We hear this repeated constantly. Whether you’re squatting with a barbell, using just your bodyweight for push ups, or even something as simple as jumping rope, keeping the core engaged is an essential skill for all movements, in and out of the gym. But why do you want to have your core engaged, and do you really know what it means to brace your core and what it feels like when it is done properly?
Definitions and opinions vary slightly in what makes up our core, but for this discussion we’ll define the core as made up of the following muscle groups:
· Rectus abdominus
· Internal and external obliques
· Transverse abdominus
· Spinal erectors
· Deep hip flexors
· Pelvic floor
Often, when we think of our core, we think of only our abdominal muscles, that six-pack that everyone wants. But as seen in the above cutaway graphic, the core is much more than a few bumps hidden under our belly fat. The core is actually multiple layers that surround the spine, tying the pelvis to the rib cage and crisscrossing our midsection, that when engaged and stabilized, creates a sturdy foundation for all other body movements to occur more efficiently and safely, while being able to generate more power and force.
The core is basically a cylinder that surrounds our bones and tissues. When you tense the core muscles and fill the space with air, it creates a natural lifting belt that holds everything together, keeps you in proper form, and helps prevent you from injuring yourself. Think of it as tightening a blood pressure cuff or corset around your midsection.
But how do actually engage your core? It’s not as easy as just sucking your abs in. I’ve found several cues and methods that help teach you to activate what proper engagement feels like. They are all accomplishing the same stabilization; they just use different terms and descriptions to get you there. Try them out and see what works best for you.
The Sucker Punch
For this method, imagine your opponent telegraphed their punch to your gut. There’s no time to block it; it’s going to hit you hard. Tense up those abdominals as if you are about to be hit, and breathe into your stomach.
Think of your hipbones as the two ends of an accordion. Try to pull the ends together. As you do this, you’re going to feel some sensation in your glutes. This is a good opportunity to squeeze your glutes and tighten that pelvic floor (squeeze like you are pinching off a stream of urine).
Get a balloon and a short straw. Lie on your back with your feet up and flat against a wall, knees at 90 degrees. Put the straw into the balloon neck and exhale for as long and hard as you can, trying to keep exhaling for 7-12 seconds. Once you’ve pushed out every bit of air in your lungs, hold the balloon tight with your fingers so it doesn’t deflate. Inhale through the nose and into the diaphragm/belly (not the chest) and exhale again into the partially inflated balloon. Repeat the exhale and inhale cycle again.
This drill really lets you connect with the feeling of a stabilized core. The diameter of the straw makes sure the exhalation is long and allows for a really deep abdominal contraction. The resistance of the balloon requires a powerful breath. Once you get good at this, you should be able to fill the balloon with one breath, and that means you’ll be able to generate fast core stabilization when you’re performing a series of lifts.
Here is another video with some weighted exercises to help you feel the core muscles activating.
This video might be geared towards the moms out there, but it gives a good explanation of what to do and what not to do when training to develop the right feeling of proper core stabilization.
The invention of the chair holds much of the blame for our weak cores. If you sit for long periods at work, you likely have poor posture and core stabilization is going to be a challenge for you. Fortunately, many of these exercises can be done while firmly seated. So try out the above cues and watch the videos or search for others that work for you and practice engaging your core with every lift and exercise. You’re bound to see improvements in your lifts and reduction in pain and injuries as a result.