Tips to Engage Your Core – If you’ve ever taken a group exercise class or worked out with a personal trainer, chances are you’ve heard them say some variation of “engage your core” or maybe “pull your belly button towards your spine.”
We hear it said all the but do you really know what it means? Or better yet, how to achieve it?
These phrases all refer to the action of tightening your core musculature to stabilize yourself or brace your body for a particular exercise.
In this blog, you’ll learn what it really means to engage your core (it’s not just “sucking in”), how to do it, when to do it, and why it’s important.
What is Your Core?
To know how to engage your core, you first have to know what your core actually consists of. Your abs alone include four different abdominal muscles, and then there are all of your back muscles to account for.
Here’s a look at the most important muscles when it comes to engaging your core:
- Rectus abdominis: The most well-known ab muscle, the rectus abdominis is the muscle responsible for the coveted six-pack.
- External obliques: These are the muscles on either side of your rectus abdominis; they lie underneath what people call “love handles.”
- Internal obliques: Your internal obliques lie just below your external obliques.
- Transverse abdominis: This is the deepest layer of muscle in your abdomen. It completely wraps around your torso and extends from your ribs to your pelvis.
- Latissimus dorsi: Commonly called your “lats,” these muscles run along both sides of your spine from just below your shoulder blades to your pelvis.
- Erector spinae: You have erector spinae muscles on each side of your spine, and they extend the entire length of your back.
How to Engage Your Core
Engaging your core means braces all of the muscles in your core to keep your spine safe and stable. Picture everything from your rib cage to your pelvis: It should all feel like a single, strong cylinder.
It’s common to think that “engage your core” is as simple as sucking in your stomach. But that’s actually pretty far from the truth; in fact, it’s quite the opposite.
To engage your core, imagine that you are bracing yourself for a sucker-punch right to the stomach. You’re not going to suck in your stomach. You’re going to take a deep breath and tighten all of your abdominal muscles. Your core engages naturally right before you laugh or cough, so if you initiate one of these actions, you’ll get an idea of how it should feel when your core is engaged.
Most important, you should be able to continue to breathe when you engage your core! While breathing is an important part of engaging your core, it is important that you breathe normally to support your core. Deep belly breathing is not appropriate if you want to know how to engage your core while sitting, standing, walking or exercising in general.
Why Should You Engage Your Core?
- Engaging your core decreases your chances of sustaining an injury while exercising.
- Your core is the basis of pretty much all of your movement, so a strong core benefits your athletic ability, flexibility, and overall strength.
- A strong core is also good for your posture. When all of the core muscles are braced together, they keep your posture tall.
- Having a weak core can cause postural deviation which can lead to general aches and pains as well as an extensive list of further negative effects and injuries. This includes reduced flexibility and injuries to the back, such as a slipped disc, as well as injuries to the rest of the body, for example, runner’s knee.
When Should You Engage Your Core?
Engaging your core is most important when there is potential for your spine to overly flex, extend, bend, or rotate.
- Engage Your Core While Lifting Weights
Weightlifting may prove the most crucial time for engaging your core. When you bend at any of your major joints—specifically your shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles—there is an opportunity for spinal movement. Taking a deep breath and tightening your tummy can help you keep your back straight and shoulder blades retracted. Here’s a great workout to practice engaging your core.
- Engage Your Core During Cardio
You don’t have as high of a risk for spine injuries during cardio exercise as you do during weightlifting exercise, because generally there isn’t as much opportunity to move the spine into dangerous positions. However, engaging your core during cardio can improve your posture and reduce any aches and pains you experience during or after cardio exercise.
- Engage Your Core During Ab Workouts
It can feel confusing to engage your core during ab workouts because there’s so much movement going on in the torso. However, you can look out for signs that you need to brace, the most common sign being hyperextension—also known as arching your back.
When doing ab workouts, think of tipping your tailbone forward or squeezing your glutes. These two cues can help you reduce the lumbar curve of your spine and tighten your abdominal muscles. Here’s a great ab workout to practice engaging your core or try this core shredder.
- Engage Your Core All Day
You can prevent poor posture by engaging your core throughout daily activities.
Practice bracing your core while sitting at your desk and while walking to and from your usual places.
You can also practice during other day-to-day activities, such as grocery shopping—try engaging your core when you reach to grab something from a high shelf. It’s good practice that will transfer to your workouts!
Practice Engaging Your Core
To get familiar with core engagement, start out with this bracing exercise.
- Lie face-up on the floor with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground. Extend your arms so they lie flat beside your body, with your palms on the ground.
- Press your lower back into the ground so that your tailbone tips up slightly.
- Inhale deeply, filling your belly. Once your belly is full of air, clench your abdominal muscles (while keeping your lower back pressed into the floor).
- Use your ab muscles to pull your belly button up and inward against your breath.
- Continue to breathe, filling your chest with air. Your stomach should remain full the entire time.
- Take three to five breaths, relax, and start the exercise over.