How To Engage Your Core: What Does It Mean?
Whether you train in a gym, prefer the convenience of following your Sweat 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”. Sorry, you want me to do what exactly?
If you've been confused by what these terms mean, you’re not alone! They're simply your trainer’s way of asking you to engage your abdominal muscles, also known as your core or abs.
A strong, stabilised core is important for healthy movement and holistic fitness, making your workout as effective as possible while also helping to prevent injury.
Engaging your core during exercise helps to protect your spine, rotate and twist safely, maintain good posture, and keep your balance (not to mention giving your core the best possible workout). It’s important for weightlifting and lower-body workouts, as you can easily injure your back without the spinal protection from strong core muscles.
Despite all these benefits, engaging your core isn’t always easy to figure out, especially if you’re new to working out or busy trying to coordinate other parts of your body! Should you be sucking in? Bracing? Holding your breath? And what does “core activation” actually feel like?
We've outlined what it means to engage your core, including a rundown of our 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 it mean to ‘engage your core’?
Before we focus on the “engaging” part, it helps to understand what we mean when we talk about your core.
What is your core?
Your core is a complex network of muscles in your torso 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 — and this could be anything from walking down the street, bending to pick something up or completing 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 on either side of your abdomen, giving you the flexibility and strength to move, bend and twist your torso.
- Transverse abdominis: This deep muscle is wrapped around your torso, extending from your ribs to your pelvis. Although transverse abdominis doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue mid-workout, it plays an incredibly important role, helping to stabilise your spine, keep your organs in the right place, and support your abdominal wall.
- Latissimus dorsi: Sometimes referred to as your “lats”, these muscles on your back play a big role in helping to stabilise your spine. You’ll find them running along each side of your body from your shoulder blades to your pelvis.
Think of the transverse abdominis like a corset, wrapping around your midsection. Then, your obliques criss-cross the sides of your torso, and the rectus abdominis sits on top. When these layers of muscles are all braced together, you have an engaged core and the rest of your body is well supported for movement.
How do you engage your core?
A good way to brace your abdominal muscles is to think about pulling your belly button towards your spine, or tighten your abs as if you were in a boxing match and preparing for a sucker punch to your stomach. How would you brace your core for that?
What does an engaged core feel like?
You should feel stable and secure, and everything from your rib cage to your pelvis should feel like a single, strong cylinder. Using the sucker punch analogy can be a helpful reminder that it shouldn’t feel like you’re sucking your stomach in or holding your breath. You should be able to breathe!
How do you know when you're engaging your core?
Here are four simple things you might notice when your core is activated during a workout:
- You’re able to perform straight-leg raises 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 better when performing single-leg exercises, such as a single-leg glute bridge or single-leg deadlift
- You’re able to keep your body in a straight line from head to toe while holding a plank or performing a push up
- You can lift weights without arching your back, such as barbell squats, deadlifts or overhead movements like a shoulder press
Core activation exercises
These core activation exercises can help to switch those ab muscles on before you start your workout. Core activation is essentially about practicing engaging your core before the real work begins to prime your muscles and mind for what it should feel like. You only need to do these for 30 seconds or so, just long enough to feel the muscles engaged.
- Start by lying on your back, then come to tabletop position by bending your legs at 90 degrees at both the hip and the knee.
- Rest the palms of your hands on your thighs and, keeping your back flat against the floor, push your palms hard against your thighs as if you are trying to push them away while resisting with your legs. You should feel your core muscles tensing.
- Hold this position for 5-10 seconds, then relax and repeat.
- Lie on your back with your legs extended. You want the entire length of your spine to be touching the floor.
- Raise your arms straight up towards the ceiling and create a tabletop position with your legs by bending your legs at 90 degrees at both the hip and the knee. Your spine should be touching the floor at all times.
- Lower one arm towards your ear while simultaneously stretching out the opposite leg. Your arm, leg and foot that are extended should hover slightly off the ground without touching the floor.
- Return your arm and leg to their original positions and repeat with the other arm and leg.
- Repeat for 30 seconds, alternating sides.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent — your heels should be close to your glutes. Keep your back in a neutral position with your spine flat on the floor.
- Tighten your abdominal muscles and lift your hips off the floor until they’re in line with your knees and shoulders. Your body should form one straight line from head to knees.
- Lower your hips to the floor with control, then repeat for 30 seconds. It can help to also hold your hands on your belly to feel your core working.
When to engage your core
Knowing when to activate your core is as important as knowing how to do it - it’s something you should do before and during your workout.
Before you exercise, spend a few minutes performing core activation exercises to switch on your muscles. Reserve your core training — like sit-ups, crunches and Russian twists — for later in your workout, when you are properly warmed up and can safely fatigue the muscles. It’s best to leave it until the end of your workout to fatigue your core muscles, as you may increase your risk of injury by performing other movements when your core is already tired. During your workout, concentrate on activating your core when you’re doing movement or exercise that requires your spine to flex, extend, bend or rotate, or when you’re lifting weights and there’s more pressure on your spine. Here are some tips:
- Engage your core when lifting weights: By activating your core during strength training, you’ll help to keep your spine neutral 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 and movement, plus decrease the risk of injury
- Engage your core during ab workouts: This one might sound obvious, but it can actually be quite easy to start using incorrect muscles if your core is weak or tired, such as your lower back, hip flexors or shoulders. You want your abs to be doing the work, so always think about bracing your core and keeping your spine flat on the floor if you’re doing exercises on your back.
Engaging your core can help to make your workouts more effective
Almost every movement you make, whether it’s squatting, crunching or sprinting, requires the use of your core muscles. When your core is engaged, your body becomes strong and stable, making for a safe and effective workout.
A strong and engaged core decreases your risk of injury, helps you maintain better posture and allows you to move with better form using the correct muscle groups. It’s a win-win!
* Disclaimer: This blog post is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. The above information should not be used to diagnose, treat, or prevent any disease or medical condition. Please consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet, sleep methods, daily activity, or fitness routine. Sweat assumes no responsibility for any personal injury or damage sustained by any recommendations, opinions, or advice given in this article.