6 Yoga poses for strong abs

Sep 15, 2015 at 8:00 p.m. ET
Image: Maggie Giuffrida/SheKnows

You've probably heard your yoga instructor tell you to "engage your core" in class before — and it's for good reason. Nearly every movement in yoga requires a strong core and back. However, the process of properly engaging the core goes far beyond just sucking in the belly and tightening the abdomen.

The core muscles help stabilize two of the body's most important structures — the spine and the pelvis — and also help maintain flexibility throughout the torso.

"I've repeatedly observed the importance of strengthening the muscles that are supposed to be supporting the spine and pelvis," says Julie Gudmestad, a long-term lyengar yoga teacher and licensed physical therapist. "Countless studies too have shown that core strengthening is an important component in relieving 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."

More: 30 Yoga poses you don't need an expensive studio to teach you

Julie goes on saying that a lot of core strengthening happens without us yogis even being aware of it. "In yoga, the strengthening comes from supporting the weight of our body parts in various orientations to gravity," she says. "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."

And while it's true that pretty much the entire yoga practice is helping to strengthen your core, there a few specific moves you can do to tighten and tone it even more...

1. Dolphin plank pose

Dolphin plank
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From plank position, lower one forearm at a time down to the ground, pressing the forearms and elbows firmly into the floor. Firm your shoulder blades against your back and spread them away from the spine, as you spread your collarbones away from the sternum. Try to keep your body in one, straight line — engaging through the core — and gaze towards your fingertips on the floor.

Extra core challenge: While holding Dolphin plank, bring your left knee in towards your left elbow and then step it back to the starting position and repeat on the right side. Continue alternating knees until you reach around 10-12 reps.
Dolphin plank GIF
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2. Side plank

Side plank
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From a high plank position, lift your hips up slightly, then shift your weight into one hand as you roll your whole body open to the side. Stack your hips, knees and ankles vertically on top of each other. Your shoulders, hips and ankles should be in one, straight line. If you find it hard to balance, try placing your top foot in front of the other on the ground. Reach your top arm straight up, forming a line from your planted wrist through your top fingers.

Extra core challenge: From side plank, lower your body down toward the ground as you hover your hips off the floor. Then, while pressing into the supporting palm and feet, engage through the core and side body as you lift your hips back up towards the sky into side plank. Continue this motion for around 10-12 reps.

Side Plank Yoga GIF
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3. Downward Facing Dog

Downward dog yoga pose
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From Downward Dog, raise up onto your tiptoes. And, rolling over them, come into a high push-up position. Hold here for a few deep breaths, making sure your wrists are directly in line under your shoulders, heels are lifted towards the sky and hips are lowered and in line with the rest of your body. Keep your gaze a few inches in front of your fingertips, creating a straight line with your head, neck and back, all the while tightening through the belly and engaging your core.

Extra core challenge: From Downward Facing Dog, raise one leg up towards the sky, coming into a Downward Dog split. From here, round through the spine, pulling your navel to your spine, as you bring your knee in towards your nose. Extend your leg back up towards the sky, and then pull your knee in towards your same-side elbow. Extend your leg up towards the sky one last time and then pull the knee across the body towards the opposite elbow.

Yoga pose GIF
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4. Boat pose

Boat pose
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Sit down on your mat with your knees close to your chest, feet planted on the floor. Keeping your body close to vertical, hold behind your knees and lift your feet, bringing your shins parallel to the ground. Keep your hands on the backs of your thighs, or release them, stretching the arms forward. For an extra challenge, try straightening your legs and raising your arms up towards the sky.

Extra core challenge: From Boat pose, extend your legs and arms as you lower your body and hover your chest and legs up off the ground. Hold here for 2-3 breaths, and then re-lift your body back up to Boat. Continue with this hover and lift motion for 5-10 reps.

Boat pose GIF
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5. Chaturanga

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From a regular or high plank position, begin to slowly lower your torso and legs down to the ground in a straight line, a few inches above and parallel to the floor. Keep your gaze forward and elbows in towards your sides and pointing back behind you, as you draw the pubis toward the navel and broaden the space between your shoulder blades. Make sure to keep the legs engaged and active while holding this pose.

Extra core challenge: Instead of coming into an Up Dog or Cobra pose from Chaturanga, trying holding the hover position for a few more breaths and then pushing back up to plank and repeating 4-8 times.

Chaturanga GIF
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6. Headstand

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Begin on hands and knees, in Table Top position. From here, bring your forearms to the floor and clasp your hands, interlacing your fingers. Keeping your fingers interlaced, open up your palms, creating a basket with your hands where you’ll place your head.

Set the crown of your head on the floor and snuggle the back of your head against your hands. Take a deep inhale and lift your knees off the floor. Staying on the balls of your feet, begin walking your feet closer to your elbows, forming an inverted V. Firm the shoulder blades and lift them towards the tailbone, elongating the front torso. From here, you can choose to raise one leg at a time up and overhead, take both feet up at the same time or even lightly hopping both feet off the floor.

Continue to breathe and engage through the forearms, core and legs as you hold your headstand. Beginners should hold for around 10 seconds, gradually adding 5-10 seconds each time you practice.

Extra core challenge: If you're feeling comfortable and steady in your headstand, try piking your legs halfway down towards the ground, so that they are level with your hips. Hold here for a breath or two and then use your core muscles to relift the legs up to a full headstand. Repeat 3-5 times.

headstand GIF
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