How Do You Engage Your Core?

Make sure you’re working out safely and effectively by learning how to engage your core during your workouts, whether you’re training with or without weights!

How Do You Engage Your Core?
María Rubio María Rubio
6 min read

You probably already know the term “engage your core”, maybe because you overheard it at a fitness class or you read it in one of our articles. This is because it’s such an essential part of most – if not all – strength training exercises! These three magic words can make or break a workout, but they can be confusing at first.

Being able to effectively engage your core is an ability that you develop at the gym over time by training your core strength and improving your focus. But what exactly does it mean to “engage” your core muscles? And how can you do it to improve your strength training sessions and have safer workouts?

We’ll tell you all the details about what core activation is, as well as how to make sure you’re doing it right during your workouts. Plus, a few core activation exercises that will help you strengthen your core and have better control over it!

What is core activation?

When you hear someone say “engage your core” or “activate your core”, what they actually mean is to tighten your core muscles. Now, core muscles might sound like just your abs, but it’s so much more than that!

Your core is composed of several muscle groups, the most well-known one being your ab muscles (which includes the rectus abdominis, the transverse abdominis, and the internal and external obliques), as well as your erector spinae, your pelvic floor, and even your lats on your back. Core activation involves contracting all of these muscles at once so that the middle part of your body is stiff and stable enough to perform your exercises.

But why is core activation so important?

Well, the answer is in the form! An engaged core means a more stable body, which helps you maintain proper form during your workouts, whether it’s keeping your stability during strength training or an upright posture during cardio.

When it comes to weightlifting, the weight puts a lot of tension on your muscles, joints, and more importantly, your spine, which is why an engaged core is so important. Unnecessary stress on your spine can make you break your form and even risk an injury, so you need to make sure the muscles surrounding it are tight enough for the weight you’re lifting.

Aside from helping protect your spine, keeping an active core can help you perform your exercises more effectively by keeping the center of your body static and your pelvis stabilized. This allows you to better target the active muscles instead of struggling with your form while you do it, helping you achieve better gains with minimal effort.

Better muscle activation also means better and more improved functional strength, on top of greater stability, so a properly activated core can definitely go a long way when it comes to making progress!

How to engage your core during exercise

Well, now you know that core activation means contracting your core muscles, but that might not be clear enough if you’ve never done it on command before. To better explain core activation, let’s go through a hypothetical situation:

Imagine someone’s coming up to you and they’re about to punch you in the gut. Right as they’re about to hit, you instinctively clench and squeeze all the muscles in that area so that you can take the hit without it going straight to your stomach. That is core activation: tightening your core muscles for protection and support.

And remember it helps with stability too! An engaged core should feel secure enough that if someone were to push you, you would barely move from where you’re standing. But keep in mind that contracting your muscles doesn’t mean sucking your stomach in – you should be able to breathe properly while you do this.

On that note, make sure to time your breathing with your core activation! For example, during the upward pushing portion of bench pressing when you’re fighting against resistance, you should be exhaling as you tighten your core for maximum stability and control. Then, as you lower the weight to your chest and take a deep breath, you can reset your core and fully engage it once again for the next rep.

Here are a few ways to know that you’re engaging your core correctly:

  • You’re able to keep your balance during single-leg exercises
  • You’re able to keep your back straight without dropping your torso during planks and push-ups
  • You’re able to perform overhead movements without arching your back
  • You’re able to keep your spine touching the floor during exercises performed lying on your back

Core activation exercises for better stability

If you want to have complete control over your core activation and be able to do it on command, you need a little practice. These 5 exercises are great at this because they trigger core activation before you even notice that you’re doing it, helping you gradually gain more control over it.

Dead bug

This movement is particularly great at building strength in your inner core. You need your core muscles to be strong all-around to be able to stay stable and firm so you can engage them more effectively.

How to do it:

  1. Lie on your back and lift your hands in the air so that they’re perpendicular to your body.
  2. Lift your feet off the floor as well and bend your knees so that your thighs are in line with your arms and your shins parallel to the floor.
  3. Engage your core and begin the movement by lowering your right arm overhead and extending your left knee until both your right arm and left leg are parallel to the floor without touching it. Your opposite arm and leg should be up in the air without moving.
  4. Squeeze your muscles, then go back to the starting position and perform the same movement with the opposite arm and leg, alternating sides until you complete your reps.

Bird dog

This movement is essentially an inverted dead bug, and it primarily targets your posterior and lateral core muscles, such as your obliques and your lower back muscles for a stronger core.

How to do it:

  1. Get on the floor on your hands and knees as if you were mimicking a dog, keeping your spine neutral with your head looking down and your back straight.
  2. Engage your core and begin the movement by lifting and straightening your left arm and your right leg until they’re both extended, parallel to the floor, and in line with your torso.
  3. Squeeze your muscles, then go back to the starting position and perform the same movement with the opposite arm and leg, alternating sides until you complete your reps.

Glute bridge

While hip thrusts are the preferred movement for advanced lifters, the glute bridge is a perfect starting point for those looking to build better core strength and practice core activation.

How to do it:

  1. Lie flat on the floor with your arms to your sides and your knees bent so that your feet are almost touching your glutes.
  2. Engage your core and begin by lifting your hips upward as high as you can, squeezing your glutes and extending your torso without taking your upper back off the floor. You can add resistance by looping a short resistance band around your thighs and feet.
  3. Squeeze your muscles, then go back to the starting position and repeat.

Reverse crunch

This is very similar to the standard crunch, except that you’ll be using your lower body instead of your upper body for the movement, engaging your core all the way through.

How to do it:

  1. Lie on your back with your arms to your sides and your knees bent around 90 degrees so that your thighs are perpendicular to the floor and your shins near parallel.
  2. Engage your core and begin the movement by curling your hips and knees toward your chest, lifting your hips off the floor as you do so. Keep your knees bent and your back pressed on the floor.
  3. Squeeze your muscles during this contraction, then go back to the starting position without lowering your feet to the floor and repeat.

Forearm plank

While the classic high plank is also a killer core exercise, the forearm plank brings you closer to the floor, recruiting and engaging more core muscles and almost completely relying on them for support.

How to do it:

  1. Get face-down on the floor and place your forearms and toes on it to get into the forearm plank position. Your feet should be together and your elbows directly below your shoulders for stability.
  2. Engage your core and begin the exercise by staying still with a neutral spine, face looking down. Your whole body should form a straight line from head to toes.
  3. Focus on your core and make sure not to let your hips drop to the floor, and hold this position for the desired count.

Learn to engage your core for more effective workouts

Remember, core activation is essential whether you’re lifting weights, doing cardio, or both. No matter what your goals are and what you’re doing to achieve them, keeping your core tight and stable will help you have a smoother fitness journey and achieve those goals much faster and safer!

Looking for more exercise ideas to master core activation?

Download the Fit With Iulia app! Iulia plans new goal-focused workouts each week with a combination of compound, isolation, and unilateral exercises to help you get better and more effective results in your fitness journey. Try your first workout for free by downloading the Fit With Iulia app, choosing a goal, and starting your first workout with Iulia – no subscription required!