Should you focus more on your glutes? When an instructor suggests that you “activate your core,” it implies that you should tighten and tense up your abdominal muscles as well as contract your glutes. Tighten your abs? Hold in your gut?
When you work on strengthening your core, you are engaging much more than just your abdominal muscles. It can be challenging to train oneself to interact with their core, particularly if no prior effort has been made.
Here, we explain how to use your abdominal muscles during exercise.
What Does It Mean to Engage Your Core?
Your body’s core is made up of some of the most intricate muscles in existence, including the rectus abdominis (the superficial six-pack muscles), transverse abdominis (the deep muscles that act to cinch your waist), obliques (the muscles in the sides of your abdomen), the pelvic floor, and the multifid (deep back muscles).
When you are trying to engage your core, you are actively activating the muscles around your midriff that help support your back and hips, explains Jen Fraboni, a physical therapist and the head of Jen. Health, an exercise routine, and flexibility program.
Developing a strong core does not just involve learning to tense your abdominal muscles when you are working out. A technique is known as core bracing uses inhaled air to build up internal abdominal pressure, which serves to stiffen the spine and offer protection to the back. Additionally, the increased pressure can help to tighten the pelvic floor muscles and keep the pelvis stable.
Core bracing is beneficial in promoting the stability of the spine, therefore minimizing any excess strain on it. Fraboni explains to LIVESTRONG.com that it is alright to arch the spine, but an extra load should be supported in order to ensure the body feels secure.
What Are Your Core Muscles?
Several muscle groups make up your core muscles.
The rectus abdominis, otherwise known as the six-pack muscle, connects from the bottom of your ribs all the way to the front of the hipbone. The primary action it executes is bending your spine, for example when you get out of bed or do a crunch.
This muscle is situated highest on top of the other core muscles and, for that reason, is not as effective for keeping the spine steady.
Internal and external obliques
The internal and external obliques are connected to the sides of the torso from the rib cage to the hips. They offer balance and support to the torso from the front and sides.
The main motions include twisting the torso, like when swinging a baseball bat, as well as bending sideways. When they work bilaterally, they also flex the spine.
The transversus abdominis originates from a variety of sources, such as the bony crests on the lower back, the top of the pelvis, and the bottom six ribs. The fibres of the body wrap horizontally to the midline on the linea alba. The deepest abdominal muscle helps to steady the spine.
When the transversus abdominis muscle engages, it works together with the multifidus muscle to give strong, segment-based support to the lower back area.
Those who suffer from long-term low back agony can gain from increasing the fortitude of their muscles.
The pelvic floor muscles lie at the base of the pelvis and serve as a sort of trampoline or support. When engaged, they lift upward toward the stomach.
These particular muscles are not just responsible for controlling the urination and excretion process, but they also go a step further and provide stability for the spinal region and the pelvic area.
The diaphragm connects to the bottom of your lower ribs.
The diaphragm is considered the main muscle controlling respiration, however, fresh studies suggest it is also critical for facilitating cardiac operation, returning lymphatic fluid, managing emotional states, having a meal, throwing up, keeping the lumbar spine stable, and controlling pain threshold.
The mega multitude of muscles that support your spine consists of erector spinae muscles, quadratus lumborum, and multifidus. Generally, the spine is secured to the pelvis and each vertebra to its adjacent vertebrae.
The back muscles’ major tasks are extending the spine, holding the body upright and enhancing the spine when you are leaning over and carrying weight, such as when executing squats or biceps curls.
The iliacus and psoas major are two muscles that are responsible for hip flexion, which unite to form a single muscle called the iliopsoas. They begin at the thoracic and lumbar vertebrae (psoas muscle) and the pelvic iliac crest (ilacus) and attach to the femur, also known as the thigh bone.
The iliopsoas muscle causes the hip joint to bend or move the legs towards the body, for instance when doing high-knee exercise. Since it is attached to the spine, this muscle is thought of as a stabilizer of the inner core.
