This post is about one of those things you hear trainers, or group fitness class instructors say a lot: engage your core.

Incidentally, you know what form of exercise is a great one for getting really good at engaging your core? Pilates. They talk about it all the time and I had great instructors who taught me how to do it well.

Anyway, it’s a great cue and an important thing to do in almost every exercise (Pilates or otherwise), but it’s only helpful if you know what it means, right?

Right.

So, here’s what I mean when I say it.

But first, a little context.

Your core is more than just your abdominal muscles. It encompasses your stomach muscles for sure, but it also includes muscles in your back as well as your gluteal muscles. This group of muscles: supports your spine and your pelvis;  it promotes healthy posture; and is responsible for moving your torso through all of the activities of daily living (including exercise) safely.

Ignoring your core muscles can lead to pain and injury–bad times, really.

So, that’s what your core is and what it does. Now on to how you go about engaging it.

Let me preface this by saying that this is a subtle combination of movements, which makes it kind of difficult to explain, but I’m going to do my best. It’s not sucking in your stomach. Don’t do that. It will make it hard to breathe, and breathing is important.

You might remember that I’ve said before that the way to communicate to any muscle is simply to think about it. That applies here for sure.

I tighten my stomach muscles slightly. You do not need six-pack abs to do this. You have stomach muscles whether you can see them or not. Sometimes I think about them bracing up against my spine, or sometimes I imagine someone is about to bounce a coin off my stomach. (Bracing for a punch to the stomach probably also would work, but that’s a little more violent than I like to be with my visualization techniques.) That’s usually enough to get the subtle tightening of those muscles that I’m looking for. Another one that might help you is to think about how your stomach feels right before you’re about to laugh or cough. If it helps, laugh or cough and then try to hold that level of muscular engagement. You might feel kind of silly, but once you get the hang of how it’s supposed to feel, you won’t have to do the coughing or the laughing anymore.

Then I think about lifting up through the bottom of my pelvis, or tucking my pelvis forward. At the same time I tighten my gluteal muscles slightly.

And finally, I roll my shoulders up and back and imagine them sliding down my spine. Ever heard someone say, “shoulder-blades in your back pocket”? I heard that visual years ago and it stuck with me. Use it if it helps you too! Anyway, now my shoulders are down and back and my chest is open.

That’s it. Core is engaged. If it feels difficult at first, that’s okay. Like anything new, you have to practice before it feels natural or easy. You can practice it outside of the context of exercise as well. Try it while you’re sitting at your desk, or walking through the grocery store.

If you have questions, please post them in the Comments section below.

See you back here again soon!