Take part in any physical fitness class — whether it be focused on cycling, HIIT, or strength training — and the instructor will likely remind you to “activate your core” at least a dozen times. In response, you might suck in your abdomen or hold your breath and continue with your workout.
But that’s not what it means to engage your core nor is doing so that straightforward. Here, receive trainer-approved tips on how to activate your core the proper way, and find tips that’ll help you master the technique during all of your exercises. Plus, learn why core engagement — both during your workouts and in daily life — is so significant in the first place.
What It Means to Activate Your Core
First things first, here’s a quick briefing on your core muscles. The core consists of multiple muscle groups, such as the stomach muscles (including the rectus abdominis, internal and external obliques, and transverse abdominis), erector spinae, pelvic floor, and diaphragm. All of these muscles work together to control and safeguard your spine, assisting in preventing injury when you’re upright, pivoting, squatting, bending, and performing other movements, Laura Miranda, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., a physical therapist in New York City, previously told Shape.
When an instructor nudges you to “activate” your core, they’re essentially telling you to “tighten” and brace your core muscles, which helps create rigidity in your mid-section, says Michelle Razavi, a fitness and yoga instructor at Equinox and co-founder of ELAVI, a protein snack company. “What that does is it stabilizes your pelvis and your spine to reduce lower back injury, to safeguard your internal organs, help with your posture, and all these other essential functions,” she explains. “Ideally, you’re activating your core throughout all different workouts and exercises throughout your day. It’s something that helps safeguard your lower back and ensures you’re moving in a functional way without causing any harm.”
The Significance of Activating Your Core
Helps Prevent Injury During Workouts
Core activation may seem like no big deal. But if you don’t know how to properly activate your core while exercising, you run the risk of injury, particularly in the lower back, says Razavi. Reminder: Your core isn’t just your abdominal muscles.
Your posterior muscles also assist in regulating movement to safeguard your spinal column. By activating your entire center while performing, let’s say, a posterior squat, you’ll evenly distribute the necessary workload to maintain an erect and stable position. “However, once you release that engagement of your center, your posterior muscles bear the entire burden,” which can subsequently escalate the likelihood of sustaining an injury, she clarifies. Since your central muscles also play a pivotal role in maintaining an upright and poised stance, properly activating them can prevent you from losing balance during activities that involve shifting your weight from one side to the other (imagine: running, dancing, ascending stairs), asserts Razavi.
Enhances Functional Strength
Engaging your center can aid in keeping you secure outside of the gym, as well. When you’re heaving your hefty suitcase off the ground and depositing it into an airplane’s overhead compartment, for instance, your core needs to be activated to protect your lower back. And when you’re transporting grocery bags that have varying weights, core activation is necessary to maintain stability and prevent tipping over, according to Razavi. TL;DR: If you desire a healthy, functional life, you must learn how to activate your core, she adds.
Could Enhance Workout Performance
If you fail to fully engage your core during a workout, you may not be able to execute the exercise you’re attempting efficiently. “Perhaps you cannot descend as deeply into the squat or you lose your breath more quickly because your core muscles tire out before the rest,” says Razavi. Additionally, engaging your core helps you uphold proper posture, which ensures you derive the most benefit from your training session. “When you have better posture, oxygen can enter your lungs more efficiently, enabling faster recovery and greater endurance,” she says. “If you’re not effectively or at all engaging your core muscles, it will affect your ability to move faster, better, and safely during almost any activity.”
How to Activate Your Core
So, how do you effectively engage these essential muscles? A few visualizations can assist you in learning how to activate your core. One common cue is to tighten your abdomen as if someone is about to strike you, says Razavi. “I like to say imagine someone is about to tickle you, and people tend to contract in preparation,” which activates the core, she adds.
You can also envision pulling your belly button up and inward toward your spine. “It will feel like tightening a belt,” says Razavi. “You may feel a contraction in your abdominal muscles and a slight tuck in your pelvic and hip muscles, resulting in stability in your core muscles.” While exercising, it’s important to engage your core while exhaling: “It’s difficult to engage your core with a lot of air in your abdomen,” she adds.
Activation Exercises to Practice Core Engagement
Although it may seem simple, learning how to activate your core is not something that happens overnight. “Engaging your core is a mental-muscle connection that requires practice,” explains Razavi. That’s why she suggests performing a few activation exercises for your core before diving into your workouts. By doing so, your core will feel prepared and ready to tackle your training session, and you’ll have a clear understanding of what it feels like for your core to be engaged. “It simply establishes that mental-muscle connection before you begin your squat or pick up a dumbbell, so you set yourself up for success,” she explains.
Table-Top Core Contraction
A. Begin in a table-top position with hands directly beneath shoulders, knees beneath hips.
B. On an exhale, draw the bellybutton up and towards the spine to activate the core.
C. Inhale, then gradually release the core to return to the starting position.
A. Lie on your back with feet flat on the ground and knees bent, aligned with the heels. Place arms at the sides, palms facing down. Tuck the tailbone and tilt the pelvic floor muscles so that the lower back presses into the ground to engage the core muscles.
B. Exhale, then press the feet into the ground to lift the hips, creating a straight line from knees to chest. Inhale and lower the hips back down to the ground to return to the starting position.
A. Lie on your back on the floor in a reverse table-top position, with knees bent at a 90-degree angle over the hips and shins parallel to the floor. Place arms at the sides, palms down. Tuck the tailbone and tilt the pelvic floor muscles so that the lower back presses into the ground to engage the core muscles.
B. While keeping the core engaged, exhale and slowly lower both thighs until the feet touch the floor. Inhale, then slowly raise the thighs back to the starting position.
A. Lie on your back on the floor in a reverse table-top position, with knees bent at a 90-degree angle over the hips and shins parallel to the floor. Lift the arms towards the ceiling, aligned with the shoulders. Tuck the tailbone and tilt the pelvic floor muscles so that the lower back presses into the ground to engage the core muscles.
B. While keeping the core engaged, exhale and slowly lower the right leg and left arm towards the floor until fully extended.
C. Inhale, then slowly raise the leg and arm back to the starting position. Continue, alternating sides.
Bear Plank Hold
A. Start in a table-top position with hands directly beneath shoulders, knees beneath hips, and toes tucked.
B. On an exhale, pull the navel up and towards the spine to engage the core. Press through the hands and lift the knees two to three inches off the floor, keeping the back flat. Hold for a moment, then on an inhale, gradually lower the knees back to the floor to return to the starting position.
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