How to Engage Your Core?

If you have taken a Pilates class or basically any fitness class you might have heard your instructor say:

Engage your core!

But how exactly do I engage my core? And what is my core?

Well… to know how to engage your core, it is helpful to know what your core is first.

What is my core?

The core, or powerhouse, is the foundation of every exercise in Pilates and in life. The elements of the core include:

  • Transverse Abdominis (deepest abdominal layer)
  • Pelvic floor
  • Multifidius (muscle along your spine)
  • Diaphragm

The core stabilizes the spine through a complex series of interconnections between muscles and fascia.  The first link in the chain consists of one set of the deep muscles of the spine, the multifidi.  The second link in the chain, the transverse abdomens, acts like a corset to draw in the abdominal muscles and decrease the diameter of the waist.  When the transverses abdomens contracts, it creates tension on the lumbodorsal fascia which surrounds the multifidi.  The pressure of the casing against the multifidi also helps to create space between the vertebra which is called decompression or axial elongation.

The pelvic floor acts in conjunction with the diaphragm to create the top and bottom of the cylinder formed by the transverse abdomens, the spine, and the spinal muscles.  The primary purpose of the pelvic floor is to hold the contents of the abdomen up against gravity and to control what comes out and when.

Now I know what my core is. How do I engage it?

Here are some cues you of how to engage your core and they mean:

  1. “Zip up your jeans”. Standing tall with your feet firmly planted in the ground and the crown of your head reaching towards the ceiling, pull your belly in as if you are trying to squeeze into a pair of jeans that are two sizes too small.
  2. “Pull your belly button to your spine”. Lie on the floor with your knees bend and feet flat on the floor. Then place your fingertips on your hip bones and on your navel. Continue to breathe normally as you draw your navel in towards your spine and up towards your ribcage and then slightly bear down, imagine lowering the navel towards the floor.
  3. “Brace as if you are going to get punch in the stomach”. Another way to think of engaging your core is to imagine you’re bracing yourself for a punch in the stomach. No real punches necessary, but bracing during exercise can be important for reducing nagging lower back pain that can feel worse than a single punch.


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