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How to Engage Your Core: Ultimate Guide (2019)

If you’ve been to any kind of fitness class or session with a personal trainer, we can almost guarantee that you’ve been told to ‘engage your core’ at some point during a workout. But do you actually know how to engage your core?

Engaging the core is quite possibly the most misunderstood and incorrectly executed of muscle actions. Most people think that you can engage your core by sucking in the stomach or tensing a six-pack, but that isn’t it.

That doesn’t mean that it is necessarily complicated or even remotely difficult to engage your core, once you know what you’re doing of course! We’re going to take you through everything you need to know, including:

  • What muscles is the core made up of?
  • How to engage your core
  • Why you need to know how to engage your core
  • Exercises which will strengthen and engage your core 

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What muscles is the core made up of?

In order to understand how to engage your core muscles, it is helpful to know which muscles the core is made up of and what they do.

When most people think of their core, they immediately think of the rectus abdominis or ‘six-pack’.  But there is more to both the abdominal muscles and a strong core than a chiselled six-pack. The core refers to all of the muscles which wrap around the torso and support both the pelvis and the spine, such as:

  • Glute muscles
  • Adductor muscles
  • Lower back muscles
  • Abdominal muscles and hip flexors (including the pelvic floor)
  • Spinal erectors
  • Diaphragm 

graphic 1 highlighting all muscles used to engage your core

Within this group of muscles, the abdominal muscles (including the rectus abdominis) are particularly important in understanding how to engage your core. The abdomen is made up of 4 sections of muscle: the transverse abdominis (TVA), the internal and external obliques and the rectus abdominis. 

The TVA is the deepest section. It wraps around the waist, and acts as a stabiliser for the lower back and the core muscles, connecting the ribcage to the pelvis. On top of the TVA are the internal and external obliques. The internal and external obliques are shaped in a criss-cross across the torso and help with twisting movements. The rectus abdominis, otherwise known as the six-pack, is the anterior section of abdominal muscles which helps the upper body to bend forward.

 

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So, what does it mean to engage your core?

Your core is engaged when all 4 sections of abdominal muscle are braced together and working with the muscles that are connected to your spine to stabilise the torso. When you know how to engage your core correctly, you will be able to stiffen your torso to support your spine whilst it bends and twists.

How to engage your core

The simplest way to engage your core is to brace yourself as if you’re expecting a strong punch to the torso, and then breathe into your stomach. 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.

Sucking in your stomach and holding your breath are the most common mistakes people make when told to engage their core. Truthfully, this is pretty much the exact opposite of how to engage your corecorrectly.

Rather than sucking your stomach in, you need to focus on pulling your navel up and in towards your spine. When you do this, your abs should feel tightened but you should still be able to move and breath as normal.

graphic 3 how to engage your core pulling your navel up and in

A good position for engaging your core is on all fours. In this position, pull your abs up and in towards your spine and keep your torso still whilst you exhale.

Focusing on your breathing is a really important part of how to engage your core correctly. You can’t engage your core whilst holding your breath, so it’s important to keep breathing normally whilst holding your abs. The TVA engages naturally as you exhale, so you can use your breath to engage your core every time you exhale. If you pull your navel up and in during the exhale, the movement should naturally pull your stomach in and lift your torso. 

Whilst 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 you need to know how to engage your core

Now you know how to engage your core muscles, you might be wondering why you should do this. 

Your core is the basis of pretty much all of your movement, so a strong core benefits your athletic ability, flexibility, and overall strength. 

When your PT or fitness instructor is shouting for you to “engage your core”, it’s because they want you to get the most out of your workout. By engaging your core during an abdominal workout, like sit-ups or the plank, you ensure that you’re working the muscle you’re supposed to be – the abs. In this sense, engaging your core makes your workout more effective which ultimately leads to quicker and better results. 

graphic 4 how to engage your core during a sit up

Having a strong core will benefit your progress when training other muscles too. An engaged core makes it easier to activate different muscles during exercise.

As well as increasing performance, another benefit of knowing how to engage your core correctly is that it helps to reduce the risk of injury.

When the core muscles work together, they support the spine which keeps the back safe from strain. For example, if you don’t know how to engage your core correctly when weight training and you become tired, your back will naturally start to arch. Engaging your core correctly whilst lifting will stop your back from arching which will prevent the back from becoming strained and potentially injured.

Engaging your core also allows your torso to transfer power from the lower to the upper body and back again during exercise. For example, engaging your core adds power to a cross punch in boxing as the move starts at the feet and moves through the pelvis to the upper body. 

A strong core is also good for your posture. When all of the core muscles are braced together, they keep your posture tall. This is another way in which knowing how to engage your core can help you to prevent an exercise-related injury. For example, if you understand how to engage your core while running, you can stop your back from arching which often causes back pain if persistent during such high-impact exercise. 

