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Do you Know What it Means to Engage Your Core?

Mar 04, 2019

No matter how many times you have been told to engage your core, do you really know what that means?

“You have got to engage your core!”

“Pull your belly into your spine!”

“Brace your abs!”

We hear these phrases so often by now that it probably goes in one ear and out the other.


Do you Know What it Means to Engage Your Core? Where is Your Core?

Do You Know What it Means to Engage Your Core? --diagram of core muscles

The core muscles include:

  • Glute muscle groups
  • Adductor muscle groups
  • Lower back muscles
  • Muscles of the abdomen and hip flexors (including the pelvic floor)
  • The transverse abdominis (commonly referred to as the TA or TVA)
  • Spinal erectors
  • Diaphragm

Your abs and back muscles all work together to stabilize your torso during movement: that’s your core.

The core also helps transfer power from your lower body to your upper body and back again.

Think about how you do a wood chop, a popular exercise, and the way it sends power from your upper body through your torso to load your leg.


The Four Layers of Abdominal Muscles

Do You Know What it Means to Engage Your Core? -- Understanding Abdominal Muscles

We have four layers of abdominal muscles, and the deepest layer, the transversus abdominis (TVA) wraps around the waist like a cummerbund.

Think of it as a muscular corset connecting the ribcage to the pelvis.

The internal and external obliques are on top of the TVA.

They crisscross your torso, kind of like an “X” and these muscles help with twisting.

The final layer is your rectus abdominis, the six-pack muscle, which helps bend your upper body forward.

When these four layers of abs are braced together, working with all the muscles that line your spine, you have an engaged core.

An engaged core means you feel your abs tightening and pulling in but you can still breathe normally and move.

Related: Static Core Exercises | 3 Intense Ab Movements


Do You Know What it Means to Engage Your Core with Breathing Techniques?

Do You Know What it Means to Engage Your Core? -- woman doing a plank with circle around core

The muscles that line your spine, aka the erectors, are considered postural muscles and are always working to some degree.

So when you are engaging your core focus on engaging your deep abs.

The TVA engages naturally when you exhale.

You can feel it working if you focus on exhaling while pulling your abs to your spine,

This movement pulls the “tummy” in and gives a little lift to your torso.

If the TVA is working, the other layers of abs can help stabilize the core.

Or they can slide around over the tight TVA to create motion in the torso for twisting and bending forward.


Find Your Deep Abs to Engage Your Core

Do You Know What it Means to Engage Your Core?-- woman kneeling on all fours

The easiest way to find your TVA is on all fours.

When you are on all fours, you’re working the muscle against gravity.

In this position, focus on keeping the torso still as you pull your abs to your spine while you exhale.

Keep your abs pulled away from the floor and keep breathing.

This is the feeling you want to take into almost all of your exercises.

You can practice this sensation in a plank: either on your forearms or on your hands, with your knees lifted off the floor.

Related: Add Pilates to Your Weightlifting Program


Do you Know What it Means to Engage Your Core? Every Exhale is a Chance to Engage your Abs

Do You Know What it Means to Engage Your Core? -- man with 8 pack abs

Every exhale is an opportunity to engage your abs, so use the power of your breath to keep your core strong as you work out.

Sucking in your belly is not the proper way to engage your core.

When you imagine drawing the TVA in from 360 degrees, the trunk is stabilized and the entire core system becomes stronger.

Even with simple moves, like bicep curls, you should be bracing your spine.

An engaged core will keep your ribcage from swaying as you bend and straighten your elbow to lift that heavy dumbbell.

A strong core is a must when doing deadlifts.


Do you Know What it Means to Engage Your Core? The Importance of Bracing in Weightlifting

Bracing is the best way to engage the entire core and to create stiffness in an area that normally does not have stiffness.

Mike Robertson, coach at Indianapolis Fitness and Sports Training, says the core has two functions.

The first function is redistribution, as in redistribution of tension.

  • Redistribution is similar to the way a suspension bridge works.
  • The cables are not tight to begin with, but they can support the weight of the bridge below through a redistribution of tension, such as a plank.

The second function is redirection, as in the redirection of force.

  • Power that is created in the lower body can only be moved along the kinetic chain through a tight core.


The Core and Olympic Lifting

Do You Know What it Means to Engage Your Core? -- man lifting heavy barbell

In Olympic lifting, the core must use both these functions.

Redistribution of tension needs a tight system to budge the object which is at rest.

This occurs with the initial lift-off of the barbell from the ground.

Once the second pull has started, a redirection of force is needed to finish the pull and begin to move under the bar.

Engaging your core is the only way to create enough tension so that your core does not fold under these heavy loads. 

The alternative to bracing the core is having to use an overly extended posture.

With an overly extended posture, you are relying solely on the tension in the lower back spinal erectors to maintain your position.

The only true way to pull your core into the action is to brace your core.

The only way to effectively engage your core is to breathe your way to it.


Do you Know What it Means to Engage Your Core? Bracing Through Breathing

In powerlifting, where almost every single athlete is wearing a belt, is when bracing the core through breathing is most evident.

You’ve probably seen powerlifters push their bellies out over the top and bottom of the belt.

At first, you might think they look this way because of a poor diet, but it’s not.

It’s really a sign of their mastery of core control.

With hundreds of pounds on their backs or on the floor, this is exactly the kind of posture that’s needed.

When you brace to engage your core you are filling your trunk with pressure.

This is where your diaphragm comes into play.

