There's nothing like the first stretch after getting out of bed in the morning, bringing life back to your muscles and getting the blood flowing. And while you may stretch your quads or hamstrings before running a 5K or tackling a few squats, it's integral to pay attention to your midsection, too.
"Your core contains some of the hardest working muscles in the entire body and are often overlooked when it comes to stretching," Bethany Lyons, founder of Lyons Den Power Yoga, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "But stretching it is super important, namely for posture, mobility and flexibility. It also helps decrease the risk of injury and back pain."
Not exactly sure where to begin? The experts weigh in on the basics of why and how, plus a few moves to get you started.
Why Stretching Your Core Muscles Is So Important
Your core consists of the muscles within your abdomen, hips and lower back, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). These muscles support your pelvic girdle and spine and facilitate movements of your hips and torso.
In other words, they're critical for everything you do during any given day, like bringing the groceries up the stairs or lifting up your computer bag. Performing stretching exercises that target your core muscles may increase flexibility and enhance muscular function. Keeping them limber also helps prevent lower back and neck pain.
"We're constantly battling the force of gravity and tend to fall into the same movement patterns," Blake Dircksen, DPT, a New York City-based physical therapist, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "Stretching the core is a helpful way to introduce novel movement patterns to your day-to-day."
The spine relies on changes in pressure (rather than blood vessels) to deliver nutrients to the vertebral column, Dircksen says. Moving in a variety of ways ensures that nutrient exchange happens and also helps to maintain spinal mobility.
The Basics of Stretching Your Core
Just like with any major muscle group, it's important that you're incorporating core stretches regularly. When you're doing them, make sure to move slowly, according to Lindsey Clayton, founder of Brave Body Project and chief instructor at Barry's in New York City.
"Ideally, you're connecting your breath which each stretch, and moving mindfully," she tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Because your core is made up of a few different muscles, remember to include a variety of movements that stretch it entirely. If something feels off, Clayton also cautions her clients to listen.
"Never stretch beyond your limits. The last thing you want to do is pull a muscle or hurt yourself," she says.
So, try adding these five core stretches into your routine to improve your muscle function during your workouts and daily life.
1. Child's Pose (Balasana)
The child's pose is a classic yoga position that stretches the muscles that extend your hips and spine. It may also help you relax and relieve stress.
- On your mat, begin by kneeling down with your hips approximately hip-width distance apart, feet untucked, and sit your hips back onto your heels.
- Inhale and elongate your spine. As you exhale, bow forward to fold over your knees and rest your forehead down on the mat.
- Stretch your arms forward with your palms facing down, and gently press your hips back and down onto your feet to stretch your lower back and outer hips.
- If this feels restrictive, try widening your knees even farther apart until you feel more comfortable. Alternatively, you can bring your knees closer together, or all the way together, if that position suits you better. A good rule of thumb is to listen to your body and do what feels right!
- Hold this position for 10 breaths.
2. Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana)
Cobra pose stretches the muscles that flex your spine forward, particularly the rectus abdominis muscle in the front of your abdomen.
- Lie on your stomach with your hands on the floor below your shoulders. Keep your forearms close to your sides, with your elbows pointed up. Extend your ankles so your toes point back.
- Press your hips into the floor, and lift your head and torso, arching your spine upward until you feel a gentle stretch through your abdomen.
- Hold this position for 15 to 30 seconds, then lower back down.
Discontinue the stretch and talk with your doctor if cobra pose causes any lower back pain.
3. Single-Leg Supine Twist (Supta Matsyendrasana)
The single-leg supine twist targets the gluteal muscles involved in hip abduction, extension and rotation ranges of motion. The exercise also stretches the obliques on the sides of your abdomen.
- Lie on your back with your legs extended straight out in front of you and arms relaxed by your sides.
- Bend your right knee and bring it into your chest.
- Drop your right knee over to the left side of your body, twisting your spine to the left as well.
- Keep your shoulders flat on the floor.
- Rest your left hand on your right knee (without trying to push your knee to the floor) or keep your arms by your sides — whatever feels comfortable.
- Turn your gaze away from your bent knee and up toward the ceiling.
- Hold this position 15 to 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.
4. Seated Twist
The spine rotation exercise stretches the muscles in your abdomen and lower back that twist your torso to the left and right. It may help relieve stiffness in your lower back.
- Sit on the front edge of a chair with your feet flat on the floor.
- Cross your arms over your chest so your right hand touches your left shoulder and your left hand touches your right shoulder.
- Rotate your torso to the left.
- Tense your core muscles for five to 10 seconds, then release the tension.
- Repeat this contraction/relaxation cycle several times, then repeat in the opposite direction, rotating to the right.
5. Cat-Cow Pose (Marjaiasana Bitilasana)
Cat-cow pose targets the core in its entirety. It can also be super helpful for those with back pain. The slow and controlled movement helps activate each segment of the spine, which can improve mobility.
- Begin on your hands and knees.
- Exhale as you round your back, pull the belly button toward your spine and tuck your chin toward your chest.
- Starting at the tailbone, release one segment of your spine at a time, relaxing through the lumbar spine, thoracic spine (mid-back) and finally, your cervical spine as you lift your chin upward into full flexion.
- Then reverse the motion. Be aware of what segments feel stuck. Breathe into these spaces and remember to move slowly.
- Continue to move between cat and cow pose, letting your body move with your breath.
- Complete 10 to 15 rounds.
Lyons suggests trying to move through the stretch with eyes closed to focus on the area where the stretch is felt. Add subtle circular motions of the hips as you move to stretch additional muscles in the back, hips and abdominals.