If you’ve ever worked out with a personal trainer or in a group fitness class, you’ve likely heard your trainer or instructor say something along the lines of:
- Brace your core!
- Engage your abs!
- Stable midline!
Other cues that trainers use include “pull your belly button toward your spine” and “flex your abs”.
Though there’s clearly a great assortment of ways to say it, all of these phrases mean the same thing: Engage your core. These phrases all refer to the action of tightening your core musculature to stabilize yourself or brace your body for a particular exercise. In this guide, you’ll learn what it really means to engage your core (it’s not just “sucking in”), how to do it, when to do it, and why it’s important.
What Does It Mean to Engage Your Core?
People learn from mistakes—in that sense, it might be easier to learn how to engage your core by understanding what not to do. Below are some common examples of failing to engage the core.
- Your back arches while you perform shoulder presses or push-ups
- Your back slumps while sitting down
- Your lower back raises from the ground when trying to “hollow” your body
- You lean far to one side when performing a single-arm shoulder press
- You lose balance when performing single-leg exercises
All of the above scenarios exemplify a weak core in different ways. The first example—back arching when performing shoulder presses—is the easiest to dissect. When you perform a shoulder press, you should be able to extend your arms fully overhead while keeping your back in a neutral position. If you can’t, your core muscles are weak, you haven’t learned how to engage and brace them, or perhaps you have a different mobility issue (discuss this with a doctor or physical therapist).
How to Engage Your Core
Engaging your core means bracing and tightening all of the muscles in your core —your four abdominal muscles, lats, paraspinal muscles, hip flexors, and glutes—to keep your spine safe and stable. Picture everything from your rib cage to your pelvis: It should all feel like a single, strong cylinder.
It’s More Than Just “Sucking in” Your Stomach
It’s common to think that “engage your core” means “suck in your stomach.” But that’s actually pretty far from the truth; in fact, it’s quite the opposite.
To engage your core, imagine that you are bracing yourself for a sucker-punch right to the stomach. You’re not going to suck in your stomach. You’re going to take a deep breath and tighten all of your abdominal muscles. It may be helpful to picture “zipping up” your abs—bringing your navel up and toward your spine.
You should be able to continue to breathe when you engage your core: First, fill your belly, and then inhale and exhale, only allowing your rib cage to move. Your belly should remain tight and full after the initial breath. After that point, you should be able to see your ribs move in and out when you breathe.
It Starts With Your Breath
Breathing is perhaps the most important part of engaging your core because you must know how to continue breathing like normal while keeping your core tight. Every time you breathe, you have another chance to engage your core and create that strong cylinder of muscles from your ribs to your hips.
Consider professional powerlifters and Olympic weightlifters. When these athletes wear weightlifting belts to help with their lifts, their stomachs often bulge over the top of the belt. This is not because they’re bloated or overweight—they are using their breath to push against the belt, which offers an additional layer of support for the spine.
Between engaging their core muscles and the responding pressure of the belt against the core, powerlifters and Olympic lifters keep their spines safe while lifting extremely heavy loads.
Why Should You Engage Your Core?
For starters, engaging your core decreases your chance of sustaining an injury while exercising. It creates a stable ring of musculature around your spine that keeps your vertebrae from flexing or extending too far, as well as from bending too far to one side or the other.
When Should You Engage Your Core?
Engaging your core is most important when there is potential for your spine to overly flex, extend, bend, or rotate.
Practice Engaging Your Core
To get familiar with core engagement, start out with this bracing exercise.
- Lie face-up on the floor with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground. Extend your arms so they lie flat beside your body, with your palms on the ground.
- Press your lower back into the ground so that your tailbone tips up slightly.
- Inhale deeply, filling your belly. Once your belly is full of air, clench your abdominal muscles (while keeping your lower back pressed into the floor).
- Use your ab muscles to pull your belly button up and inward against your breath.
- Continue to breathe, filling your chest with air. Your stomach should remain full the entire time.
- Take three to five breaths, relax, and start the exercise over.