pelvic muscles. At the back-side of the canister, along the front and back of the lower spine is the mighty psoas, and the quadratus lumborum. And at the top of the canister is the dome-shaped diaphragm. Lastly, the diaphragm is further connected to the inside of ribcage, which is interwoven with muscular lacings of the intercostal muscles. All of these important soft tissues are like the innermost lining of your birthday suit, and they need to be stretched, toned and integrated into all of your core practices for optimum function, mobility and coordination. 

These muscles stitch together with fascias or connective tissues that help all of these tissues to adjust to every movement you make in a supportive way—like a well-tailored undergarment. But if any of these muscles are tight or congested, this ''undergarment'' buckles its own seams and does not fully adjust whether it's contracting or lengthening. And if your inner seams are not flowing well, the seams of the more external abdominal muscles are unable to fully express their range of contraction or stretch, either. Ever bought a "knock-off" designer suit where the suit's lining did not match up well with the actual suit fabric? If you don't properly exercise the innermost abdominals, you are wearing a knock-off of your own birthday suit! 

Here are a few exercises to help you build phenomenal internal core strength that will have a ripple effect of improving power and performance in every layer of your core:

1) LOCATE THE LAYERS: Abdominal Massage
  • Rest your abdomen on a soft inflated ball
  • Breathe deeply into your belly and attempt to flatten the ball with each inhalation. Repeat for 10 breaths.
  • Then slowly move from side-to-side so that the ball massages into all the soft tissues at the front of the core.
WHY? This helps to stretch the layers of abdominal myofascia and puts you in touch with the full range of motion of the diaphragm.

  • Place 2 grippy Yoga Tune Up® Therapy Balls (or tennis balls) along the side of your spine in the upper back region.
  • Breathe slowly into the ribs and rock from side-to side, allowing the balls to massage in toward the rib joints. Do this for 1-2 minutes on left side of the spine, switch sides and repeat for 1-2 minutes, then move the balls a few inches lower (under the ribcage) and repeat.
WHY? This frees up intercostal tension, mobilizes rib joints and posterior diaphragm rib connections, and massages deep back musculature.

3) Coreso Leg Lifts
Lie on a yoga mat with a yoga block or phone book under your pelvis and move into the position pictured above by following these steps:
  • Reach the arms overhead and externally rotate them so that the hands hold on to the sides of the yoga mat and attempt to pull the mat apart.
  • Stretch the right leg towards the ceiling (if hamstrings are tight, bend the knee), lower the left leg towards the ground without touching the floor, but do not allow the spine to lose its stability or natural curves.
  • Breathe for 1 full minute on each side while remaining stable. 
WHY? This pose targets the intimate relationship between our breath and our posture. You will feel a tremendous elongation of the connection between the respiratory diaphragm and iliopsoas. Hip flexors are lengthened as are the hamstrings, the lattisimus, and subscapularis.

4) Magician’s Assistant on a Ledge
  • Place your right hip on a yoga block and right elbow on the ground.
  • Engage your side-waist muscles (obliques and quadratus lumborum) to raise your legs to hover 4-6 inches above the ground.
  • Make sure that your shoulders, pelvis and ankles line up with each other, and that the 2 legs remain glued together.
  • Sustain the position while breathing deeply for 1 full minute, then switch sides.
WHY? This exercise targets the interface of both oblique layers and the deep lateral stabilizer, the quadratus lumborum. It also strengthens portions of the iliopsoas. (You will feel this one tomorrow!)


5) Intercostal Crunches
  • Place a soft air-filled ball at the base of your shoulder blades, firmly interlace your hands behind your head and bend backwards over the ball until the back of the head touches the floor (may need to place a rolled up towel underneath head if the backbend is too steep!)
  • Intensely draw the front of pelvis towards the rib cage and maintain this tension throughout the lowest part of the abdominals.
  • Inhale exclusively into the ribs so that they separate and fan apart (SEE IMAGE A).
  • On exhale, close the ribs shut, re-“caging” them and slowly raise the head off the floor to intermingle the intercostals with the transverse, obliques AND rectus abdominals in the crunch (SEE IMAGE B).
  • Very slowly exhale to reset and then begin again. Perform 15-20 complete crunches.
WHY? The ball provides a bit more range of motion for all tissues surrounding the spine and rib-cage to get involved with this dynamic version of the crunch. Abdominals used to doing standard “crunches” have likely been strengthened in a limited range for years. This version of the pose digs deeper than rectus abdominals and provides full innermost abdominal interactivity for the core.

About Jill Miller
Jill Miller is a yoga/fitness therapy expert. She instructs her original Yoga Tune Up® format worldwide and has produced over 55 critically acclaimed videos and therapeutic fitness products. Her innovative format is taught nationwide at Equinox gyms and has been featured on the "Today" show, ABC TV, FOX TV, SELF magazine, Shape, Fitness, Redbook, Prevention, Real Simple, Yoga Journal, Chatelaine, Whole Living, Muscle & Fitness, Gaiam.com and more. She is based in Los Angeles, CA. Her newest DVD is entitled Coregeous®.

What is your favorite way to work your core?

Have you ever tried Pilates?

