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(5 min. read)
Everyone knows that flat abs and six-packs require a heck of a lot of sit-ups. Right? Unfortunately, this outdated wisdom is often still used and can do more harm than good. On the bright side, we now know how to strengthen the core effectively without possible injury.
What's wrong with sit-ups?
A word on anatomy to begin: the primary muscle activated from sit-ups is the Rectus Abdominins. This is the outermost muscle, the one that gets all the credit for the "six-pack." The external obliques, the muscles to the sides of the core, are also activated. So that's it! That's the core, right?..... Not quite.
Sit-ups place a lot of compressive force on the spine - as much as 750 lbs! (340kg) This can lead to herniated or bulged discs, back pain, and pinched nerves. Ouch.
Your back hurts from sit-ups. Does this mean you have an injury?!
Not necessarily, but you could always check with a doctor. A group of muscles also activated with sit-ups are the hip-flexors. Much of the population is plagued with chronically tight hip-flexors from sitting at desks, driving in cars, and sitting on the couch watching tv. In brief, tight hip-flexors make it it so we don't engage our Glutes, which help protect our lower back. Try stretching or attend a yoga class, but if it causes pain, stop.
What to do instead of sit-ups?
Come onto your hands and knees. Place your hands directly under your shoulders & spread your fingers wide. Now step your feet back so your back/butt/spine is as flat and straight as possible. Begin to think about the line of your body that runs from the heels to the crown of head. You can keep your feet together or at hip distance. Squeeze your thighs & butt, try to draw the stomach towards the spine and continue to breathe here in plank for 30 seconds. Overtime you can work up to 60 or even 90 seconds.
In this one minute, you will have worked "all your major core muscles including the rectus abdominals, internal and external obliques, serratus anterior, TVA, deltoids and pecs as well as the hip flexor groups and muscles of the front of thighs are engaged when you do a plank. This makes it incredibly effective at building core strength." (1)
Can I do something else instead? My core is too weak to plank (AKA I am postpartum..).
Definitely. "A critical component for restoring your abs and the development of core strength is learning to control the shape of your abdominal wall during exercise. To do this, you need to train your abs to pull back in toward your spine during exertion." (2)
Set your alarm for 5 minutes. Lie down on your back with your hands on the sides of your ribs. Breathe normally. Once you've got the flow of your own breath under raps and feel relaxed, begin to elongate the exhalations, squeezing out the air from the lungs and continuing to exhale, contracting your TVA and engaging your pelvic floor.
.....your what?! The Transverse Abdominis (TVA) is the deepest core muscle, the one that is responsible for making sure your organs stay in place later in life (yay!). "It acts like an internal splint, helping to close abdominal separation from the inside. It’s the body’s most important core stabilizer and is responsible for re-flattening the abdominal wall after pregnancy." (3)
Once you're able to connect with your core, you can flip over to your hands and knees. Again spread the fingers wide. Staying aware of your breath & the engagement of the TVA, press your hands into the ground and exhale, lifting your knees 1-2" from the ground, exhaling, exhaling, exhaling, TVA ENGAGED! Boom.
I can tell my core is getting stronger, but there's still softness that I want to get rid of. What can I do?
First off, well done!! It takes a lot of hard work, determination, and breath work to establish a healthy relationship with the deep muscles of the core.
It's important to remember that women are naturally a bit softer here and that's SEXY. It's amazing. And it's YOU! Another thing to keep in mind is you can't slim down a specific area of the body. It's an all or nothing kind of deal and the best ways to trim off a few centimetres is to: 1.) Limit or quit sugar/alcohol/simple carbs. 2.) Manage your response to stress better by getting enough sleep, drinking less caffeine, and practicing mindfulness or yoga. 3.) Hydrate! Make sure you're getting plenty of water. 4.) Find enjoyment in what you're doing. Sounds strange, but happiness is an important and crucial drug for weight loss.
I'm a realist. How does any of this translate to real life situations?
Have you ever jumped rope, only to notice afterwards you peed a little? Blame it on the core!
Almost every movement comes from the core - extending the arms, moving a leg, or holding the pee inside. When you do a sit-up, you're primarily flexing the spine. The core muscles, however, primarily stabilise the torso. So the strength gained from sit-ups sadly does not get used much in the real world. With the core, you're much more likely to stand up straight while lifting a heavy shopping bag/ suitcase a half a dozen times than sitting up in bed repeatedly.
