Fitness

How to activate your core muscles

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Core engagement, ab activation, deep belly muscle contraction; whatever you want to call it, there are a lot of benefits to getting your core abdominal muscles working correctly but a lot of confusion over how to actually do it. Here are some tips to help you activate your core muscles.

What is your ‘core’?

Your abdominal muscles consist of the rectus abdominis, or ‘six pack’ muscles straight up the front of your belly, the internal and external obliques down the sides, and the transverse abdominis which lies underneath the others forming an inner belt of muscle around the centre of your body.

Typically when you’re told to engage your core, it’s the transverse abdominis that is being referred to. However, it’s usually a combination of all your abdominal muscles, pelvic floor, and some of your back muscles that are required to engage your core correctly. Core activation helps you maintain correct posture, supports the lower back, assists with deep breathing and heavy lifting, and also helps with childbirth.

Your core is not just something you should only focus on during exercise sessions. As you go about your day, these muscles help protect your lower back, encourage activation of your pelvic floor muscles and promote good posture. Core activation also has a flow-on up and down your body. If your inner abdominal muscles are not working correctly, you can end up with symptoms including a sore neck, sore shoulders, a tight chest (difficulty keeping your shoulders back and down), lower back pain, tight inner glutes and tight calves.

What core activation is not

It’s not sucking in your stomach to try and look skinny. It’s also not doing situps and crunches as this tends to take the focus to the superficial belly muscles closer towards the skin, rather than the deep muscles.

Activating your core muscles is more of a belly tense while continuing to breathe normally – a sandwich effect where your inner muscles that wrap all the way around your stomach front, back and sides maintain a gentle inwards squeeze.

When done properly it can make your stomach muscles appear more toned and help them feel stronger.

core engaged

Where to start with core activation

Lying down
Good posture and relaxed breathing are key. Lie down on your back with your knees up, feet flat on the floor as if about to do a sit-up. Place your hands on your belly with your index and middle fingers pressed slightly into your stomach just inside your hip bones (if you put your hands on your hips they should almost naturally fall here).

Take a deep breath in, slowly exhale and concentrate on the feeling of your abdominals contracting – your pelvis, hips and spine should stay in the same place, and you should feel tension in your belly muscles. Continue to do this for several breaths. Next, try to hold that squeezed-in feeling while continuing to breathe freely.

You are aiming to feel a slight tension under your fingertips; not pushing out or pulling in. This gentle tension is what your belly should be doing all the time. The stronger your core is, the easier it will be to feel this.

Standing
Giving yourself a standing posture check is also a good place to start. Stand straight with your arms at your sides. Picture a string pulling you up tall through the top of your head. Pull your belly button in towards your spine (creating a slight ‘hollowing’ effect in your belly). Your chin should be level – not raised, not lowered, not pushing out or pulling in towards your neck. Tilt your pelvis forward and then tilt it back – it should be halfway in between so that your hips aren’t pressed too far forward and you should have a natural curve in your lower back. See if you can take 5 deep breaths while maintaining your tensed belly in this position.

Some exercise to strengthen your core

Cat/cow
On all fours, inhale and let your belly drop towards the floor, lifting your sitbones high and looking forward about half a metre in front of you (don’t overarch and take your gaze too far up).

Next, slowly exhale and round your back (like a cat arching up), hollowing at your belly, pulling your bellybutton in and tucking your head down between your biceps to look back towards your feet. Follow this breathing and movement pattern at your own pace for 10 breaths.

cat cow
Plank
You can either come down onto your forearms or have your arms straight, tuck your toes under and lift the rest of your body off the ground. The aim is to maintain as straight a line as possible through the top of your head, neck, spine, hips and ankles.

You should feel your belly tense and contract when it is activated correctly. If you feel the exercise in your lower back, you will either need to lift your hips slightly more or take the pressure out of it by coming down on to your knees (you should still have a straight line from the top of your head, neck, spine, hips and knees).

Keep your head lifted so your head is neutral in relation to your spine. If you’re feeling this exercise in your lower back, it is because your abdominals aren’t strong enough yet.

Aim to hold for 15 seconds. If you can do this easily and can feel it in your abs without any pain in your lower back, next time you attempt the exercise try to add another 15 seconds.

plank
Images / NZ Real Health

Ange is a personal trainer, yoga teacher, wife, and mother (with second bubba on the way!) based in Auckland, New Zealand.

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