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.


    • Rebecca,
      Thanks for the additional tip! Learning to correctly activate the core is the one thing everyone should do to improve their functional health–so the more methods the better. BUT I’m not sure I’m understanding your method just from the little you’ve written.. Can you please describe in a little more detail so we can make sure everyone gets it right? Form is always so critical, so I want to make sure this one’s clear too. Thank you again for sharing your input.

  1. Your suggestions on how to activate “core” are in direct contradiction to the back stabilization research coming out of Queensland University in Austrailia –Comerford / Hides / Jules, etc.– “pushing your abdomen” out engages rectus abdominus, not transversus abdominus — which all the research has shown in primary in back stabilization / “core control”. I’m surprised you would post outdated information on your site. What you are saying is for people to do what is called “bracing”, which is not the same as core control.

    • Jan,
      There is so much to say in response to your comment I couldn’t possibly cover it all here. But in short (relatively short….):
      1) Yes, this post does describe abdominal bracing.
      2) Yes, quite familiar with Comerford et al.–good, interesting work. But still just a piece of a much larger and complex puzzle–don’t confuse one piece for the whole “core” puzzle. Dr. Stuart McGill’s research, for one, offers many good pieces as well, including much of the information this post was based on. And hopefully you noticed yet another piece of the puzzle published just recently in Spine which found that people who incorporated abdominal bracing into their exercise routines had less recurrence of back pain than those who didn’t include bracing. I have several thoughts on why that is but again, this isn’t the place for my long-winded academic diatribes. (Also, you might want to re-think that “outdated information” comment given that that Spine study was published more recently than this year’s vernal equinox).
      And speaking of outdated information….Physical therapists have been instructing patients to do exactly what you’re suggesting–suck in their belly buttons–at least since I was in medical school, and probably long before that….and yet almost none of those patients come away from that treatment able to engage their cores effectively. In fact, I get to see many of them eventually when they land in my office complaining of the same pains they had before those therapies–remarkably unable to activate their cores. So clearly something about those old time methods you tout just hasn’t translated too well for people.
      3) But most convincing of all to me is what I’ve seen and experienced firsthand. The method I describe in my post allowed me to (finally!) learn how to train my core properly and completely resolve 5 years’ worth of debilitating back pain that no prior physical therapy–not to mention injections, massage, pills, or even surgery–had been able to fix. And that has just been confirmed for me further by the tremendous success I’ve had using this method to teach my patients how to “find” their core, how to activate it, and how to tell whether they’ve got it right. I’ve found it to be the most effective first step on the road to better core function….and a welcome relief considering that most of them have been through at least one course of so-called “core training” therapies before.
      Lastly, just an fyi….don’t ever fool yourself into believing that you’ve found the one, simple answer to an extremely complex issue like core function.
      So thanks for stopping by my site and for the discussion points in your comment.

  2. Thank you so much. I visited a few web site re this issue. The chair exercise is popular, but as I am now in “symptoms” it was painful. Using you technique I could get away from the chair back without pain, several times! My understanding of the chair exercise is: sit up in a chair shoulders over hips, let yourself rest back against the chair (which itself takes some major core engaging,) then sit back up, shoulders again aligned with hips. However, my wife left her windows open during a thunderstorm as I am writing, armed with my new way of being, I quickly went out to her car to raise the windows. When I remembered to push the sides of my abdomen out I was pain free, but now my core is EXHAUSTED!

    • Uh, not to be gross, but how different is your suggestion, which is helping me, in symptoms, a lot, from the exertion of forcing a difficult bowel movement?

  3. What is so great about this site is its prohibition: DON’T suck or pull in your stomach. This flies in the face of everything I’d been taught before. I slipped a disc or two (L5S1 and the one above it was bulging on the MRI 4 and 1/2 years ago.)
    The action of preparing to get punched in the stomach is a great way to engage those muscles. As an aspiring trumpeter this has also helped me with my breathing. You’ve helped more than years of physical therapy! To whom do I make out the check?

    • Hi Laurence,

      THanks for all your comments. Glad you brought up the trumpet playing. You hit the nail on the head, they are definitely related. In fact, the diaphragmatic work that singers and musicians do is very much about learning how to use and control your core well.
      As for your “gross” question…When you have a BM, you are trying to increase the pressure in your abdomen by doing what’s called a “valsalva maneuver.” This requires contraction of your core muscles, but there are differences in the pattern of activation described in my post and a Valsalva maneuver. Such as: the diaphragm (which is the top of your core if you think of your core like a wide cylinder) is the main muscle in play with Valsalva, and the pelvic floor muscles (i.e. the bottom of the core “cylinder”) actually have to relax. Good question, though–hey, even bowel function is part of functioning well…
      And a little side note of interest: the diaphragm muscle is actually attached to the spine and helps with spine stability too, so although we tend to talk only about the Abs when we talk about the core, the diaphragm plays a surprisingly important role as well.

      • Thank you for your response, Dr Reed.
        Everything is going fantastically now. Total revolution. After a long time of pain and confusion.
        One area that suggests I might need help: I’m having trouble feeling and tightening my core while I am exhaling while hanging from a pull-up bar. Inhaling is not a problem. Any advice?

        • Your abdominals should be able to function independently of your diaphragm, i.e. of your breathing. In other words, you should be able to hold a “stiff” core without also holding your breath. That’s one of the hallmarks of a finely-tuned core. It takes a little concentration and practice at first–you’ve got to build up the endurance and your on/off control of the muscles–but it quickly becomes second nature and is essential. But you can’t expect your muscles to learn it while in the midst of a pull up…they have to learn the basics in remedial positions and then gradually apply it to more challenging ones. Same reason you first learn how to stop when on the bunny hill and not when you’re up on a double black diamond run.

          I find that breaking it down to small steps is the best way to go about it–while laying down, stiffen your core, try to hold it that way, and then start by taking just a few real shallow breaths. Then advance to doing it while upright, etc. Eventually you work up to being able keep your core engaged as you take more normal breaths and even deeper, exertional breaths while working out. If you feel your abdominals/sides “deflate” when you go to take a breath, just let it all go and start again til the muscles catch on. And they will. Good luck!

  4. I think your results tell you your answer, Maureen–yes, it’s effective to do while walking. In fact, that’s the goal! Good work, congrats! Now try to see if you can engage your core while doing more advanced activities like lifting groceries, unloading the dishwasher, etc.

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