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I have never tried Pilates. I have watched video's and looked into local classes but never tried. I do yoga about 5 times a week and also attend classes at PF. Some pilates is incorporated into these. Report
Could any of these be done with a stability ball? It's a pretty common piece of equipment, and I would love a follow up article that adapted some of these exercises to the big ball. Report
I've been having problems with a weak core for years, and I just recently found out that the reason I haven't been seeing any results even though I've been doing many different types of abs exercises, I haven't been using my deep abs. I only realized this a few weeks ago, but I already see and feel a huge difference! At last I'm getting somewhere with those crunches and leg raises! Love this article. Report
Very inspiring information. I am hoping to find me a class. Report
I see people are concerned about the cost of the equipment in many comments. I did note that the author offers suggestions for a couple of things (rolled towel, a phone book instead of a block). I have another suggestion. Years ago, I bought a couple of those little "bouncy balls" for about 99cents apiece --- you know, those brightly colored or marbled balls that are sold in a wire cage at Walmart or other discount store to kids who just "have to have one" right now??? The largest one has been great to use instead of an exercise ball in some exercises and the smaller one would be prefect for the activities listed in this blog. Over the years, and with use, they have deflated somewhat and are a bit "squishy" which makes them great for balance and stretching exercises. Using a large towel or non-stretchy, non-slippery blanket is an alternative to a yoga mat as well. Another cost-saving thought for those that like DVDs to work out with are, of course the SparkPeople videos. They're free and are awesome! Report
I don't see anything wrong with the picture either. I would be happy to look like that.
Wow...I just want to say I'm extremely offended by KITHKINCAID's comment. Bodies come in all shapes and sizes and someone who is super buff shouldn't be ashamed of having an awesome body. No one here would expect to see negative comments directed at someone who is overweight or obese, so why is it acceptable to direct that negativity toward a person who has taken great care of her body? Report
Not happy to see it all requires equipment.
But I am starting to like Pilates...never thought I would. Report
Try TJ Max,Ross and Marshals for discounts on yoga/pilates equipment. Im always finding stuff there. Report
If you don't have the yoga block you can substitute in one or 2 yellow phonebooks. And for the yoga cushion you can use a folded up towel in place of it to begin with. If you enjoy the exercises enough then you can invest in the block and small cushion/ball. They aren't terribly expensive but I wouldn't invest until you find out if the exercises are a good fit for you. Report
I sense that these exercises are exactly right for me. Like so many others the equipment and even the dvds are a financial stretch for me but I'm definitely interested. Thank-you. Report
Just completed this. I was totally unprepared for the level of difficulty on a couple of these!The photos make it look so easy! DEFINITELY incorporating this into my regular workouts! Thanks! Report
Disappointing that each of these requires a piece of equipment - none of which I have right now. Report
thanks Report
Why not something that didn't include buying MORE equipment? Report
Glad I saw this! My core just so happens to be the thing I need to work on the most! If I can get my paws on this equipment, I'll totally be trying these! Report
These look GREAT. I've done Pilates before, but there's just something about my neck that hates it.... These all look doable, though. Report
I prefer Pilates over Yoga. Report
Oh thank you! this is exACTly what I needed. Going to print it out right now!! Report
Really good article... I am just disappointed that for each single move recommended we need a piece of equipment. :( Report
Thanks.... Report
Although I have tried Pilates, it is a no can do for me. I have a small hip capsule, and this type of exercise is painful for me to do. See that picture of the woman doing that "ledge" exercise? I hurt just looking at that.

However, that being said, for those of you who do not have such an issue, I would recommend it. It really is a great way of exercise. Report
These look like they're tailormade for me as I'm tight in all these spots. I actually did something similar to #4 with a PT, balancing on a Swiss ball. I fell on my head a couple times; this looks less painful :) Report
Maybe that will help me fix my "thang". LOL I have noticed some discomfort around the upper right side of my pelvic bone. After reading this article it makes sense that while I've done a great jog of conditioning to get to where I'm at right now, I may still need more stretching out to loosen up even more deeper tightness I've developed over the years. Report
Really Great! I've been doing Sheppard Pilates for almost 1 year! This is fun info! Report
Thank you for the great information. Report
Great Blog.. I have just started pilates using a reformer, and I have a lot to learn
so my core needs alot of traning, which I do get in my other gym classes that I take. Report
I've definitely learned that a variety of core exercises are needed to really utilize as much of the abdominal musculature as possible. One example was my DDa and one of her friends each had different styles they did (one did crunches and the other did full situps). They each found that trying to do what the other did was difficult even though their own routine had gotten easy for them.

I'm not good with it yet, but there is one machine at the gym where I have to pull my knees up at the same time as my shoulders - with weight (a wimpy 5 pounds as the lowest amount). Every time I do that, the portion of the main "six-pack" muscle at the lower part of my gut REALLY feels worked, where normal crunches only get the upper portion. Report
Eww! Sorry - I'm not usually one to complain, but that picture at the top of the page is NOT attractive. How about replacing it with a picture of the midriff section that's a bit more realistic for those of us here and less...pinchy? I know it's a real person out there somewhere, but it just doesn't look like a natural pose. I understand feeling the need to suck it in - but that model clearly doesn't need to. Thanks Spark. Report
Very good information ..thanks
Thanks, I'll use this. Report
Wow! Talk about serendipity! I just came in from PT for some back problems and have been working on some of these very issues with the therapist. And I had stopped and bought some yoga blocks and a small inflatable ball on the way home! This is the first thing I read when I get to Spark People and I know it was just written for me! I will be coming back to this page often and trying your suggestions (of course I'll be showing them to the physical therapist before I start!!!). Thank you for a very informative and helpful blog! Report
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