I'll leave you now with this final advice on the pursuit of strength and other goodness - Keep breathing, conquer from within and happy jumping!
by Sarah Hodgens
February - we're knocking on the door to the shortest month and the time of year when many people try to cut clean from their habit of Happy Hour specials.
Looking for a bit of motivation and wondering what lies at the end of the rainbow on this this difficult challenge? This 10 minute read will share with you one Yogi's moments of Enlightenment along the path to booze-free living.
It's another Saturday night. We are together, the three of us who have joined in a pact to abstain from drinking alcohol. A candle flickers between us. Smooth jazz wallows on in the background with the crashing of waves and one of us has something to say.
“And that’s fine!” I gasp in all earnestness. “I’m not saying that what you did was right or wrong. You did a really great job. But it’s over. Once you drink, you can’t just get back on the no-drinking bandwagon. What’s done is done.”
One of us was having a hard time understanding the rules of play.
We slowly progressed, discussing what was at the heart of each of our individual decisions to set aside an enjoyable glass of wine with dinners or meeting up for a beer. What quickly became apparent was that our reasons for abstinence had shifted in the month.
At the start of the month and our 6 week long alcohol fast, we agreed quitting booze would benefit health and by doing it together we would have a strong support system. As it neared completion, we felt more confident that we were actually controlling our demons by practicing self-control and breaking out of the routine.
As you know from yoga it's important to respect the differences in each individual's body. My forward bend feels different to me than yours feels to you, and what might not challenge you may be difficult for me. But the fun thing about quitting alcohol is that the benefits are the same for everybody. Here are some things that particularly struck me during this challenge:
Always at the top of the list, sleep seems to be an improvement that people really love. Initially it was more difficult to fall asleep without a nightcap, but quickly it became increasingly enjoyable to prepare and sip on a cup of soothing herbal tea in the evening to wind down.
The first few night I woke up alert in the middle of sleep, but quickly this annoyance ceased and two weeks into it I began to enter into a restfulness that left me revitalised and fresh in the morning.It balanced out to a point where I could easily fall asleep when I wished and the early morning alarm clock became less of a burden.
I can’t emphasize enough how extremely energetic I became! SO MUCH FREAKING ENERGY! And it’s good stuff. The intermittent fasting also gives a surge in energy, and this powerful duo was what kept me up at night.
While socializing with other sober friends, we way outdid our prior selves in terms of enthusiasm! I noticed when the three of us were together we talked more, talked louder, engaged and laughed to let all the joy spill out of our hearts.
I wasn’t drinking a lot before I quit alcohol. I mostly stayed near the limits recommended by health care practitioners. Yet it was the routine of pouring a glass of wine that had become like medicine for an ailment, instead of a celebration, that eventually left me feeling dull inside.
“I want to create space in my life, invest in becoming more aware of habits and patterns, and break routine,” I wrote as the initial reasons behind quitting alcohol. And what does this lead to? A lot of clarity. Evenings with a clear head were spent absorbed in a documentary, focusing and planning the next move in a game of chess, or cozied up reading, talking, or simply relaxing in stillness.
Whether this concentration transferred to motivation during the day, I can’t exactly say, but teaching became easier as my mind flowed more freely to remember, improvise, and find the right words to offer guidance.
4. THE YOGA BODY
It’s hard to describe the sensation of the physical shift that occurs. “I feel like my gin layer is gone!” C says ecstatically night after night about two and a half weeks into the practice.
“What are you talking about?” I ask skeptically. “You don’t drink gin….”
Will you loose weight from not drinking? Sure. But how?
One day I noticed it just below my lowest rib where my lady waist lay. I’m small anyway, but it was all tiny and seemed to have almost sucked in on itself. When you quit drinking alcohol your liver looses fat. This could have been what I was noticing.
But also around the first week I began incorporating a steady series of Pawanmuktasana (Energy Releasing Movements), into my personal yoga practice and teachings to help build a strong foundation. The movements are simple and isolated, starting with curling the toes and eventually work up the legs to warm up joints and engage muscles until you’ve worked through the entire body.
