Take part in any fitness class — whether it be focused on cycling, HIIT, or strength training — and the instructor will likely remind you to “engage your core” at least a dozen times. In response, you might suck in your belly or hold your breath and carry on with your workout.
But that's not what it means to activate your core nor is doing so that simple. Here, score trainer-approved tips on how to engage 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 important in the first place.
What It Means to Engage Your Core
First things first, here’s a quick briefing on your core muscles. The core consists of multiple muscle groups, such as the abdominals (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 protect your spine, helping to prevent injury when you’re standing erect, hinging, 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 “engage” your core, they’re essentially telling you to “contract” and brace your core muscles, which helps create stiffness 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 protect your internal organs, help with your posture, and all these other essential functions,” she explains. “Ideally, you’re engaging your core throughout all different workouts and exercises throughout your day. It’s something that helps protect your lower back and makes sure you’re moving in a functional way without causing any harm.”
The Importance of Engaging Your Core
Helps Prevent Injury During Workouts
Core engagement may seem like NBD. But if you don’t know how to engage your core properly 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 back muscles also help control movement to protect your spine. By engaging your entire core during, say, a back squat, you’ll evenly disperse the workload required to keep you upright and stable. “But once you let go of that core engagement, your back does all the work,” which can then increase your risk of injury, she explains. Since your core muscles also play a key role in keeping you standing erect and balanced, properly engaging them can prevent you from falling during activities in which you’re shifting your weight from one side to the other (think: running, dancing, stair-climbing), adds Razavi.
Improves Functional Strength
Engaging your core can help keep you safe outside of the gym, too. When you're lifting your heavy suitcase off the floor and placing it into a plane's overhead compartment, for example, your core needs to be engaged to keep your lower back safe. And when you're carrying grocery bags that are two different weights, core engagement is required to keep you stable and prevent you from toppling over, says Razavi. TL;DR: You need to know how to engage your core if you want to live a healthy, functional life, she adds.
May Improve Workout Performance
If you're not fully engaging your core during a workout, you might not be able to perform the exercise you're tackling as effectively. "Maybe you can't lower as much into the squat or you lose your breath faster because you're fatiguing other muscle groups before your core muscle groups," says Razavi. Plus, engaging your core helps you maintain proper posture, which ensures you get the most out of your training session. "When you have better posture, oxygen can enter your lungs more efficiently, so you can recover faster and you can go farther," she says. "…"If you're not engaging your core muscles effectively or at all, that impacts your ability to move faster, better, safely during almost any activity."
How to Engage Your Core
So, how do you effectively contract these essential muscles? A few visuals can help you learn how to engage your core. One common cue is to brace as if someone is about to punch your gut, says Razavi. "I like to say imagine someone is about to tickle you, and people kind of clench in preparation," which engages the core, she adds.
You can also imagine pulling your navel up and in toward your spine. "It will feel like this tightening of a belt," says Razavi. "It could feel like this contraction of your ab muscles and a little bit of a tuck in your pelvic muscles and your hip muscles, so you'll feel this stability in your core muscles." While exercising, you'll want to engage your core while exhaling: "It's hard to engage your core when you have a bunch of air in your belly," she adds.
Activation Exercises to Practice Engaging Your Core
Though it seems simple, learning how to engage your core isn’t something that happens overnight. “Engaging your core is a mind-muscle connection that takes practice,” explains Razavi. That’s why she recommends performing a few core activation exercises before heading into your workouts. By doing so, your core will feel primed and ready to tackle your training session, and you’ll know exactly what it feels like for your core to be engaged. “It just gets that mind-muscle connection going before you go into your squat or you pick up a dumbbell, so you’re setting yourself up for success,” she explains.
Table-Top Core Contraction
A. Start in a table-top position with hands directly under shoulders, knees under hips.
B. On an exhale, pull navel up and in toward spine to engage core.
C. Inhale, then slowly release core to return to the starting position.
A. Lie face up with feet flat on the floor and knees bent, in line with heels. Place arms at sides, palms down. Tuck tailbone and tilt pelvic floor muscles so lower back imprints into the floor to engage core muscles.
B. Exhale, then press feet into the floor to lift hips, forming a straight line from knees to chest. Inhale and lower hips down to the floor to return to the starting position.
A. Lie face up on the floor in a reverse table-top position, knees bent at a 90-degree angle over hips and shins parallel to floor. Place arms at sides, palms down. Tuck tailbone and tilt pelvic floor muscles so lower back imprints into the floor to engage core muscles.
B. Keeping core engaged, exhale and slowly lower both thighs until feet tap the floor. Inhale, then slowly raise thighs to return to the starting position.
A. Lie face up on the floor in a reverse table-top position, knees bent at a 90-degree angle over hips and shins parallel to floor. Raise arms toward the ceiling in line with shoulders. Tuck tailbone and tilt pelvic floor muscles so lower back imprints into the floor to engage core muscles.
B. Keeping core engaged, exhale and slowly lower right leg and left arm toward the floor until fully extended.
C. Inhale, then slowly raise leg and arm to return to the starting position. Continue, alternating sides.
Bear Plank Hold
A. Start in a table-top position with hands directly under shoulders, knees under hips, and toes tucked.
B. On an exhale, pull navel up and in toward spine to engage core. Press through hands and lift knees two to three inches off the floor, keeping back flat. Hold for a moment, then on an inhale, slowly lower knees back to the floor to return to the starting position.