How do you really ‘engage your core’ muscles?

Often we hear with exercise ‘you need to engage your core’ or ‘right now switch on your core’ but how do we actually turn on this core thing and why? Your core muscles do not come with a remote with an on/off button (wishful thinking). It’s not like packing down a scrum pushing hard out as you ‘engage’. Turning on your core is a subtle but specific movement which if you master successfully you’ll find great benefit to your ability to move well.

There are many definitions of ‘core’ bandied about on the web but what I am talking about in terms of engaging your core is turning on the group of deep abdominal muscles. Your core is like a corset around your lower back. These muscles attach onto your spine, pelvis and ribs. It’s important to differentiate between your big abdominal muscles like your rectus abdominis (the 6 pack) and your deep abdominal muscles.  The different groups have different roles to play in terms of stability and function. Your deep abdominals (transversus abdominis) are really the ones we’re after when we’re talking about activating your core.

Training your core muscles must start with the correct activation patterns of engaging your deep and lower abdominal muscles


Why is it important?

Research has shown that your deep abdominal muscles activate just before you do a limb movement to protect your spine during healthy movement. When you have an injury this activation can be significantly delayed creating vulnerable bodies. The deactivation may also be related to the high incidence of reoccurring low back pain. Overall, having a strong high functioning core is the foundation of your athletic base to create balance, synergy, efficiency and resilience in your movements.


Switching on your core (in sitting)

  1. Posture is really important in your ability to turn on your core. Sit up tall with the normal spinal curves and breathe in a normal pattern for you.
  2. Find and feel your deep abdominals by placing your hands on your hips with your index and middle finger inside your pelvic bones.
  3. To activate your core muscles either:

    A) Draw your belly button into your spine. This is a subtle movement and not a tensing of all your abdominals. You will feel a pressure on your finger tips as you do this gently. If your fingers are pushed upwards this means you’re using more of your superficial muscles rather than the deep muscles which we want in a ‘core muscle activation’.


    B) Pretend you are trying to stop yourself from doing a wee (using pelvic floor muscles). In this way I imagine myself walking into a really cold lake and it helps me lift my pelvic floor muscles. Your pelvic floor muscles co-contract with your deep abdominals which is helping in learning how to switch them on.

  4. As you nail how to engage your core muscles you can slowly bring in some arm and leg movements. The limb movements will challenge your ability to keep your deep muscles on at the same time. When you feel your fingers being pushed upwards, reset and activate your deep abdominals instead of the superficial groups.


Get your core on….

A strong core with the right activation patterns can be achieved with the correct pattern. Practise ‘switching your core on’ little and often. As an athlete I asked a lot of my body so I had to make sure it was ready to do what I wanted. Practising switching on my core became a habit that is easy for everyone to master. Be kind to your body by learning how to engage on your core correctly today!

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