What Does The Core Do?
The middle part of your body performs many duties, such as supporting, maintaining equilibrium, inspiring and exhaling, and governing elimination and micturition.
We frequently perceive the muscular structure of the core region as a significant stabilizer, and this is accurate! Moreover, these muscles fuel your spine’s mobility through movements such as flexing, stretching, side bending, and winding.
When engaging in movements like lifting items above your head, picking something off the ground, or pushing/pulling something along, your core muscles tense up to guarantee that your torso remains motionless and your spine is secure.
These muscles play a pivotal role in weightlifting and activities such as judo, running, and soccer. Keeping your spine stable reduces the risk of injury.
The muscles in your middle section help to keep your equilibrium when both at rest and when it is tested in a dynamic way.
For instance, when you are jostled, your brain and middle section can pick up on the unexpected pressure and sudden disturbance of equilibrium. Your core muscles respond to assist in maintaining the balance of your body.
Your core muscles are essential for maintaining balance during Olympic weightlifting, as your torso must remain steady while the weight shifts from side to side.
Breathing and trunk stability
The diaphragm is a large muscle that takes charge of one’s respiration. It has a “U” shape that is the other way around and it runs along the bottom of your rib cage.
It compresses, making room for your lungs to enlarge when inhaling. Rather, when your diaphragm relaxes, it shrinks the size of your lung chamber, pushing air out of them in a way much like a bagpipe.
Furthermore, your diaphragm will tense up in order to hold your breath when carrying out strenuous activities such as lifting something weighty. This action provides protection to your core to avoid harm and remain stable.
Bowel and bladder control
The muscles in your pelvis give you control over your bladder and bowels, granting you the ability to go to the restroom when necessary or to retain the contents if you can’t reach a facility.
If these muscles are underdeveloped, an affliction known as incontinence happens. In numerous instances, muscle tone can be reinforced to reduce the risk of or manage this affliction.
Furthermore, the pelvic floor and diaphragm muscles collaborate with the core muscles to promote spinal solidity by boosting pressure on the spinal column.
How to Engage Your Core
The type of contraction that your core muscles perform during exercising is dependent on the difficulty of the action or the heaviness of what you’re lifting, Fraboni explains.
For instance, when doing a back squat with weights, you will need to contract your core more than if you were to do something like yoga in which you would not as urgently require a bracing of the core.
She mentions that yoga is an efficient way to increase movement in the spine because relatively little support is needed.
It does not matter what exercise you are doing, be it deadlifts or planks, use your breath as a guide to contract and lengthen your muscles while bracing your core.
In order to establish a pattern of contracting your core, Fraboni proposes starting by lying on your back while practicing. Upon inhaling, widen your ribcage on both sides beneath your chest. On your breath out, envisage your pelvic floor being lifted as if it were an ascending elevator. You should feel a mild-to-moderate contraction in your core.
Instead of having a constricted feeling, you’re elevating and inward. You’re not focusing on reaching the highest level of contraction you can. You’re thinking about a mild hold. You should be able to recognize the shift from relaxed to when your muscles are engaged to some degree and maintain that level while performing a lift, squat, or push-up,” she advises.
Following your original brace, make sure to keep the slight-to-moderate pressure consistent during your next inhalation and contract further during your exhalation. Your breath should be shallow and concentrated in your lower ribs, according to Fraboni.
When you breathe in, concentrate on expanding your ribs instead of your stomach. Fraboni suggests that the goal should be to breathe into your lower ribcage since your diaphragm is located there beneath your ribs.
Why You Should Engage Your Core
By employing the use of bracing, it is possible to increase the efficiency and efficacy of core-focused exercises as it activates the muscles which lie around the midsection. It also prevents any harm by making the spine stiffer and steadying the pelvis.
Fraboni suggests strengthening your core muscles so that they are able to effectively control intrabdominal pressure. This will help protect your pelvic floor, linea alba, and lower back from the increased pressure that can be caused by physical activity.