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.

Exercises which will strengthen and engage your core

Now that you know how to engage your core, and you’ve read all of the benefits of a strong core, here are a few exercises you can do to strengthen and engage your core muscles.

Pilates

graphic 5 how to engage your core doing pilates 

When you think of core strengthening exercises, you probably think of Pilates straight away. That’s because the aim of Pilates is to strengthen the core for the benefit of both physical and psychological wellbeing. 

Pilates is an excellent exercise for strengthening and toning muscles as well as improving your posture and increasing flexibility. If you want to give some Pilates moves a try, check out these core strengthening exercises for beginners.   

Hip Bridge

graphic 6 woman doing a hip bridge exercise to engage your core

The Hip bridge isn’t just a good workout for your glutes and your hamstrings, now you know how to engage your core correctly, the hip bridge will also strengthen your core muscles. When you engage your core during a hip bridge exercise, the move targets the muscles in your lower back, hips and abdomen as well.

Step-by-step

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat. Your arms should be down the side of your body with your palms facing the floor.
  2. Engage your core and lift your hips up towards the ceiling to create a bridge whilst squeezing your glutes. Your shoulders should be on the mat with your chest and hips raised.
  3. Hold the bridge for 3 seconds and then lower your body back to the mat.
  4. Repeat 

Farmer’s Walk

graphic 7 how to engage your core doing farmers walk

The Farmer’s Walk is similar to a deadlift, but once you pick the weights up, you walk with them. Despite being one of the simplest workouts, the Farmer’s walk is great for improving your core stability. 

Step-by-step

  1. Stand in the middle of a heavy Farmer’s carry bar (dumbbells and kettlebells work too!) with your feet hip-width apart.
  2. Whilst keeping your back straight and bending your knees, pick up the weight.
  3. As you stand upright, engage your core and pull your shoulders back so that you have a tall posture.
  4. Walk forward 10 paces with your arms down your side holding the weight. Try to make sure the weight moves as little as possible.
  5. Continue to pace for 45 to 60 seconds.

If you want to know more about this exercise, click here for our article on the benefits of the Farmer's Walk.

Mountain Climbers

graphic 8 how to engage your core doing mountain climber exercise 

Mountain climbers are a great exercise for your overall fitness. They’re one of the best ways to raise your heart rate and burn fat whilst exercising multiple muscle groups at the same time. In particular, mountain climbers target all of your core muscles, making this the perfect addition to your workout to strengthen your core.

Step-by-step

  1. Start in a push-up position with your arms straight and shoulder-width apart. Your body should form a straight line from your shoulders to your ankles
  2. Engage your core and bring one of your knees towards your chest, and then extend it back out again.
  3. Repeat this action with the opposite knee, making sure you engage your core throughout.
  4. Continue to alternate knees and repeat the movement as quickly as possible in 30-second intervals.

The Plank

graphic 9 man showing how to engage your core doing a plank

There are numerous benefits to adding the plank into your workout, but if you don’t engage your core correctly, you won’t see any results. Luckily, you know how to engage your core! All you have to do now is follow the steps below to see why the plank is regarded as one of the most effective core workouts.

Step-by-step

  1. Position yourself in a push-up position but resting on your forearms. Face your head down and make sure that your upper arms are directly beneath your shoulders.
  2. Hold this position, ensuring that you engage your core and keep your body in a straight line from your shoulders to your ankles.
  3. Squeeze your glutes and your quads to activate these muscles and help you to keep your form.
  4. Try to hold this position for a total of 60 seconds. 

Once you master The Plank, check out Greatist's article on plank exercise variations.

Squat

graphic 10 engage your core during squats

Squatting is a great exercise for building and toning muscle, losing excess weight and strengthening your core. As with all of the exercises in this list, squats are only effective if you get your form right. Knowing how to engage your core during squats will help you to keep your form, making the exercise more effective and helping you to reach your goals!

Step-by-step

  1. Stand upright with your feet shoulder-width apart and engage your core.
  2. Bend your knees and push your glutes out.
  3. When you’re in the squat position, make sure your knees are in line with your toes.
  4. Hold the position for 3 seconds and then rise back up whilst squeezing your glutes.
  5. Repeat.

Before you go!

Hopefully, now you've got a good idea of how to engage your core correctly! 

Do you want to be the one pushing people to get the most of their workout by training them to strengthen and engage their core? 

If so, check out our Personal Training Diploma or download our free prospectus here

 

Enquire to Become a Personal Trainer

Kick-start your exciting new career in fitness and become a Personal Trainer with OriGym!

Written by Abbie Watkins

Qualified Personal Trainer & Fitness Blogger

Abbie is a work-hard, play-hard qualified personal trainer and blogger. She loves a scenic run and a good upbeat exercise class. You can usually find her on the front row of a spin class on a Saturday morning.