6 Not-So-Obvious Signs You Need to Strengthen Your Core 

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As a yoga student, you’ve probably heard the annoyingly confusing cue “engage your core” countless times. Maybe you’ve even had a teacher mention something about how maybe you need to strengthen your core and you’ve rolled your eyes about it.

As a yoga teacher, I find myself constantly wanting to tell you those exact things even though I know you don’t want to hear them. The reason isn’t to bring shame to the situation. It’s just that I know how beneficial it is to have the support of a strong and activated core and I want to help you become aware of it, too.

Why It’s Essential to Strengthen Your Core

When contracted, the muscles of your core support the spine, help you maintain proper posture, and reduce your risk of injury. Many people think the core refers to only the superficial abdominal muscles, but your core muscles extend from the diaphragm to the pelvic floor and surround the trunk in a 360-degree fashion. That includes all of the abdominal muscles (rectus abdominis, internal and external obliques, and deep transversus abdominus) as well as those of the hips, glutes, and lower back (including the erector spinae and multifidus).

That’s a lot of support. If you’re not properly activating your core muscles or if you lack sufficient strength in your muscles, you’re at a disadvantage.

Given the complexity of the primary and supportive muscles that are considered part of the core, it can actually be easier to discern when you’re not engaging them or need to strengthen your core muscles compared to when you are using your core effectively. Following are some of the subtle signs that you may need to activate or strengthen your core.

6 Signs You May Need to Strengthen Your Core

There are many causes for each of the following indications, including a need to activate or strengthen your core. Always consult with your physician if you’re experiencing pain or discomfort.

1. Posture Challenges

Do you find your low back collapsing in Warrior II? Experience difficulty not arching your back and thrusting your belly forward in Mountain?

Your core muscles support the spine and help you maintain a neutral posture. If you struggle to do so when you’re seated or standing, whether in yoga or everyday life, these are signs that you might not be engaging your core or would benefit from strengthening your core.

2. Difficulty Maintaining Alignment

If you experience difficulty maintaining alignment in your low back and hips when you’re in poses that demand strong core engagement, you may not be using your core muscles as much as needed.

For example, do your hips start to sag in Plank Pose? Does your Chaturanga look more like a Cobra or Sphinx? Does your back drop like Cat when you’re trying to hold Table Pose? You may need to engage or strengthen your deep transversus abdominis, rectus abdominis, and perhaps gluteus maximus muscles to help support your spine.

3. Balancing Challenges

Wobbling in a pose is certainly common and not a bad thing. But it might not have as much to do with your innate ability to balance as you think.

Most yoga teachers can tell you what research also indicates, which is increasing your core strength supports better balance. A strong and active core enhances balance by strengthening the connection between upper and lower body and delivering more control over your center of gravity. Next time you lift your arms in Lunge, come into Tree, or attempt Dancer, try activating your core muscles.

But don’t strain with all your might. Tensing to the point of becoming rigid is actually counterproductive to balancing. Your body needs to be able to instinctively adapt and make subtle shifts as you balance. Simply focus on drawing your muscles toward your spine and grounding through your standing leg while breathing slowly and easily.

4. Hip Pain

If your hips ache after yoga, one potential cause is not engaging your deep hip muscles.

These deep core muscles create connections among the spine, pelvis, and hips and are essential to maintaining your alignment. A lack of support from weak or inefficiently engaged muscles will be taken up elsewhere by neighboring muscles, such as the hip flexors, external rotators or adductors, or the hip capsules or joints themselves. This overloading can cause strain.

For example, when you practice a single-leg posture, such as Tree Pose, if you’re engaging your deep abdominal muscles, pelvic floor muscles, and gluteus medius muscles, your hips will remain level. But if the hip on your lifted leg side drops down and the hip on your standing leg sways out to the side (known as Trendelenburg Sign), chances are your gluteus medius is weak or not engaging. This can cause referral tension in one or both hip flexors, adductors, piriformis, and IT bands of the hips (as well as the quadratus lumborum in the lower back).

5. Knee Pain

There is evidence that suggests a weak core can increase the risk of knee injuries and knee pain. A review of studies conducted in athletic populations found that lower scores in core strength, core proprioception, and neuromuscular control of the core were found to be risk factors in the development of lower extremity injuries.

Your entire body is connected through your skeleton, muscles, and connective tissue. If you are not engaged and aligned above, the structures below will also experience misalignment. This can place excessive pressure on the knee joints, including the cartilage, meniscus, ligaments, and bony structures.

6. Low Back Soreness

There are countless explanations for low back achiness, soreness, discomfort, and pain. However, if you feel a dull ache in your lumbar area after practicing yoga, find it difficult to get out of bed the morning after a challenging workout, or have developed chronic back pain, there’s a chance you’re either not engaging your core muscles or need to strengthen them.

The purpose of the core muscles is to help stabilize the spine. When you engage your core, you create tension in the abdominal and lower back muscles that reinforces spinal stability and reduces the load on your joints as well as your intervertebral discs. This tension results from contracting the deep and often overlooked muscles of the core, including the transversus abdominis, multifidus, rotatores, intertransversarii, and pelvic floor.

Without the stability provided by deep muscle engagement when you move through yoga poses, workouts, or everyday life, the more superficial muscles in the lower back will be forced to compensate or that load will be transferred to joints and other structures. These muscles are better suited to other roles like large or fast movement, so demanding that they take on the role of creating stability could lead to those muscles feeling tense or sore later.

This can increase the risk of lower back pain and tightness and make you susceptible to tweaking your back, especially during transitions between poses (even something as simple as coming to standing in Mountain Pose from bending forward in Uttanasana.

But when you can learn more specific approaches that expand upon “engage your core” and how to strengthen your core muscles, then everything

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