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," says Bethany Lyons, founder of Lyons Den Power Yoga. "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, from bringing the groceries up the stairs to lifting up your computer bag. Performing stretching exercises that target the 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," says Blake Dircksen, DPT at Bespoke Treatments. "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.
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, says Lindsey Clayton, founder of Brave Body Project and trainer at Barry's Bootcamp. "Ideally, you're connecting your breath which each stretch, and moving mindfully."
Since the core is 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."
Try These 6 Core Stretches
1. Child's Pose
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.
- Sit on your knees with your ankles extended and toes pointed back. Spread your knees slightly wider than your shoulders, then lean forward and place your forehead on the floor.
- Flex your hips and knees to sit back, moving your buttocks toward the back of your ankles. Place the back of your hands on the floor just outside your feet.
- Hold this position for 10 deep breaths. Extend your arms in front of your head, placing your palms flat on the floor at shoulder width, to deepen the stretch, if desired.
2. Cobra Pose
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 consult your doctor if it causes lower back pain.
3. Leg Crossover Stretch
The leg crossover stretch 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 knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Extend your arms straight out, resting them on the floor.
- Lift and extend your left leg, then cross your left ankle over your right knee. Press into your right knee to push your leg out more, deepening the stretch through your buttocks.
- Rotate your hips to the right, keeping your arms and shoulder blades on the floor. Move your right knee toward the floor as you twist, and place your left foot flat on the floor, just outside your right knee.
- Hold this position 15 to 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.
4. Spinal Rotation
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.
- Rotate your torso to the left and grasp the back of the chair with both hands.
- Tense your core muscles for five to 10 seconds, then release the tension and press into the chair with your hands to turn slightly farther.
- Repeat this contraction/relaxation cycle several times, then repeat in the opposite direction, rotating to the right.
Cat/cow targets the core in its entirety. It can also be super helpful for those suffering 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. 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.
6. Wheel Pose
This is an advanced backbend that strengthens the whole body while stretching the core, says Lyons. If the practitioner has a flexible spine and shoulders, the entire front body is stretched.
- Lying on your back, bend your knees, placing your feet hip-width distance apart. Place your hands by your ears, slightly wider than shoulder-width distance apart.
- Press directly into the floor through the hands and feet to rise into a full back bend.
- Take five deep breaths and then slowly lower back down to the ground.
- Repeat six times.