Sweat through an ab workout and you want nothing short of rock-hard results. But did you know that by engaging these muscles, you do more than sculpt a bikini-ready bod? Considered your "vital center" in yoga, your core is critical to overall health. "It's not only the seat of the digestive system, but also where we hold tension and experience deep emotions," says personal trainer and yoga instructor Roman Szpond, owner of Inner Strength studios in Watertown, Massachusetts. "By focusing on this area, you improve the quality of your digestion and stimulate diaphragmatic breathing, which can relieve the proverbial 'knot' in your stomach." Use the following workout, a combination of complementary core strengtheners and stretches, to tone your belly -- and build a stronger, more centered you.
1 Core Balancer (pictured above)
What it does: This stabilizing isometric strengthener works the upper and lower ab muscles. To stay balanced here, you'll use several muscles in concert, which makes more effective use of them.
How to do it: Start by lying on your back, arms over your head and feet hips-width apart. Take a deep inhale and, as you exhale, pull your upper body and lower body upward so that you form a V. Reach your fingers toward your toes and keep your gaze upward, compressing your abs and drawing the navel toward the spine. Hold for 3 to 5 seconds, then gently lower down. Repeat 3 to 5 times. (To modify, leave your legs up and just lower your upper body, lifting up again to reach your raised legs.)
2 Winding Crunch
What it does: Simultaneously strengthens and lengthens the upper and lower body; stretches shoulders and hips.
How to do it: Lying on your back, cross your left arm under your right, winding your arms around each other so that your palms touch. Wrap your right leg over your left leg (if you can, tuck your right foot behind your left calf) with knees bent. Take a deep breath, reaching arms and legs away from each other, and then crunch, reaching elbows toward the knees. Lift your upper and lower back slightly off the floor to work the entire abdominal area. Then release your back down to the ground. Exhale and repeat. Do 3 sets of 10.
3 Modified Fish
What it does: Opens up the abs and chest to help calm the body and facilitate breathing.
How to do it: Start flat on your back, then lift up onto your forearms, tucking your hands under your buttocks for stability. Begin to arch the chest, releasing the muscles, widening your collarbone.Rather than drop your head back as in traditional Fish pose, which can strain the neck if done improperly, Szpond suggests keeping your chin tucked. Hold for 3 to 5 breaths, letting your breath rise and fall naturally, your chest open up, and your abs relax. To come out of it, remove your hands and lie down flat, relaxing into the ground.
4 Yoga Bicycle with Oblique Hold
What it does: Works the oblique muscles (which run along the sides of your core.
How to do it: Pull your knees toward your chest and put your hands behind your head, elbows bent in toward your knees. Reach your right elbow toward the left knee, extending the right leg, then switch, alternating 10 times. On the last rep, freeze, reaching your arm past the outside of the knee for a count of 3. Do 5 sets.
5 Twisted Stretch
What it does: Releases the abs.
How to do it: Lie flat on your back with knees bent and arms overhead; take a deep breath and exhale releasing both legs to your left side. Reset for a few second, then reverse. Extend your energy up the arms and out through the fingers. Feel the tension in your ab muscles release. Take a few slow deep breaths. Rest and repeat 1 to 3 times.
Text by Terri Trespicio