Core support is essential for warding off pelvic floor issues, diastasis recti, and lower back pain.
Fraboni states that engaging your core can enable your hips and torso to move in a way that is beneficial for certain activities, for example running, walking, lifting, or transitioning from sitting to a standing position. Staying firm and steady in your trunk and pelvis is what allows your arms, hips, and legs to move around. This is achieved by activating your core muscles.
Engaging our core muscles from the pelvic floor to the abdominals and the back helps keep our spine and pelvis stable during movement and produces power from the glutes as our source of strength. According to Fraboni, this is very important.
Your breath and bracing can aid in rotational motions, making it possible for the energy to transition from your feet, pelvis, spine, and arms crisply, as Fraboni suggests.
Our abdominals possess a rotatory characteristic, and in combination with breathing, it can assist us in using a complete core brace from the pelvic region to the torso. Maintaining your breathing while exercising is an important component of activating your core, according to the expert.
Moreover, excellent midline control can help prevent excessive sway which may result in accidents, according to Fraboni.
Exercises For Core Stability
Presented below are some primary stomach condition activities that can help you involve your center.
The abdominal draw
- Lie on your back with your knees bent. (You can also do this while sitting up straight.) Inhale.
- Exhale to pull your stomach in, imagining bringing your belly button to your spine. You should still be able to breathe but may feel the muscles around your abdomen and sides tighten. Your back shouldn’t move — make sure it isn’t arched or pushed into the floor.
- Hold for 5–10 seconds. Relax. Repeat.
- Start in a pushup position on your hands and toes. If this is too difficult, you can lower to your knees.
- Draw your abdomen toward your spine and keep your buttocks in line with your body. You should feel all the muscles in your abdomen working.
- Hold this position for 20–60 seconds.
If you have an aching back, it is recommended that you avoid this exercise or modify it by trying a wall plank or a plank on your knees instead.
The side plank
- Lie on your side with your elbow on the floor and one foot on top of the other. Your upper body will be propped up. Reach your top arm to the sky or keep your hand on the floor for added balance.
- Lift your hips into the air and straighten your legs so that you’re supporting yourself on your forearm and the side of your foot. If this is too challenging, keep your knees on the floor and make a straight line from knee to head.
- Maintain good alignment of your feet, hips, and elbow. Also, keep your shoulder over your elbow. You should feel the obliques on your bottom side working.
- Hold this position for 20–60 seconds.
The bird dog
- Start on your hands and knees, as if you’re a table. Maintain a neutral spine.
- Reach one arm out in front of you so it’s even with your head and torso.
- Extend the opposite leg behind you, in line with your torso and arm. Make sure to keep your hips facing down toward the floor, rather than turned out toward the side. You should feel the muscles in your abdomen and back working.
- Hold for 5 seconds, then repeat with the opposite arm and leg.
The dead bug
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat.
- Tighten your abdominals and keep your back flat as you lift your knees so your hips and knees are bent at a 90-degree angle.
- Slowly tap one toe on the floor and return.
- To increase the difficulty level, extend your arms straight up over your shoulders. As you lower one foot down to the floor, reach the opposite arm back overhead, keeping your lower back on the floor and your ribs pulled in.
- Extend your leg only as far as you can while keeping your back flat.
- Return and switch sides.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet hip-distance apart.
- Keep your trunk and pelvis together as you squeeze your buttocks and lift them off the floor.
- Hold for a count of five.
- Relax and return your trunk to the floor. Repeat.
The Bottom Line
Developing a firm core will enhance steadiness, reduce the odds of being hurt, and support the vertebral column during powerful motions.
In other words, the muscles in your midsection are crucial to the stability and motion of your spine. The foundation of all your body’s movements throughout the day is at the heart. Gaining proficiency in using these muscles properly will assist you in remaining without pain over the long term.