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.


    • Yes, it’s called hollowing….but with all due respect to the millions who do that and teach that, I have no idea why anyone would want to do that. Just makes no functional sense to me.

  1. I believe I understand what you mean, but I want to make sure I’m doing this correctly. So the idea is to tense your stomach as if you were about to be punched in the stomach? Also, I’ve been told by my PT that when you engage your core, your stomach barely moves. When he tried showing me, he put his hand on the top of my stomach and told me to concentrate tightening the muscle inside. Which I think is the same idea as what you explained. He told me I should be able to still breath deep when I’m engaging the core the proper way. Which I find when in, its harder to bring in more oxygen. I wanted to ask to are you supposed to keep your core engaged like this on all exercises?

    Thank you

    • HI Mike,

      Sorry for the delayed reply, I still have problems with new comments getting to me. Your PT’s instructions are spot on. In answer to your specific question, ideally the core should be engaged prior to and during any movements of our limbs. THe core provides the stabilization that is required for our limbs to do their work optimally (i.e. efficiently, with less injury potential, etc), including everything from dumbbell curls to changing a ceiling lightbulb. Also, the core should be engaged before and during any movements that put the spine in an unstable position (e.g bending and lifting, planks) in order to prevent back injury, and during any movements that require the transfer of energy from the lower body to the upper body (e.g. a baseball pitch) in order to get maximal performance. Hope that helps…

  2. Question –if I am teaching my pilates class, what is the one statement that I can make to help my students understand what they are doing and why it’s necessary ? I’ will take any metaphor , or other statement that is appropriate and supported by science, thank you!

    • CC,

      I assume you are referring to the core work when you say understanding what your students are doing and why…The quick analogy I use with my own patients as well as with audiences I speak to is to think of the core like a chair you’re going to stand on to reach something on a high shelf. Having a weak core is like standing on a chair with wheels and having a strong core is like using one with solid legs. When you’ve got a stable foundation under you to work off of, the rest of your body can function more easily, more efficiently, and with less risk of injury. Alternatively, I describe a weak vs strong core as the difference between a runner pushing off a starting block vs pushing off a sand box. Again, your body needs something firm to work off of in order to work its best. OF course, these analogies focus on the stabilizing function of the core and don’t even get to the more dynamic function of the core such as its role in efficient, energy-transfer from lower to upper body, but they’re the most relevant to Pilates work.

  3. Hello, I have been teaching this technique for two years as a Physiotherapist and pilates instructor and have been frustrated by the old “zip and hollow”, “pull belly button towards spine” pilates cueing that is common in our practice. However, many clients (mostly women) complain of pushing the pelvic floor downwards when they attempt what you describe. I have been contemplating this: is it possible to engage the core as you say without baring down with the pelvic floor? 2. if not, how do you describe the core contractions you suggest without doing the above? Many thanks, Kim

    • Hi Kim,

      It is possible to engage the “core” without pushing down or out with the pelvic floor, which I assume is what you mean by the term ‘bearing down.’ In fact, if you’re bearing down you’re almost certainly doing what’s called a Valsalva maneuver rather than stiffening your core. Valsalva is what you do when you defecate–you briefly hold your breath and push your diaphragm down into your abdomen to increase the pressure in your abdomen to force the poop out. With core engagement, you specifically DON’T want to hold your breath nor push down. You want to “stiffen in place” as I like to say. Nothing should be moving anywhere, other than slight outward motion of the Abs as discussed in the post. (btw, the instruction, in my above post, to bear down as a way to learn how to engage your core is just a tool, an easy way to help beginners get the basic feel for having their abs activate outward).
      So while you don’t want to “bear down” with the pelvic floor, you DO want to engage it (i.e. stiffen the muscles) when you engage the core…since the core actually includes the pelvic floor muscles as well as the Abs (as the bottom of the “core cylinder,” while the diaphragm is the top).
      My approach…Once someone has learned to engage their Abs well, I have them do the same process with their pelvic floor muscles separately, and then do Abs/pelvic floor as a two-step process until it’s all second nature to engage everything together. Specifically for the pelvic muscles, I instruct people to think of “spreading” those pelvic floor muscles sideways. That tends to keep them from pushing down/out or pulling them up/in. Great question, though. Hope that helps.

  4. 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!

  5. 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?

  6. 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.

  7. Another tip is to lean back in a chair and sit up only an inch. That will help contract your core muscles as well.

    • 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.