Among those who don't regularly practice yoga, there seems to be a common preconceived notion that yoga is just an easy workout done solely to promote relaxation, but never to break a sweat. And while some forms of yoga take less physical exertion—like facial yoga poses or laughter yoga—others, like Vinyasa or Ashtanga-style classes, are more rigorous and engage muscles you never knew existed. In fact, one of the benefits of yoga is that it is so diverse as a practice, and between all the different styles and poses, you can truly find a workout to suit nearly every mood and goal. One way to approach yoga-based workouts is to curate a sequence that targets a certain body region, such as the legs, arms, or core. Though total-body strengthening is important for overall health and fitness, area-focused workouts allow you to reap more specific strengthening benefits and correct muscle imbalances in your weaker areas.
Whether you're just getting started on your yoga journey or you're a Vinyasa class devotee, incorporating yoga poses that target and strengthen the abs and core will be beneficial to your yoga practice and general fitness. Having a strong core not only helps improve your posture and spinal health but also allows you to be able to move on to more challenging balancing poses like crow pose, warrior II, and tree pose.
So if you're looking to give your core a workout, look no further. Check out these 12 yoga poses that target your abs and strengthen and tone your core.
Meet the Expert
Pauline Stephens is a certified personal trainer, yoga instructor, meditation coach, and Ayurvedic treatment therapist.
Safety and Precautions
Stephens says it's important to pay attention to the flow of movements and poses when you engage in any core exercises. “The flow should allow you to ease into the sequence, which will help both the spine and abs, as both support the other,” she explains. “Having a combination of three to four poses in a sequence can help someone who tends to be bored with one simple pose. In a sense, it keeps things fresh so that you're more aware of the poses as you carefully move in and out of them.” In other words, pick a couple of poses that target the abs, pair them with a couple that target your back, and then work them together into a sequence to keep your body balanced and healthy. Lastly, while the poses here should be safe for everyone, if you are pregnant, have back pain, or are injured, you should get clearance from your doctor before trying any poses.
“One myth is that if your core doesn't hurt as you're working it, then you didn't do [the exercise] correctly. [But] in fact, if something hurts during the flow, you should be mindful of the pain level and either reset or discontinue until your alignment is good enough to support you,” advises Stephens. “You should never be in pain during the sequence. You will feel your abs tighten or contract at some point, but pain should never be your measure of a successful practice.”
Stephens says another misconception is that props and modifications should be avoided unless absolutely necessary. Some people seem to feel they undermine your practice, detract from the necessary challenge, and serve as “cheats.” However, modifications, such as dropping to your knees for planks or using bolsters and blocks to elevate and support certain parts of the body, are healthy techniques you should incorporate into your practice where helpful to aid in executing a pose or sequence more safely, ergonomically, or comfortably. You are not “weak” or “cheating” if you modify your poses.
Lastly, while we provided a safety and precautions note for pregnant women, Stephens notes that it's not that poses that utilize the abs have to be avoided at all costs during pregnancy—it's just that some care and medical guidance should be followed. “There is a misconception that, if someone is pregnant, they should not go into any pose that requires the use of their abs,” says Stephens. “This is not the case, and [they] can be done safely under supervision and proper instructions.”
Note: Begin your practice with a few rounds of Surya Namaskar to get your body and muscles nicely warmed up before trying the following core-strengthening yoga sequence.
Modified Triangle Pose With Lifted Arms
Regular triangle pose (Trikonasana) may provide relief from back pain and tension in the arms. The simple modification of extending your arms in front of you like you're grasping a ball targets your abs, as you must engage them to keep your body stable, lifted, and balanced.
- Stand lengthwise on your mat, with your feet parallel and about 3 feet apart.
- Turn your right foot out 90 degrees, so your toes face the short end of the mat, while your left toes turn about 5-10 degrees inward.
- Inhale and lift your arms up in line with your shoulders, with your palms facing the ground.
- Exhale, stretching forward, lengthening the left side of your body while you reach for your right foot with your right fingertips.