When doing heavy lifts, you must use a bracing posture. 

Related: What Muscle Groups Do Deadlifts Work? Five Variations That Will Blow Your Mind On What They Target


How to Use a Bracing Posture

Do You Know What it Means to Engage Your Core? -- woman breathing into her core

Tighten your stomach as if you expect to be on the receiving end of a knockout blow, and then breathe into your stomach.

With the diaphragm helping to engage your core you now have a complete brace.

Without wearing a lifting belt, place your hands on your obliques right above the crest of the pelvis.

When you brace properly, you will see your hands move laterally.

Now place one hand on your stomach, and breathe deeply into your stomach.

You will feel your hand move, and your ribs expand laterally.

This is known as “breathing into the brace.”

Do this move before every snatch, clean, jerk, or squat.


Core Strength is Mandatory

Core strength is crucial for every movement that you make.

The ab muscles play a huge role whether you are going forward and backward, left and right, or even during a rotational movement.

Research shows that core strength training, and especially training the deep trunk muscles, can help alleviate lower-back pain.

Not only are back injuries common with a weak core, your shoulders, hips, and knees can also be affected.

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You Need Core Strength Before Building Strength Elsewhere

In general, lack of core strength is what keeps you from being able to complete or continue an exercise.

During push-ups is your lower back arching and your stomach making contact with the ground first?

When doing an overhead press, does your lower back arch and ribs pop forward when you try to get the weight up?

In a deadlift, does your back hurt or do you find yourself either hunched forward or arching your back?

Then it’s very likely you have weak abs and am not engaging your core.


Do you Know What it Means to Engage Your Core? Use Core Strength the Right Way

Do You Know What it Means to Engage Your Core? -- man doing deadlift with arched back

Yes, many people have weak abs but often, they’re not necessarily weak—they just don’t know how to engage the core to “turn them on.”

This could happen because of prolonged sitting, hunching, or even overextending/arching their backs.

People need to increase their awareness of the ab muscles before they can be fully activated.

Once they’re able to engage their core it’s much easier to activate that muscle in all exercises.

In addition to planks, there are many other anti-rotation moves that focus on stabilization and keep your back from going into extension.

Performing squats, farmer’s carries, and push-ups are also great ways to improve your core strength.

Because the core is the main stabilizer it must be actively engaged throughout the exercise.

Weightlifting is a good example of when it’s important to keep the abdominals contracted.

Performing a heavy squat, or lifting a lot of weight off the ground in a deadlift can wreak havoc on your back if your abs are not engaged.

If you’re a runner, keeping your abs contracted during a sprint can help prevent compression in your lower back from all the impact.


Do you Know What it Means to Engage Your Core? Ab Contraction Exercise

Do You Know What it Means to Engage Your Core? -- woman lying on her back

Practice this technique to learn how to contract your abs while exercising. Then, you can incorporate the technique into your workout.

  1. Lie on your back on the floor, preferably on an exercise mat.
  2. Bend your knees and place your feet flat on the floor, hip-distance apart.
  3. Place your arms along your side, palms facing down.
  4. Inhale deeply as you press your lower back into the floor so that your pelvis lifts up slightly.
  5. Exhale slowly as you empty all the air out of your belly, and draw your belly button in toward your spine for the full contraction of your abdominal muscles.
  6. Inhale and fill your belly — not your chest — with air. As you fill your belly, maintain the abdominal contraction.
  7. Suck in as much air as you can while maintaining the contraction.
  8. Repeat the exercise as many times as necessary.

Note: this is an exaggerated way of how you want to breathe during exercise.

You want to breathe forcefully, but not so much that you may become lightheaded after a few reps.

You also want to keep your abs slightly more relaxed while exercising, so that your body can move more naturally.

But don’t relax your abs completely.

So, use this exercise as a way to learn to fully engage and contract your core, then adjust the contraction during exercise as needed.


Do you Know What it Means to Engage Your Core? Ab Contraction While Squatting

Practice incorporating the technique into your workout by contracting your abdominal muscles during squats.

Squats rely heavily on knee movement so wearing a knee sleeve can help decrease the trauma.

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  • Stand straight with your pelvis slightly tucked.
  • Inhale, then exhale, contracting your abdominals.
  • Inhale again as you begin to lower down into a squat, bending at the knees and hips and sending your butt out behind you, as if sitting down into a chair.
  • Retain the abdominal contraction, but with slightly less intensity than you practiced in the floor exercise.
  • At the bottom of your squat, you should be at the bottom of your inhale.
  • Exhale as you start your ascent, pushing through your feet and extending through your knees and hips.
  • Maintain the abdominal contraction.


Do you Know What it Means to Engage Your Core While Exercising?

Do You Know What it Means to Engage Your Core? -- man running on beach

Keeping your abs contracted during abdominal exercises will:

1) protect your lower back from strain, and

2) make the exercise more effective.

While running, biking, or during a Crossfit class, engage your core for better posture and to reduce the risk of injury.

You can easily do this by subtly pulling your abs in, almost as if you’re bracing for a punch.

This will help take the arch out of your lower back, which, especially during high-impact activities like running, can eventually cause back pain.


Final Thoughts: Do You Know What it Means to Engage Your Core?

Engaging your core is so important that many exercise programs call for core stability and joint mobility work before introducing any other exercises.

Building the proper base will not only help you avoid injury but will help you perform better too.

And last, but not least, engaging your core = great posture!

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