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Engaging Your Core: How And Why

Even if you’ve never watched an exercise program, read a fitness magazine, or stepped foot inside a gym, you’ve probably heard the expression “engage your core” at least once in your life. Most likely, your trainer or coach has instructed you to “brace your core,” “engage your abs,” or “stable your midline.”

Trainers may also instruct you to “flex your abs” or “pull your belly button toward your spine.” Although there are obviously many other ways to say it, the idea is the same: Engage your core. It may be softly urged on at times, or it may be shouted at you as you finish your last rep. 

However, you may be puzzled as to what your core is, what it entails, and how to engage it.

The muscles that surround your trunk, such as your abdominals, obliques, diaphragm, pelvic floor, trunk extensors, and hip flexors, make up your core.

Your core gives your trunk stability for actions like lifting weights and getting out of a chair, as well as for balance. Additionally, it offers flexibility so that you can shift your torso as necessary, like when you reach for your seatbelt. Your core muscles also play a role in regular bodily functions like breathing, posture control, urination, and excrement.

What Are Your Core Muscles?

Many people mistake “core” with “six-pack,” but your core’s structure is more complex than you might think. Four different abdominal muscles make up your abs alone, and there are also all of your back muscles to take into consideration. Your abdominals, pelvic floor, diaphragm, back extensors, and certain hip flexors are among the muscles that make up your core.

Rectus abdominis

The rectus abdominis, sometimes referred to as the “six-pack muscle,” attaches from the front of the pelvis to the lower ribs. Your spine flexes as you sit up in bed or do crunches, which is the main motion it makes. Since it is the most superficial of the core muscles, it is less helpful for maintaining spinal stability.

Internal and external obliques

The internal and external obliques work together to carry out the same movements. The distinction is that the internal obliques are same-side rotators, whereas the external obliques are opposite-side rotators. 

The most noticeable actions of the internal oblique are spinal lateral flexion and spinal rotation. You can rotate your body, bend sideways, flex your spine, and compress your abdomen using your external obliques.

Latissimus dorsi

The largest muscle in the upper body is the latissimus dorsi. The shoulder joint’s extension, adduction, transverse extension ( also known as horizontal abduction or horizontal extension), flexion from an extended position, and internal rotation are all controlled by the latissimus dorsi muscle.

Transversus abdominis

The transversus abdominis is the deepest of the lateral abdominal muscles (the others being the external and internal oblique muscles). It primarily helps to maintain abdominal tone, and when it contracts, it can raise intraabdominal pressure.

The transversus abdominis stabilize your spine, compress your organs, and support your abdominal wall. Strengthening these muscles is often beneficial to people with chronic low back pain. 

Pelvic floor

On the underside of the pelvis, the pelvic floor muscles function like a sling or hammock. They raise upward and toward the stomach when activated. In addition to acting as a deep spine and pelvic stabilizer, these muscles help initiate and terminate the flow of urine and faeces. Your pelvic floor muscles: Support your bladder, urethra, vagina, uterus, bowel (large intestine), rectum, and anus.

Diaphragm

Your lower ribs’ undersides are where the diaphragm connects. In addition to being the main muscle involved in breathing in and out, recent research indicates that it is also crucial for cardiac function, lymphatic return, controlling emotional moods, swallowing and vomiting, spinal stabilization, and pain tolerance.

Iliopsoas

The iliacus and psoas major are two hip flexors that come together to form a single muscular belly, hence the name iliopsoas. They come from the iliac crest of the pelvis (iliacus) and the thoracic and lumbar spine (psoas) and insert into the femur or upper leg bone.

When you perform high knee exercises, for example, the iliopsoas contract to flex the hip or bring your legs closer to your body. However, it is regarded as a deep core stabilizer since it is also related to the spine.

Back extensors

Your quadratus lumborum, multifidus, and erector spinae muscles make up your multilayered back extensors. They join a vertebra to the vertebrae above and below or the spine to the pelvis.

Their main purposes are to support the spine when you bend forward and raise weights, such as while performing squats or biceps curls, spinal extension (bending backward), and postural support.

How To Engage Your Core

Depending on your goals, engaging your core muscles can mean a variety of things. For example, when performing sit-ups, different muscles are activated, and they fire in a different order than when attempting to maintain balance while standing on one leg.

Additionally, the sensation your muscles produce when you contract them can vary based on a number of variables, including whether you’re pushing or pulling weight and whether you’re standing, sitting, or lying down.

Regardless of how, when, or why you engage your core, it’s vital to recognize that these muscles all work in unison throughout movement.

Imagine your entire body, from ribs to pelvis: It should all feel like a single, strong cylinder. 

Abdominal Bracing

An abdominal brace is an isometric contraction of the abdominal wall muscles that does not cause your spine, ribs, or pelvis to move or alter position. When moving heavy loads, like when lifting weights, it is used to protect the spine.

Abdominal bracing is more effective for engaging the superficial abdominal muscles.

Eccentric Contraction Of The Abs Or Back

Eccentric contractions are used to slow down the body’s force or motion. They usually take place in combination with a concentric contraction on the opposite side of the joint and are lengthening contractions.

For instance, if you’re slouching while working at your desk, straightening and lifting your spine will cause two contractions: concentric contractions in the spinal extensors and eccentric, or lengthening, contractions in the abdominals.