- Stretch the left hand up, with the left palm facing forward, and gaze toward the middle finger of your left palm.
- Stay here for one whole breath before engaging your core and reaching both of your arms toward the front of the room, like you're holding an exercise ball.
- Stay here for six more breaths before repeating on the other side.
Warrior III Pose
Warrior III (Virabhadrasana III), the most challenging pose in the warrior series, combines balance with strength. Pilates instructor Dasha Einhorn demonstrates this move, calling it one of her favorite “must-do” poses. This asana helps strengthen the abs, obliques, and back muscles, while also helping to clear your mind.
- Stand at the top of your mat in mountain pose (Tadasana).
- Begin to slowly stretch your body forward while simultaneously raising your right heel and leg backward and upward.
- Keeping the toes flexed and pointing downward, engage your core as you move your arms out in front of your body, parallel to each other. Your neck should be aligned with your spine, shoulders relaxed, and gaze focused down on one point on the mat to keep your balance.
- Stay in this pose for seven breaths before repeating on the other side.
The key to cobra pose (Bhujangasana) is to lift off the mat using your core, thus strengthening it, while keeping your arms light. This asana also improves the flexibility of your spine and is said to relieve pain caused by menstruation and sciatica.
- Lie on your stomach, placing your legs together with the tops of all your toes firmly planted on the ground and your hands in line with your chest.
- Inhale, engaging your entire core—glutes, abs, and back—to lift the upper body off the mat. Make sure that your pelvis remains on the mat, your elbows are close to the sides of your body, your chest is open, and your shoulder blades are drawing downward.
- Hold the pose for seven breaths, and then relax.
Plank pose (Phalakasana) is one of the key asanas meant to develop both arm and core strength. “Yoga poses for the abs tend to be very heating, which helps with your metabolism and digestive organs,” notes Stephens. “This is a great way to detox, as your body heats up and you sweat.”
- Begin on all fours, with your shoulders in line with your wrists, and your elbows bent as you rest on your forearms.
- Engage your core by drawing your belly button toward your spine as you extend one leg back at a time with your toes tucked. Your spine should be long and neutral, so that there is a straight line from your head to your heels.
- Keep your arms and core engaged.
- If you wish, you can push up from the mat, straightening your elbows to rest on your hands, to come up to a standard high plank.
- Roll your shoulder blades down your back, and lengthen your tailbone toward your heels.
Beginners: See if you can stay in the pose for 30 seconds, and as you develop your practice, work your way up to three or four minutes in the pose.
Side Plank Pose
A variation on the traditional plank, side plank pose (Vasisthasana) further strengthens your core and arms, especially your obliques, hips, and shoulders.
- From plank pose, keep your core engaged as you turn onto the outside edge of your right foot while stacking your left foot on top of the right.
- Shifting your weight to your right hand, slowly raise your left hand up to the ceiling as you open your body toward the left side of the room. Your gaze should be directly in front of you or on the middle finger of your left hand.
- Stay in the pose for seven breaths before coming back to plank pose, and then repeat on the other side.
Dolphin pose not only targets your abs, but it may also improve the flexibility of your spine and help strengthen your shoulders—great for those of us looking to build upper-body strength.
- Begin by kneeling on the mat with your feet tucked under your butt.
- Put your elbows in front of your knees, and place your forearms on the mat, interlacing your fingers where they meet.
- Tuck your toes, and slowly lift your hips to the ceiling, straightening your knees and coming to the shape of an inverted “V.”
- Inhale, drawing your belly upward and inward.
- Exhale, moving your body forward and placing your chin in front of your clasped hands.
- Inhale, coming back to the starting position.
- Repeat 7–10 more times.
Cat Pose Crunches
While regular cat pose (Marjariasana) is used to massage the spine, modifying it with a crunch targets the abs and also works on your balance and concentration.
- Start on your hands and knees with your shoulders in line with your wrists and your hips in line with your knees. This starting pose is commonly referred to as tabletop position.
