To tone and strengthen your core or inner corset of ab and back muscles, you need to work them in every direction, leaning forward, backward, and side to side. "Core conditioning develops stability in your torso, which improves your posture, balance, and range of motion while easing tightness and chronic pain in the surrounding areas like your upper back, neck and hips," says New York City chiropractor Howard Sichel, owner of Power Pilates. And it helps nip back pain in the bud.
The peak age for back pain is the 40s, and it’s most often a result of microtraumas that accumulate over time, rather than one big incident. "Strengthening your core muscles can lessen or even rid you of the pain, even if working out caused the problem in the first place," says Sichel.
Try It: If your back is your Achilles heel, do the 15-minute back workout on the "Power Pilates, Connect to Your Body’s Core, Intermediate Workout" DVD (www.powerpilates.com). Heck, do it even if you don’t have back troubles; it’s a great strengthening routine for an overlooked body part. Another core move that can flatten abs and whittle your waist is the leaning reach.
- Sit up tall with knees bent, feet flat, and arms extended in front of you at shoulder height.
- Tighten abs by bringing your navel to your spine and lean back slightly, still keeping abs contracted.
- Open right arm as far as you can so that arms form a diagonal line. Turn head to look at right hand.
- Hold for two breaths; return to start and repeat to left. Do three times.
Balances, Postures, and Flexes
Find Your Balance
"Many women think good balance is something only a lucky few are born with, but it’s actually a skill that everyone can learn and get better at," says Jonathan Fields, owner of Sonic Yoga in New York City. "Better your balance and you’ll find you’re more open to trying more new-to-you pursuits — like hiking, mountain-biking, snowboarding, and dancing." The better body payoff for practicing balance — you’re working more tiny stabilizing muscles. More muscles working means more toning for you.
Try It: Work in a balance session (like a yoga or tai chi class or tape) once or twice a week. And practice — try putting on and tying your sneakers while standing on one leg. Another move to improve your balance is the yoga tree pose.
- Stand with both feet hip-width apart and focus your eyes on a still point that’s at eye level about six feet in front of you.
- Put your weight on your left leg.
- Bend your right knee, lifting your foot off the floor, and place the sole of your right foot against the inside of the left shin, knee pointed out to the side. (For a greater challenge, move the right foot up to your left inner thigh.)
- Bring your palms together overhead.
- Try to hold for 10-15 slow breaths and repeat on the other side. For more balance moves, check out Fields’ "Vinyasa Heat Live!" videos (www.sonicyoga.com).
Make Posture a Priority
"Woman are twice as likely as men to suffer from chronic shoulder, neck, and upper-back pain," says Sichel. The main culprit: poor posture. But you can turn a slouch around with this on-the-spot Pilates move that straightens your spine, lowers your shoulders, and flattens your abs, says Sichel.
Try It: The next time you’re sitting or standing, inhale through your nose, lifting abdominals in and up (think of pulling your navel in and away from your thighs.) Exhale while maintaining this vertical lift. Repeat three times.
Take More Flex Time
"As we get older, collagen fibers in and around our tendons and ligaments stiffen, so we lose flexibility," says exercise physiologist Robyn M. Stuhr of the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. And when an area remains tight for too long, it’s more likely to turn into an injury. You don’t have to set aside huge blocks of time to stay loose. "Taking brief, five-minute stretch breaks throughout the day (as well as during and after your workouts) is all you need to achieve and maintain full range of motion," says physical therapist J. Brent Feland, PhD, of Brigham Young University. For optimal results, hold each stretch for at least 30 seconds.