Abdominal Draw-In Or Hollowing

When you concentrate on bringing your navel to your spine, you perform the abdominal draw-in motion, sometimes referred to as the abdominal hollowing. The most effective way to think of this form of contraction is as a dynamic part of your exhale. It is used for stability, such as bracing.

Drawing in or hollowing the abs is more effective than bracing for activating the deep spinal stabilizers and transversus abdominis. There are strong advocates for both types of stabilizing contractions, but the best functional core is one that is proficient in both bracing and hollowing techniques and uses each one as needed.

Concentric Contraction Of The Abs Or Back

You use your core muscles as the prime movers when performing classic ab exercises like crunches or back exercises like the superman.

For instance, during a crunch, your rectus abdominis and obliques shorten and contract concentrically to pull your ribs toward your hips while lifting your shoulders and head. To create movement or accelerate the body, concentric contractions are used. For many persons, these types of muscle contractions are the most recognizable.

When Should You Engage Your Core?

Engage Your Core All Day

While at your desk and while going to and from your regular places, practice engaging your core. By keeping your core engaged throughout your daily tasks, you can avoid bad posture (and the chronic pain that comes with it).

You can also put your new skills into practice while going grocery shopping; try engaging your core when you reach up to grab something from a high shelf. It’s fruitful practice that you can apply to your workouts!

During Cardio

Generally speaking, there is less chance to move the spine into potentially harmful positions during cardio exercise than there is during weightlifting exercise, hence the risk of spine injuries is lower during cardio exercise. However, using your core during cardio will enhance your posture and lessen any pain you feel while doing or after cardio.

Engaging your core, for instance, can help you maintain a high chest and a straight back while running. By doing this, you can prevent neck overextension, a common issue that can cause headaches and neck pain. While running, bracing your core will help relieve some of the pressure on your lumbar spine, which will lessen or eliminate any pain you may experience there.

During Ab Workouts

Because of all the torso movement that occurs during ab exercises, it can be challenging to activate your core. The most typical indication that you should brace, however, is hyperextension, commonly known as an arched back.

You may tighten your abdominal muscles and lessen the lumbar curve of your spine by using these two cues. Consider tilting your tailbone forward or contracting your glutes when performing ab workouts.

While Lifting Weights

The most important time to use your core is during weightlifting. There is a chance for spinal movement when you bend at any of your main joints, notably your shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles. Any excessive spine arches can be avoided by engaging your core.

The deadlift is an additional excellent illustration of when it’s crucial to engage your core. Before removing the weight from the ground, engage your core to prevent your back from rounding and your shoulders from slumping.

You can keep your back straight and your shoulder blades retracted by taking a deep breath and tightening your stomach.

During Yoga

Planks, bridges, side planks, as well as balancing on one or both feet for poses like Tree Pose and Warrior Pose, among other movements, all utilize the core in this widely-liked exercise.

Practice Engaging Your Core

Your core serves a variety of purposes, including;

Balance

When you are standing still and when your balance is actively challenged, your core muscles help you keep your equilibrium.

For instance, your brain and trunk are aware of the sudden impact and change in balance when someone bumps into you. Then, to assist in keeping your body upright, your core muscles respond.

In Olympic weightlifting, where your trunk must respond to and maintain stability amid changes in weight distribution, your core muscles also promote balance.

Breathing and trunk stability

One important muscle that regulates breathing is your diaphragm. It lines the lower ribs and has the shape of an inverted “U.”

As it contracts, it flattens out to make room for your lungs to expand as you inhale. On the other hand, when your diaphragm relaxes, it constricts your lung cavity and forces air out of your lungs, much like bagpipes do.

Furthermore, when you’re struggling to lift something heavy, your diaphragm might isometrically contract to hold your breath. To protect yourself from harm and maintain stability, take this action.

Spine Mobility

The muscles in your core are crucial stabilizers, but they are also the muscles that move your spine through flexion, extension, lateral flexion, and rotation.

Trunk Stability

Your core muscles engage to keep your trunk stable and support your spine while you’re pushing or dragging an object, raising something above your head, or picking something up from the floor.

Along with weightlifting, these muscles are essential for sports like judo, jogging, and soccer. Injury risk is decreased by maintaining spinal stability.

Bowel And Bladder Control

The diaphragm and pelvic floor muscles cooperate with the rest of your core to preserve spinal stability by exerting more abdominal pressure on your spine. With the help of your pelvic floor muscles you can control your bowel and bladder, allowing you to urinate or defecate or to hold it if you can’t make it to the bathroom.

If these muscles aren’t strong, a condition called incontinence occurs. However, to help treat or avoid this illness, these muscles can often be strengthened.

Key Takeaway

To support your spine and pelvis in static positions and during dynamic motions, your core must be engaged. This is done by engaging the muscles in your trunk. These muscles are used for balance, pulling, pushing, lifting, and general movement.

A strong core supports your spine during vigorous exercises, helps you maintain better balance, and lowers your chance of injury.

Simply put, the stability and flexibility of your spine are influenced by the muscles in your core. All of the actions your body makes during the day have them at their “core.” You will be able to move pain-free for years to come if you learn how to use these muscles efficiently.

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