If you've been to a fitness class, personal trainer, or use a fitness app (like Fit With Iulia 😉) then you've probably heard the term, "engage your core", or, "activate your core". If you're new to working out then your first instinct is to suck in your tummy. On the contrary, it simply means to tighten or brace your core muscles. Although it sounds simple, it's still a confusing concept... How is it supposed to feel? Why do you need to activate it? And when are you supposed to do it?
Core engagement is important and it's something you should be implementing before your training, especially on lifting days. So, we want to make sure that you're confident with activating your core before and during your workout. Keep on reading to learn everything about your core, plus our favorite simple core activation exercises to do before your workout to get the most out of your training!
Getting to know your core
To truly understand how to engage your core you must understand what your core consists of, you might be surprised to hear that it's more than just abdominal muscles. Although having a strong core can give you that six-pack you've been dying to have, its main purpose is to support your entire body. To have a strong core means to have better, overall strength.
Your core is comprised of the abdominal, but they also involve other muscles like the pelvic floor, back muscles, hip flexors, glutes, and your diaphragm. When it comes to engaging your core, here are the most important muscles to focus on:
Rectus abdominis: This is the most well-known ab muscle because it's the main one. It's a long, flat muscle that starts from your pubic bone and ends at your rib cage. This long muscle is responsible for moving your spine, so this is one you want to make sure is strong.
External obliques: These muscles are located on either side of your rectus abdominis, right underneath the "love handles". These muscles allow you to twist and move your torso, bend sideways, and flex your spine.
Internal obliques: This muscle lies below your external obliques and does the same work as them.
Transverse abdominis: The last important abdominal muscle is this one. It's the deepest layer of muscle that completely wraps around your torso and extends from your ribs to the pelvis. It doesn't help you twist and move around, but it is responsible for stabilizing your spine, keeps organs in place, and supports your abdominal wall.
Latissiumus dorsi: You might know this muscle group by "lats". These muscles run along the sides of your spine, from below your shoulder blades to the pelvis. This group of muscles is responsible for stabilizing your spine and also factor in your ability to twist side to side.
Erector spinae: These muscles run on each side of your spine, but unlike the lats, they extend the entire length of your back. They are responsible for extending and rotating your back, and for side-to-side movements.
Just to be clear, these are the main muscles that contribute to core stabilization. Not included in this list are the hip and glute muscles that are a part of the core, but don't contribute to core stabilization as much as the ones listed above.
What does 'engage your core' even mean?
As you can see, there are several muscles that contribute to your core so engaging it is not as simple as it seems... To engage your core means to turn those muscles on so they are engaged in the work. Think of glute activation, it's common for people to do glute activation exercises in order to turn those muscles on so they put in work when working the lower body, thus helping to make the muscle grow. It's the same for the core, you want those muscles to be turned on and actively working throughout the given exercise.
To understand this concept better, it's best to understand what happens when your core isn't engaged (or weak):
- Losing balance when performing unilateral leg exercises.
Your back arches when performing exercises like the shoulder press, push-ups, and planks.
- Your back naturally hunches over when you sit.
When performing a single-arm shoulder press you tend to lean far to one side.
If you think your core is weak or want to test if you're properly engaging them then perform a shoulder press. Your back should be upright in a neutral-spine position, if arching happens then that’s a possible sign of an unengaged weak core.
Why is core strength important?
Having a strong core is important because it's what supports your entire body! It helps you get out of bed in the morning, helps you bend down to pick stuff up, helps you sit and stand upright, and helps you lift heavier. If your main goal is to build muscle and strength then start with building strength in your core because a strong core is the key to heavy lifting.
If you need any more convincing, here are more benefits of having a strong core:
Helps reduce back pain
- Helps improve posture
- Helps improve balance and stability
- Helps prevent injury
All of these things are important for your everyday life, but also for your training!
How to engage your core
When you hear the term, "pull your belly button in toward your spine", don’t suck in your belly. Instead squeeze all of the muscles in your torso and hold them in that tightened position while still breathing normally. If you still don’t get it, imagine bracing yourself for a sucker-punch right in your stomach. It should feel like the muscles in your abdomen and glutes are tightened, stable, and secure from your pelvis all the way to your rib cage. Allowing the muscles to contract enough will engage the core to resist and stay stable throughout any sort of movement or exercise.