I now believe that quitting alcohol is essential to transform your body and strengthen your yoga practice. After three weeks of Pawanmuktasana and abstaining, my thighs were leaned out, my belly stretched, and there was almost a “sinewyness” about me. What was most surprising is what happened to my feet! I found that each of my toes likes to constantly wiggle and dance around on the ends of my feet. This sends energy (so much energy!!) up to the twist of my ankle, all the way up the knees, the hips, up up up! It’s not as easy to see this in the hands as we are used to keeping them nimble through daily movement.
“But that’s hard!” I moaned once to a fitness friend.
“Good! If it’s not hard, then I don’t want to do it.” Came the cheeky response.
Quitting drinking is not physically hard, as in “that pesky hand keeps bringing the cup to my mouth!” but rather mentally, like “just one drink would be so relaxing and go so well with my steak / tacos / faux-meat vegan patty. Why am I doing this again?”
At first the pressure from others to "lighten-up" with a beverage makes it really hard, but then one day you suddenly overcome that! You’ve levelled-up and gained strength to the point where the pressure to drink no longer affects you because your decision has already been made. Unfortunately it can make people who are drinking rather uncomfortable to suddenly be doing it alone, so a little heads up can help support your progress. Let your drinking buddy know ahead of time and then you both can decide if you like each other enough to still spend time together.
Do other people think about life's long-haul as often as I am trying to? Maybe you already have it all figured out so there's no need to make long term plans. Lucky you. For me, I can easily get swept up in the thrills of life and what’s going on in the moment.
But when I quit alcohol, I used all that newly acquired clarity to take a step back and consider what my goals are for the immediate future, five months, and even a decade (ok, not quite). And since I wasn’t previously considering the long term much, I realized that I was taking for granted the virtue and strength that grows from commitment. After just a few weeks I saw that the benefits of a small investment, sacrifice or a commitment is one of the most rewarding sensations (besides an ice cold beer…. Kidding!).
And lastly, your health improves! This is a big one.
Do you like soda water? Well you do now! The practice of eliminating alcohol helps cut back the consumption of extra calories. But you’ve got to drink something whilst socializing, so suddenly you’ll find you drink a whole lot of water, soda water with lime, tea, and black coffee.
Quitting alcohol helps lower inflammation. This can improve arthritis and skin conditions, balance hormones, and reduce the risk of cancers, fatigue, depression, and sore joints.
When alcohol becomes metabolized in the body, it does not become sugar as some popularly believe (get geeky here). However it can irritate the stomach and liver if consumed if you drink too much. The brain then sends signals that our body is being invaded! It dispatches a troop of white blood cells to fix the “problem” – aka inflammation. Alcohol is a double-edged sword in this case as its been shown to actually lower inflammation, as long as you drink less than a glass of wine or beer daily.
Your muscles will recover more quickly from fatigue. Research from Penn State shows that alcohol decreases protein synthesis by 15% to 20% after 24 hours, but not sooner. That means that if you do drink, having a few drinks on Friday night after physical activity is better than having them on the following Saturday night when your body is recovering.
You’ll eat better and digest food more efficiently. If your liver is busy dealing with alcohol, it will delay dealing with other nutrients—which is why drinking alcohol causes your blood sugar to go down and your blood fats to go up temporarily. Keep in mind that at first you may need to rebalance your diet to make sure you’re eating enough to not feel hungry in the evening or just respecting when your don't feel hungry by not eating.
So in short, there are lots of health benefits which include reducing the risk cancer and more beautiful skin. What else could one wish for?!
In my quest to support a friend and take a break from alcohol, I had a revitalizing experience, which created joy and helped me expand my awareness, consciousness, and widen my perspective. I felt first-hand the health benefits of increased clarity and alertness. I experienced consistent energy during the day and fell asleep easily at night. I felt balanced. As Swami Satyanada Sarawati says in Kriya Yoga, “As we purify our mind and body we will begin to see and identify ourselves with an underlying consciousness.” This wasn’t the reason why I started the challenge, but it’s great to have gotten even more out of it than I had initially anticipated. If you've read this far, you might be curious to give it a try yourself.
But did I accomplish all that I set out to when I began this quest? And what of my friend? It's true that when one leg falls, the tripod crumbles. Our initial goal of six weeks became one month. So maybe that sounds like I did a shitty job, but it's helped change my habits and I don't plan to shift back to a routine glass or two of wine in the evening. This annual attempt is something that I've really enjoyed doing for the last three years and I look forward to next time. Until then.... shanti shanti omm.
- Sarah Hodgens, March 2017