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The Right Way to Engage Your Core

Did you know that having a strong core by itself is not enough? Get-Fit Guy, Dr. Jonathan Su, shows you how to engage your core so you can protect your back during exercise and more strenuous activities in daily life.

By
Dr. Jonathan Su, DPT, CSCS, TSAC-F, C-IAYT
5-minute read
Episode #562
The Quick And Dirty

A strong core is important for maintaining good posture, preventing back pain, improving your balance, and more. But often, we don't activate or engage our core when we need to. Using abdonominal bracing during exercise can help you reduce pain, prevent injuries, and improve performance.

You’ve probably heard about the importance of having good core muscle strength. A strong core can improve posture, prevent back pain, and help you feel more capable and confident in your body. 

But did you know that having a strong core by itself is not enough? In fact, what’s equally important is knowing how to use your core the right way so you can protect your back during exercise and more strenuous activities in daily life.

You see, having a strong core without knowing how to skillfully engage it or activate it is like owning a fast car without knowing how to take corners with it. You’re great on the straightways but all that horsepower is no good when you have to go through twists and turns.

In the same way, you can work hard to develop a strong core, but it may not do you much good if you’re not skillfully using it while bending, lifting, or twisting your body during exercise and more strenuous activities in daily life. 

Having worked with thousands of clients of all ages, weight, and fitness levels over the years, I’ve found that knowing how to engage or activate the core is the key puzzle piece that’s missing for most people. 

Showing my clients how to skillfully use their core in addition to exercises to strengthen their core has been such a game-changer, that I’ve decided to share this knowledge in my newly launched book 6-Minute Core Strength: Simple Core Exercises to Improve Posture, Build Balance, and Relieve Back Pain. Learn more about 6-Minute Core Strength by going to sixminutefitness.com

What does it mean to “engage” or “activate” your core?

But first, let’s talk about what the core is and what it does, just so we’re all on the same page. Most people think of the core as simply the rectus abdominis muscles, otherwise known as the “six-pack” muscles on the front of the abdomen. 

But your core is much more than that. The core is the center of your body, and it’s made up of layers of muscles that surround the front, the sides, and the back of your torso.

The core is essential for just about every movement we do and activity we perform. This is true for people of all ages and fitness levels in daily life and sports activities. 

When you stiffen or engage the core muscles, your torso becomes a rigid yet flexible cylinder, like a natural back brace or weightlifting belt, that supports your body and offloads harmful compressive forces from your spine.

So it’s no surprise that a strong core is important for helping you maintain good posture, prevent back pain, improve balance, prevent injuries, and boost athletic performance. What is surprising to most people is that having a strong core is not enough. 

Being able to stiffen, fire, engage, or activate your core muscles on command during exercise or during strenuous activities like bending, lifting, or twisting in daily life is just as important as having a strong core. 

This is something that should happen automatically, but, for various reasons, it doesn’t happen as it should for a lot of us. One of the most common reasons I see with my clients is a simple forgetting of how our bodies were meant to move as a result of life in the modern world. 

Learning how to engage our core gets less attention than learning how to strengthen our core, probably because firing the core muscles of your abdomen, lower back, and pelvis during exercise or movement is not something that can be observed by anyone. 

So although everyone can see whether you’re bending, lifting, and twisting with the proper body mechanics, no one can actually see if you’re properly engaging your core. I definitely think that the old saying “out of sight, out of mind” plays a role here. But also, being able to engage your core is something that is a subtle skill that takes practice and patience. 

6 steps to using your core the right way

Here are 6 steps from my new book 6-Minute Core Strength that’ll help you get started. These steps describe a technique called abdominal bracing that can be used during exercise and more strenuous activities in daily life to reduce pain, prevent injuries, and improve performance.

Try practicing these steps for a few minutes two or three times a day. Approach each step slowly and intentionally, as if you were an explorer discovering something new. This will ensure that you’ll bring the conscious awareness needed for your brain to switch into learning mode.

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and the soles of your feet on the floor slightly apart.
  2. Place the fingers of your left and right hand on either side of your belly button, about one inch away from the center. Your fingers will help you monitor the stiffness of your abdominal muscles.
  3. Fire your pelvic floor muscles by pretending that you have to urinate and then stopping the flow of urine. Notice the pelvic floor muscles at the bottom of your pelvis tighten and lift when you do this.
  4. While keeping your pelvic floor muscles firing, fire your abdominal muscles as if you’re bracing for a punch and notice your abdominal muscles tighten under your fingers.
  5. While keeping your pelvic floor and abdominal muscles firing, breathe all the way down to the belly button through your nose. Use your fingers to ensure that your abdominal muscles remain tight as you inhale and exhale five times at a normal pace.
  6. Stop what you’re doing, and completely relax for 30 seconds to allow your brain a chance to integrate this work. Repeat these steps three to five times.

After you’ve practiced these steps for a few days, try to fire your pelvic floor and abdominal muscles during exercise and more strenuous daily activities. Notice how you feel when you do this while standing up from sitting, bending over to pick up something, or lifting something heavy. 

If you want to learn more about how to strengthen and engage your core, check out my new book 6-Minute Core Strength by going to sixminutefitness.com.

5-day core bracing challenge

Let’s put this knowledge to use with a 5-day core bracing challenge! Over the next five days, your challenge is to practice the 6 steps at least once daily and apply what you learned to exercise and more strenuous movements in daily life. Give it a try and let me know how you feel by emailing me at getfitguy@quickanddirtytips.com or leaving me a voicemail at 510-353-3104. 

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Dr. Jonathan Su, DPT, CSCS, TSAC-F, C-IAYT

Dr. Jonathan Su is the host of the Get-Fit Guy podcast. He is a physical therapist and fitness expert whose mission is to make fitness accessible for everyone. Dr. Su is author of the bestsellers Six-Minute Fitness at 60+ and Six-Minute Core Strength.

Got a question for Dr. Su? You can email him at getfitguy@quickanddirtytips.com or leave him a message at the Get-Fit Guy voicemail line at (510) 353-3104.