Once you start practicing engaging your core, you'll definitely feel it actively working while doing exercises like squats, deadlifts, and shoulder presses. Aside from the technique mentioned above, there are some core activation exercises you can do before a heavy lifting session to help activate the muscles to make it easier for you to have an 'engaged core' throughout your workout. Here are a few of our favorite:
This core exercise works your transverse abdominis and spinal erectors. This move involves more than just your core, it involves moving opposing limbs in tandem. Doing this allows you to learn how to keep your core stable and back protected while moving. Here's how to do it:
- Lie on your back with your legs stretched out. Your entire spine should be touching the floor.
- Raise your arms straight up toward the ceiling and bend your legs at 90 degrees at the hip and knee, lifting your feet from the ground. It should look like you're in a tabletop position (except facing upwards). Make sure your torso and thighs form a right angle.
This is a core move, so engage your core to ensure that your lower back remains on the mat or floor. An engaged core will also make sure that your spine is steady and in neutral position throughout the exercise.
- Reach your right arm backward, over your head, and toward the floor while simultaneously stretching out the opposite leg so the left heel is moving toward the floor. Stop the movement right before touching the ground.
- Move slowly back to the starting position.
- Perform the same movements on the opposite side, so reaching your left arm back over your head and extending the right leg.
- Do the same number of reps on each side, 10-15 reps depending on your core stability.
Glute bridge with a squeeze on top
Not only is this a glute activation exercise, but it's also great for core activation! This exercise targets the erector spinae and helps stretch the stabilizers in the posterior chain, aka - hip abductors, gluteus maximus, and hamstrings. All while maintaining your rectus abdominis and obliques engaged to maintain stability, thus helping with core strength. Here's how to do it:
- Lie on your back with feet flat on the ground and knees bent.
Tighten your glutes and core muscles by pushing your lower back into the ground before lifting up.
- Lift your hips up off the floor making sure the shoulders are pulled back and not shrugging towards your ears. Your body should be in a straight line from your knees to shoulders.
- Squeeze your core and glutes and maintain that pose for 20-30 seconds.
- Return to your starting position and complete 10-15 reps.
This is a full-body exercise that really challenges your balance, making it perfect for engaging the core. It targets the erector spinae muscle, but also muscles in the glutes and the traps! Here's how to do it:
- Get in a tabletop position, knees hip-width apart and hands on the ground about shoulder-width apart. Make sure your spine is neutral and brace your core.
- To start, lift your right hand and opposite knee a few inches off the floor while balancing on the other hand and knee.
- Once you feel steady, move through the full range of motion. Point your right arm straight in front of you and extend your left leg behind you forming one straight line from hand to foot. Focus on keeping your weight centered and core tight to help you maintain balance.
- Pause for a moment, and then repeat with your left leg and right arm.
- Repeat another 8-12 times.
This is actually a pilates exercise that engages the core muscles while also working the lower body. The muscles working are the rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, obliques, and hips.
- Lie on your back with arms on the floor at your sides with palms facing down.
- Lift your legs into a tabletop position, knees should be bent at 90 degrees and thighs perpendicular to the floor.
Keep your back on the mat (avoid arching) and tighten your core.
- Slowly lower your right foot and gently tap the floor.
- Return the right leg back to the tabletop position and repeat the same move with the left leg.
- Repeat for 10 taps on each side.
When to do it
Now that you're familiar with your core and how to engage it, it's time to learn when to actually do it! You don't need to engage your core for every single exercise, that will tire you out real quick! You only really need to engage your core if your training session requires exercises that require your spine to flex, bend, extend, or rotate. This is most common on leg days, ab workouts, and some upper body workouts like when you're training your back.
Before your workout, start with a few core activation exercises to switch on your muscles. This will help you activate your core when you start lifting weights, that way your back stays upright and shoulders back. You can also do them before cardio that requires a lot of movement like cycling, swimming, running, or HIIT. Engaging your core during cardio will help improve your posture while minimizing the risk of injury. When it comes to training your abs, always do ab exercises like sit-ups, woodchoppers, Russian twists, at the end of your workout.
Like other muscle groups, don't overtrain your core! This can be easy to do when you do strength training because the core muscles are involved in various exercises. So keep your core training (meaning isolated exercises like abs and the above core activation exercises) to 2-3x a week, that way you give those muscles time to recover.
Doing core activation exercises will help you understand how an engaged core should feel. Just remember to put your brain into your movement. When you're performing core activation exercises or exercises that require your core to be active for stability, really focus on how it feels. Doing this will help develop muscle awareness and make it easier for you to turn those muscles "on". Once you master engaging your entire core, it'll become easy for you to activate those muscles when you need to during your training thus helping you work out effectively and develop overall strength! This won’t only help you get stronger and lift heavier, but also help you with everyday life!