What Does It Really Mean to Engage Your Core?
"You have to engage your core." There's an ongoing joke in my house that working your core will fix just about any issue. As a former Pilates instructor, this is my go-to fix-it line. Back pain? Engage your core. Knees hurt going downstairs? Engage your core. Trouble memorizing irregular Spanish verbs? Engage your core. The "check engine" light is strobing on the dashboard of your decades-old car? Engage your core. All right, you got me — those last two examples might not be true, but I stand by the others.
You've likely heard the cue to "engage your core" in workout classes or from trainers (and now, from my household's inside jokes), but the issue is many people don't really know how to engage their core. And it's understandable.
"For many people, engaging your core is a foreign feeling," Robin Long, Pilates instructor and founder of Lindywell Pilates, says. "Unless you regularly participate in exercises that facilitate and strengthen a mind-body connection (such as Pilates or yoga), it can be hard to connect your mind to your muscle and have your body respond in a way that you can feel."
However, it's an important skill for anyone to have. Being able to produce an engaged, stable core helps prevent injury and is essential to doing certain exercises and movements in your everyday life. Ready to become the master of your core? Here's everything you need to know.
What Is Your Core, Anyway?
To learn how to engage your core, it's necessary to know what your core is. Let's dive deeper into the anatomy.
You have four main layers of abdominal muscles, all of which are included in your core: your transverse abdominis, internal obliques, external obliques, and rectus abdominis.
Transverse or transversus abdominis (TA or TVA): The deepest layer of your core, the transverse abdominis wraps around your waist like a corset, connecting the ribcage to the pelvis. Its main job is to create stability in the abdominal cavity, as well as compression (think: when coughing), according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
Internal and external obliques: On top of the TA, you have your internal and external obliques, which crisscross your torso, making a sort of X shape. These muscles help with twisting and bending your torso forward and sideways, per ACE.
Rectus abdominis: The final layer is your rectus abdominis, aka the "six-pack muscle," which helps bend your upper body forward and controls rotation and the tilt of your pelvis, according to ACE.
"Many people think the core equals abs, but the abdominal muscles are only one part of the picture," Long says. The core also includes the muscles of the pelvic floor, lower back, glutes, adductor muscle groups (the inner thighs), and hip flexors.
How to Engage Your Core
"Engaging your core means activating the stabilizing muscles surrounding your spine and pelvis," Long explains. When the four layers of ab muscles are braced together, working in tandem with your pelvic floor and the muscles that line your spine, you have an engaged core.
Since the muscles that line your spine, aka the erectors, are considered postural muscles and are always working a bit, the main thing you need to focus on when engaging your core is turning on your deep abs — your TA. If the TA is working, the other layers of ab muscles will help stabilize the core with it, or they can slide around over the tight TA to create motion in the torso like twisting and bending.
You want to feel your abs tightening and pulling in but still be able to breathe normally and move — and that's not the same as "sucking it in," Long says. "When you suck in, you send pressure up and pressure down. Pressure down pushes on the pelvic floor muscles — which can do more harm than good."
"It can take time to understand how to engage your core, but following visual or tactile cues can be really helpful to get you moving in the right direction and help to establish that mind-to-muscle connection and communication," Long says. To correctly engage your core, try following the steps ahead.
1. Start With Your Breath
Long recommends starting on your mat: lie down on your back, and if it's comfortable, place your feet flat on the floor with your knees bent toward the ceiling.
The TA engages naturally as you exhale. To feel it work, focus on exhaling while gently pulling your abs to your spine. "Imagine drawing the TA in from 360 degrees (or imagine a tightening of the corset around your waist)," Long explains. This action pulls your stomach in slightly and, when you're sitting upright, gives a little lift to your torso. But remember: it should not feel like you're sucking in.
2. Cue Your Pelvic Floor
Because your pelvic floor — the "hammock" of muscles that holds up everything inside your abdomen — is an important part of your core, it should be engaged, too. "As you gently engage or 'wrap' the TA, you also want to imagine lifting the pelvic floor," Long explains. "This is why you often hear the cue 'up and in' during a Pilates class. The best analogy I've heard is to imagine that you're drinking a smoothie through a straw in your vaginal muscles. Kind of weird I know, but it helps!"
3. Try It on All Fours
If you feel like you've mastered tapping into your core while lying down, try flipping onto all fours. In this position, you're working the muscle against gravity, which can help you better "find" the muscle.
In this position, focus on keeping the torso still as you pull your abs to your spine as you exhale. Keep your abs pulled away from the floor, and keep breathing. This is the sensation you want to take into almost all of your exercises. Next, you can practice this sensation in a plank, and then try a Bird Dog, which forces your abs to stabilize against the weight of the arm and leg moving away from the center of your body.
4. Keep the Connection Fresh
Once you've established this brain-core connection, you should be able to better engage your core during other exercises. And while you can do specific core stability exercises to strengthen this connection, your core is working even when you're not doing dedicated ab moves: it's active when you're walking, running, sitting in front of a computer, doing push-ups, and much more.
When teaching Pilates, I liked to remind my clients that 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. You should be bracing your spine in simple moves like bicep curls (an engaged core should keep your ribcage from swaying as you bend and straighten your elbow) and deadlifts.
"Perhaps the biggest mistake I see people making is that they're working their abs but they're not focusing on the rest of the body," Long says. "Alignment matters. The position of your shoulders affects the position of your ribs. The position of your ribs affects the position of your pelvis. The position of your pelvis affects the way you engage your muscles. It's all connected, so maintaining proper alignment will help you to engage your abdominal and pelvic floor muscles in the most effective way."
— Additional reporting by Lauren Mazzo