Engaging Your Core: What it Actually Means


What’s all the buzz about ‘engaging your core’ anyway?

From the rib cage to the base of your glutes, the ‘core’ spans almost the entire human body, and encompasses a complex series of muscles extending far beyond the abdominal muscles.

The core serves as the body’s central powerhouse.

When activated, the core stabilizes the spine, pelvis, and shoulder girdle, creating a solid base for coordinated movement. But how do you engage it? And what does ‘engage your core’ even mean?

Well, the core system is made up of a total of 29 muscles, which work together to help keep the body stable and strong. Among these muscles, the transverse abdominis lies deep within the spine and sides, while other muscles, like the rectus abdominis, lie closer to the surface.

Engaging the core doesn’t mean flexing all 29 muscles at once, since the specific muscles you activate when you ‘engage your core’ depend on the exercise or activity at hand.

So, for example, if you’re doing crunches, you’ll activate the rectus abdominis, while if you’re doing squats, you’ll activate the transverse abdominis.

For foundational core stability, it’s better to work on the deeper stabilizing muscles. This includes the transverse abdominis, diaphragm, pelvic floor, and the multifidus, a slender muscle that runs alongside your spine.

Effective ‘core engagement’ requires the right engagement and relaxation of these muscles at the right moments.

Activating the right muscles is easiest when the body is aligned properly.

Studies have shown that ‘engaging the core’ can actually improve a persons quality of life by having a positive effect on depression and pain and decreasing back pain. So there are many reasons why ‘engaging the core’ is a worthwhile activity to practice!

How to Engage the Core

Engaging the core is not hard, but it does require practice. To do it correctly involves bracing the abdominal muscles.

One easy way to properly engage is to imagine how you feel when you cough or laugh hard. Another way is to imagine pulling your navel toward your spine.

Tightness and tension in the abdominal area indicate the core muscles are active.

While engaging the core, it’s important to maintain regular breathing, since holding your breath can increase blood pressure.

Core Strength Exercises

Core exercises are unique in that unlike many traditional workouts that focus on specific muscle groups, they emphasizes the importance of training the whole body by ensuring all muscles work harmoniously together.

The authors of a 2017 article in “Sports Health” examined the benefits of core stability exercises for young athletes, and found that they helped improve balance, muscle coordination, agility, and motor control, and reduced the likelihood of injury.

Engaging the core can help you move with more grace and ease, feel taller and more agile, and experience less back and hip pain.Core workouts are even recommended by doctors for overall health, injury prevention, and rehabilitative purposes.

Spinal Stability and Injury Prevention

Engaging the core can also be a preventative exercise to avoid strains and injury.

When activated and maintained, core muscles ensure stability of the spine, not only in maintaining a straight back, but also in aligning and stabilizing the spine even under stress.

Various studies have shown improvements in speed, muscle mass, trunk strength, a more stable core, vertical jump, and flexibility, particularly when kicking

The link between core strength and spinal health is so profound that research has been heavily invested in this area, with various studies finding that exercises specifically designed to strengthen the core were instrumental in reducing chronic low back pain.

Improved Respiratory Function

Did you knw that a strengthened core even ensures deeper, more efficient breaths, fueling muscles for peak performance in all activities?

Our spine, especially the lumbar region (the section of our spine between the rib cage and the pelvis), is closely linked with the muscles we use for breathing. Proper, deep breathing can relax these muscles and realign the spine, alleviating strain and pain. Incorporating breathing exercises to help engage the core into daily routines can be a supplemental approach to managing discomfort.

Studies have revealed that as well as assisting in breathing, the diaphragm also contributes to spinal stability, which draws a clear distinction between respiratory function and core strength.

Four Exercises to Engage the Core

– 4-7-8 Deep Breathing

How to do it:

The 4-7-8 breathing technique is a rhythmic pattern that encourages deeper breathing and relaxation by breathing to the count of four, breathing out to the count of seven, and breathing in deeply to the count of eight (before repeating). Focus on directing the air you breath towards the tailbone and up the ribcage to enhance posture and reduce back strain. By expanding the lungs fully and breathing deeply, you can relieve tension around the spine and improve overall posture.

– Plank

How to do it:

Start in a push-up position, but rest on your forearms instead of your hands. Make sure your elbows are aligned below your shoulders. Keep your body straight and rigid, from your head to your heels. Your feet should be hip-width apart.Engage your core by pulling your belly button into your spine. Maintain this position, ensuring your hips don’t sag or rise too high. Hold for as long as you can maintain good form, working up to 60 seconds or longer.

– Russian Twist

How to do it:

Sit on the floor with your knees bent and feet flat. Lean back slightly, keeping your back straight, to a 45-degree angle from the floor. Hold your hands together in front of you. Engage your core and lift your feet a few inches off the ground. Rotate your torso to the right, bringing your hands beside your body. Return to the center and then rotate to the left. Continue alternating sides, ensuring you move from the waist and not just the arms. Perform 10-15 twists to each side.

– Bicycle Crunches

How to do it:

Lie flat on your back on the floor. Place your hands behind your head, lightly supporting your head with your fingers. Lift both legs off the ground and bend them at the knees. Bring your right elbow toward your left knee while straightening your right leg out. Switch sides, bringing the left elbow toward the right knee. Continue alternating in a pedaling motion, similar to riding a bicycle. Ensure you lift your shoulder blades off the ground during each twist to engage the core. Perform 15-20 repetitions on each side.

Better Posture: Better Performance

A strong, engaged core enhances balance and posture, making daily tasks more efficient while reducing undue stress on the spine. Furthermore, an engaged core ensures that your body moves in harmony at all times, reducing the risk of muscle imbalances that can lead to chronic pain or injuries.

Core stabilization is not only important for athletes and daily activities but also for a long, happy and healthy life.

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