- On an inhale, lift your right hand off the floor to shoulder height with your fingers pointing forward.
- Engage your core, and find your balance as you lift your left leg straight behind you to hip height, toes pointing downward.
- Exhale, rounding your back and lifting your belly upward as you move your right elbow and left knee in toward your navel.
- Inhale back to the starting position, and exhale to crunch.
- Repeat for five more breaths before returning to tabletop position, and then repeat on the other side.
Upward-Facing Plank Pose
In addition to engaging the abdominal muscles, upward-facing plank pose (Purvottanasana) is a great heart-opening pose that stretches the shoulders and ankles. It also helps strengthen the arms and wrists, which is especially beneficial if you work in front of a computer all day.
- Begin in a seated position, with your legs activated and outstretched.
- Place your hands on the mat, keeping a forearm's distance between your fingertips and your butt, with your fingers spread, active, and pointing toward your heels.
- Inhale, expanding your chest and drawing your shoulder blades down as you slowly begin to lift your glutes off the ground, keeping your legs straight, thighs rolled inward, and core engaged. Keep your chin pointing toward your chest and your gaze toward the front of the room.
- Hold for seven full breaths, and then relax.
A primer for other back-bending poses in yoga, camel pose (Ustrasana) provides a deep stretch through the front of your body. “[It] helps with flexibility and stability of the curves in your spinal column, which is very important for core strength,” shares Stephens.
- Kneel with your knees hip-distance apart and the tops of your feet resting on your mat.
- Place your hands on the backs of your hips with your fingers pointing downward, and engage your thighs as you slowly lean back and reach for your heels, one hand at a time.
- Open and stretch your chest, and push your shoulder blades together as your head hangs backward.
- Stay in the pose for seven breaths, and make sure to bring your head up first when dismounting from the posture.
An excellent asana for developing your core, boat pose (Navasana) is more challenging than it looks. But the rewards of regular practice of this pose speak for themselves: strengthening your spine, neck, legs, and abs, and improving mental strength by focusing on balance.
- Sit on your mat with your feet extended in front of you. Lean back, and find your balance on your sit bones as you slowly begin to lift your legs off the floor. Keep your legs straight and your feet pointed toward the ceiling.
- Engage your abs, and extend your arms straight toward your feet until they are parallel with the floor, palms facing each other.
- Lengthen your spine as you balance on your sit bones, keeping your core tight and engaged.
Half-Boat Pose With a Twist
While half-boat pose (Ardha Navasana) is the asana you practice while working your way up to full boat pose, adding a modification in the form of a twist will turn the simple pose into a challenging one that targets your oblique muscles.
- Begin in boat pose with your legs fully extended toward the ceiling and your arms at shoulder height in front of you.
- Inhale as you bend at your knees and bring your hands to the middle, holding an imaginary ball between them.
- Exhale, moving your knees to the right as you reach your arms to the left, and slowly lower your torso halfway back down.
- Inhale, coming back to the starting position—boat pose—and stay here for a couple of breaths before repeating on the other side. This is one round.
- Repeat three more times.
Modified Wheel Pose With a Single-Leg Lift
Regular wheel pose is excellent for strengthening the legs and glutes. Modifying it with alternating leg lifts engages the muscles in your core, effectively targeting and toning your abs.
- Lie on your back, with your knees bent and your heels close to your hip bones.
- Inhale, gently squeezing your glutes to lift your hips and pelvis up.
- Keep your shoulder blades rotating inward and your chin away from your chest as you lift your shoulders off the mat and slowly straighten your arms.
- On your next inhale, slowly bring your right knee in toward your chest, squeezing your right glute and straightening the leg upward.
- Keep your core engaged as you point your toes up toward the ceiling.
- Stay in the pose for seven breaths before releasing and repeating on the other side.
Singh AK, Singh OP. A preliminary clinical evaluation of external snehan and asanas in the patients of sciatica. Int J Yoga. 2013;6(1):71-75. doi:10.4103/0973-6131.105950