FH Tip: How to Engage Your Core Effectively

By now, most of us have heard that we need to “engage the core” for better stability and function. But people often interpret “engage” to mean “suck in”…. So they proceed to suck in their belly buttons while exercising.  Unfortunately that is the exact opposite of how you should engage the core as it actually de-stabilizes your core.

Think of it this way…when someone’s about to tackle you, you don’t prepare yourself for impact by putting your feet close together, right?  No, you plant them farther apart to create a wider, better base of support.  Sucking your stomach in towards your spine is the core equivalent of standing with your feet close together.  So how do you create that wider base of support?

When engaging your core for stability, the goal is to create as solid a ring of muscles around your mid-section as possible.  To achieve that, you have to activate your core muscles  slightly outward, stiffening them to create a protective “cylinder” around your abdomen. It’s a crucial component for good function, but it’s also easier said than done for those out of practice.  Here are a few ways to get the feel for it:

  • Use your front six-pack abdominal  muscle to “pull up”  on the front of your pelvis (not in), then bear down a little in order to push your abdomen out in all directions.
  • Try using a quick, forceful grunt to help you push your mid-section outward as if bracing it for a punch to the gut. Do it repeatedly to really get the feel.
  • Your core naturally engages as the very first step in coughing or laughing. So another way to get the feel for how to correctly activate your core is by initiating one of those actions–you’re looking for that abdominal activation that takes place just before any cough or laugh actually occurs.
  • Or rest your hands on either side of your abdomen and try to push them away using only your abdominal muscles.

It’s a little tricky at first but soon becomes second nature.  I promise, you won’t have to walk around with your hands against your abdomen forever!

FUNCTIONAL HEALTH TIP: Engage your core by pushing your midsection muscles out to form a stiff, wide cylinder of muscle support , NOT by sucking in your abs or belly button.


  1. Hmm is anyone else having problems with the pictures on this blog loading?

    I’m trying to find out if its a problem on my
    end or if it’s the blog. Any feedback would be
    greatly appreciated.

    • are you crazy ??? that is not at all how you engage core.
      worst advice ever. should be thinking about psoas and transversus -what you are telling people can cause injury by compression on the spine. also it is not natural at all and not how the muscles work. horrible advice.

      • Christina,

        Thanks for your concern about my mental health, but I can assure you all is well. And while I couldn’t quite make out exactly which points you disagreed with, you seem to have neglected to include your own alternative advice, not to mention your credentials for giving said advice. I’d be interested to know both, as would all the readers I’m sure. Do share! KMR

        • Dr. Reed,

          Thanks for this article. I just started working out about a month ago, and have been trying to understand how to correctly engage my abs. This clarified it for me.

          I am a mental health counselor, and don’t think there is any concern at all about your mental health. 😉

          Thanks again!

          • So glad to hear, Sheila!…With regard to both things actually, your benefiting from the information AND my mental health. Always nice to get confirmation on such matters from a professional :-) Thanks for reading and for the comment.