How to Engage Your Core (And Why You Should Care)
How many times have you heard a trainer say, “Engage your core?”
And so you suck in your gut, assuming that must be what she meant. But, you also have a nagging feeling that there must be more to it than that…
Well, you’re right, there is!
It’s more subtle and more complex than most people realize, so today we’re going to clarify what the core is, how you engage it, and why you should care.
What is the core anyway?
Your core is NOT just your abdominal muscles! It includes:
Four layers of abdominal muscles (transverse abdominis, internal obliques, external obliques & rectus abdominis)
Three glute (buttock) muscles (gluteus maximus, gluteus medius & gluteus minimus)
Inner thigh muscles (adductor group)
Back muscles (latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, erector spinae, multifidus, quadratus lumborum)
Don’t worry, you don’t have to memorize the names of all these muscles, but the point we want you to remember is that the core is a complex group of muscles that all work together to stabilize your torso during movement.
How do you actually “engage” the core?
When all the core muscles are actively braced together, you have an engaged core.
Because most of us sit for hours at a time, our core muscles spend most of the day inactive. So, it’s understandable that when we go to an exercise class and try to “engage” them, they don’t readily respond.
It’s very common to just “suck in” your tummy when first trying to engage your core, but this can actually put unnecessary pressure on your lower back, restrict your ability to breathe deeply, and contribute to poor posture.
It takes a lot of practice to strengthen the mind-body connection before core activation begins to feel like second nature.
Here are three simple steps to help you engage your core:
1) Get into good posture:
Stand with your feet firmly planted on the ground, knees slightly soft and shoulders rolled back so your chest is open.
Visualize a string attached to the top of your head, gently pulling your head up so that your skull feels like it’s floating and your spine feels relaxed but elongated.
Fire your glute muscles and very slightly tuck your pelvis.
2) Now, imagine bracing your stomach muscles as if you're expecting to be punched in the stomach. Keep those muscles tight as you breathe naturally. This feels like core engagement, but you’re activating mainly the superficial muscles. To go deeper, move to step #3.
3) In that same good posture, exhale as deeply as possible while visualizing pulling your navel in and up toward your spine. With practice, you’ll feel your deeper abdominal muscles tighten. The next step is to keep those deep muscles tight while breathing normally. This is the sensation you want to take into all of your workouts.
If don’t get it right away, don’t worry! For most people, this is a new way of activating your muscles. Here’s how you can deepen the sensation:
Get down onto your hands & knees. Keep your torso still as you exhale and pull your navel to your spine. Keep your abs pulled away from the floor and keep breathing. Because you’re fighting against gravity, it can be easier to feel your abs engaged in this position.
Keep practicing and give yourself time. Once you get it, think of every exhale as an opportunity to engage your core.
Why does this matter?
Learning to engage your core has many benefits, including:
protects your lower back from strain
reduces risk of fall & injury
improves posture (which contributes to a trimmer appearance)
helps stabilize the spine
allows you to safely & easily perform activities of daily living, such as reaching up to a shelf or wiping up a spill on the floor.
AND OUR FAVORITE: core engagement is your secret weapon for an effective workout. An engaged core helps you use the correct muscles so you can make real progress.