How To Engage Your Core Before Exercising
Whether you train in a group setting, prefer the convenience of doing an exercise program at home, or have one-on-one time with a personal trainer, it’s likely you’ve done a workout where the instructor has asked you to “engage your core” or “tighten your abs”.
If you've not been sure what these terms mean, they're actually your trainer’s way of asking you to engage your abdominal muscles, also known as your core. A strong, stabilised core is vital to healthy movement and exercise as it helps to prevent injury; it also protects your spine, allows you to rotate and twist, maintain good posture and keep your balance. In other words, it prepares your body to reap the most benefit from the exercise or movement you’re about to do.
Despite all these benefits, they're definitely not the easiest instructions in the world to figure out, especially if you’re just starting to work out. Should you be sucking in? Bracing? What does “core activation” actually feel like? We've outlined what you need to know to activate your core, including a rundown on the different abdominal muscles, what activating your core feels like, simple core activation exercises to do before you work out, and the most beneficial time to get your core working.
What does ‘engage your core’ mean?
Before we focus on the “engaging” part, let’s take a step back and talk about the core, where it is and what it does.
What is your core?
Your core is a complex network of muscles that extends far beyond your belly or abs. In fact, it includes everything in your midsection; your pelvis, lower back, hips and abdomen. As your body performs movement or exercise — and this could be anything from walking down the street, bending to pick something up or doing a workout — your core is what keeps your body stable.
These are the main muscles you need to know about:
- Rectus abdominis: Otherwise known as your “abs”, this long, flat muscle runs all the way from your pubic bone to your rib cage. This powerful muscle helps you move your spine.
- External obliques: You’ll find these either side of your abdomen. These muscles give you the flexibility needed to move and twist your torso.
- Transverse abdominis: This muscle may not get name-checked in your fitness class but it has an incredibly important job: it stablises the spine, keeps the organs in the right place, and supports the abdominal wall. The deepest of all the muscles, it wraps around the torso, extending from the ribs to the pelvis.
- Latissimus dorsi: Sometimes nicknamed the “lats”, these muscles play a big role in helping to stablise the spine. You’ll find them running along each side of your body from the shoulder blades to the pelvis.
Think of the transverse abdominis like a corset, wrapping around your midsection. Then, your obliques criss-cross your torso, and the rectus abdominis sits on top. When these four layers of muscles are all braced together, you have an engaged core.
What does an engaged core feel like?
Imagine someone trying to push you over. Without an engaged core, you’ll probably stumble quite easily. Now, brace your stomach muscles so they feel rooted and secure. You might like to visualise pulling your belly button towards your spine, or “zipping” up your muscles from your pelvis to your rib cage.
You should feel stable and secure, and everything from your rib cage to your pelvis should feel like a single, strong cylinder. It shouldn’t feel like you’re sucking your stomach in, or holding your breath. You should be able to breathe easily and normally.
How do I know if I’m engaging my core?
Here’s four simple ways to know if your core is activated properly:
- You’re able to do a hollow hold or a straight leg hold without arching your back. Every part of your spine should be touching the floor
- You’re able to maintain your balance when doing single-leg exercises, like a single-leg press or single-leg ab bike
- You’re able to keep your back straight while holding a plank or doing a push up
- You can lift weights overhead without arching your back, like when doing a shoulder press
Core activation exercises
These core activation exercises work wonders at getting your torso switched-on before your workout. You should only need to do these for 30 seconds or so, just long enough to feel the muscles engaged.
To do the dead bug, lie on your back with your legs stretched out. You want the entire length of your spine touching the floor. Raise your arms straight up towards the ceiling and create a tabletop position with your legs (bend your legs at 90 degrees at both the hip and the knee), all while still maintaining full contact between the spine and the ground.
Then, lower one arm towards your body while simultaneously stretching out the opposite leg. Your leg should hover slightly off the ground, and not touch the floor. Return your arm and leg to their original positions and repeat with the other arm and leg. Repeat for 30 seconds, or until you can feel your muscles are activated.
To do the bridge, lie on your back with your knees bent — your heels should be close against your buttocks. Keep your back in a neutral position, not arched but not forced against the floor, either. The entire length of your spine should be touching the ground.
Tighten your abdominal muscles and, without tilting them, raise your hips off the floor until they’re in line with your knees and shoulders. Hold the position for as long as you can without letting your abdominal muscles relax.
A great position for engaging your core is on all fours. Make sure your knees are below your hips and your hands are below your shoulders. Set your spine in a neutral position — not arched but not curled in, either. Imagine your back is a coffee table and it needs to be straight to balance hot drinks.
Draw your shoulder blades down and back, and gently draw your ribs into your hips to engage your core. Keep your torse still while you exhale, and repeat for 30 seconds, or until you can feel your muscles are activated.
When to engage your core
Knowing when to activate your core is as important as knowing how to do it.
Core activation should happen BEFORE you work out
Before you exercise, spend a few moments doing core activation exercises to switch on your muscles. Reserve your core training — like sit-ups, crunches and Russian twists — for the end of your workout, when you can safely fatigue the muscles. If your core muscles get too tired before your workout, you'll find it more difficult to train.
You don’t need to engage your core 24/7
In fact, you’ll find you’ll get incredibly fatigued if you do! Instead, concentrate on activating your core when you’re doing movement or exercise that requires your spine to flex, extend, bend or rotate. Here’s some tips:
- Engage your core when lifting weights: By activating your core during strength training, you’ll help to keep your back straight and shoulders retracted, two things that are essential for safe weight lifting.
- Engage your core while doing cardio: Whether you’re doing low-impact cardio like swimming, walking and cycling or high-impact cardio like running or high intensity interval training (HIIT), engaging your core will lead to improved posture plus decrease the risk of injury.
Engage your core during ab workouts: This one might sound obvious but it can actually be quite tricky to keep your core engaged while also twisting, bending and crunching it. Activating your core while doing ab work will make sure it’s your abs that are doing all the hard work, instead of relying on other muscles like your lower back or shoulders. Not sure you’re doing it right? The trick is to avoid arching the spine and to keep your lower back pressed against the floor as much as possible.
Engaging your core can help to make your workouts more effective
Every movement you make, whether it’s squatting or sprinting, requires the use of your core muscles. When your core is switched on, your body becomes strong and stable, and this stability is vital for a safe and effective workout.
A strong core decreases the risk of injury, helps you maintain better posture and allows you to achieve a better form. Plus, the more you engage your core during a workout, the easier it’ll be for your body to locate, activate and train the right muscles for that particular exercise.
An engaged core will help take some of the work off your legs when you lunge, for example, and help your torso stay straight when doing bent-over rows. You’ll still need to do the work, but an engaged core will play a huge role in activating the right muscles, so that other muscles don’t end up over-compensating. It’s a win-win!
* Results may vary. Strict adherence to the nutrition and exercise guide are required for best results.