How to Engage Your Core – A Guide Plus 7 Exercises for Strong Abs

You may be a hardCORE gym junkie, but do you know how to engage your core muscles?

Every personal trainer is trying to bore us to death by repeating the dreaded sentence: “Engage your core!”. I know, I used to.

So, is it a fad, or does core strength really need to be the core of your training?

No Strain No Gain – My Story

For as long as I can remember, athleticism has been an important part of my life. As a young athlete, I used to skip some boring workouts such as back and abs exercises. Besides, I never felt that doing regular crunches were good for the back.

Years later when my PT colleague persuaded me to concentrate on them, instead of six-pack abs I got back pain.

I realized that my core muscles were relatively weak. I began doing some core work more regularly and found my lower back began to strengthen and has been fine ever since.

Obviously, my problem wasn’t the major one. But it illustrates the importance of core strength.

The Benefits of core Strength

Make no mistake, core strength is essential to enhance your fitness and strength.

It stabilizes your trunk (spine and pelvis). Moreover, it’s essential in any movement you do. It’s a sort of support system that allows the rest of the muscles to do their job efficiently.

woman engaging her coreThink of it as a house foundation. You need a strong foundation to build a stable and strong building.

  • They are the bedrock for all the pleasurable physical activities we participate in, sports and pastimes, outdoors and indoors which includes very importantly, sexual activities.
  • But it’s also the more mundane domestic activities which are made easier and more effective when attacked with a strong core. House cleaning, gardening and even simple chores we do constantly like bending to pick up an item of clothing.
  • The core muscles are also responsible for your posture (good or bad). But with a strong core, there will be less pressure on the spine, you’ll breathe more easily and consequently be more effectual. Not to mention you’ll look better and project (and therefore inherit) more confidence.
  • Strong abdominals are also necessary for good balance and stability which is especially important when moving through midlife and on. Falls get more serious as you age.
  • Amazingly, around 50% of Americans have had problems with their lower back for prolonged periods. Although there are many causes of back pain, keeping the weight down, exercising in general with a certain emphasis on a strong core will help with lower back pain.

What is it and How to Improve the Core

Improving your core is not about getting six-pack abs. It would be like coaching only one player in your basketball team. You need to engage all layers of your stomach, mid, and lower back.

We think of biceps and quads as being a typical muscle group but they come in all shapes and sizes. And the core is made up of 4 groups of abdominal muscles that together manage all the functions that provide all the benefits.

The transverse abdominis, for example, is a sheath of muscle that goes around the waist acting as a stabilizer for the core. It extends from the ribcage to the pelvic girdle.

The 2 sets of obliques are a diagonal arrangement that is engaged in the twisting motion of the torso.

And the “6-pack” or rectus abdominis control bending backward and forward.

A core workout is not the whole story. It’s important to do them correctly.

How to Engage Your Core Properly

A strong core enhances your athletic performance, prevents injuries and enables efficient multilateral movement.

Some people, when they want to “engage their core” simply pull in the stomach and hold their breath X
The easiest way to “find your core” is to pretend to execute one of several bodily functions and feel what happens automatically to the stomach muscles.

Go to cough, laugh or anticipate a punch to the stomach and note the tensing of the stomach muscles. Then breathe normally. It may seem a little unnatural at first.

Your core is engaged when the abdominal muscle groups are braced together and working with the muscles that are connected to your spine to stabilise the torso. When you know how to engage your core correctly, you will be able to stiffen your torso to support your spine whilst it bends and twists.

a twisting woman's core

Choose safe exercises and execute them the right way.

If you sit for long, day in, day out, your core muscles may become “lazy”. So they don’t “turn on” when you exercise. Sometimes it’s enough to activate them consciously. After a couple of sessions, they’ll start to fire with minimal effort. So, be aware of your core muscles and try to engage them intentionally.

As a general rule of thumb, exercises with neutral spine positions are safer. Limit the number of rotation and flexion repetitions. As your muscles get tired you are more likely to switch to incorrect positions.

There’s one thing I’ve become aware of through a journey of core strengthening.

With weak stomach muscles initially it’s more difficult to engage the core. As the core gets stronger it gets easier to engage and use the core muscles while physically active.

How to Engage Your Core While Sitting

Okay, you can’t do a real workout while sitting and working. But, you can engage your core to counteract the negative effects of prolonged sitting. Your core is responsible for your posture.

If you slump and slouch in the chair (don’t we all?) your core muscles will be on vacation. Wake them up by sitting properly. Your spine should be in a neutral position. It’s a natural way to keep your core muscles busy. Yes, it’s a smaller engagement, but your back and neck will be thankful.

If possible, switch between your chair and a stability ball every now and then. In fact, a stability ball adds another dimension to strengthening the core as well as improving stability and balance.
Midlife woman using an exercise ball in an empty room strengthening her latsSee later for equipment suggestions.

How to Engage Your Core While Walking

Walking is one of the most underestimated activities. Yes, we use mostly legs to walk, but it’s actually a full-body exercise. You still need to swing your arms and the core has to work to provide balance and stability.

So, you just need to walk more and practice engaging the core. To increase benefits head for the hills and add a couple of exercise pauses.

With core engaged forward, punches and overhead jabs are nice and easy exercises to do. You can even do it while walking if you don’t mind looking a little bit silly.

How to Engage Your Core While Running

Just like walking, running is a good time to engage your core. Don’t try to do it artificially, though. You may mess up your natural breathing pattern.

And it’s all about breathing and posture. “Belly breathing” is a proper way to breathe efficiently while running. Or doing anything, for that matter.

But I find, with running it’s a personal thing and ultimately the best way to breathe is the one most comfortable and takes the least amount of energy.

Be aware of your breathing and your posture, and keep running! Your core will get stronger. Belly breathing has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety.

How to Engage Your Core and Yoga

Yoga is a great exercise regime that provides stability and flexibility. Practicing yoga is a great opportunity to consciously engage those abs (and obliques) whilst going through the poses.

The natural meditative, mindfulness of yoga creates an awareness of your body and engaging the core will help improve the yoga, strengthen the core and make you more aware of the body’s muscle groups.

If your core is weak all you have to do is focus more on certain asanas (poses). Your yoga instructor will know which poses are best for the stage that you’re at.

How to Engage Your Core and Pilates

Pilates is another workout that involves thoughtfulness and therefore has similar benefits to yoga in terms of an engaged core. It’s also versatile enough to engage all the core muscles.

So, once again, it’s just about focusing on the core for all-round improvement.

How to Engage Your Core During Pregnancy

While you shouldn’t work hard during the pregnancy, strengthening your core will provide tremendous help. A strong core prevents back pain during pregnancy, and it makes labor easier.

How to engage your core when pregnant woman doing bird dog

However, it’s extremely important to adjust your training to keep it safe and beneficial. Forget about crunches, planks, and push-ups. Stick with easier exercises such as bird dog above and cat cow below. Phew that’s a lot of animals!

How to engage your core when pregnant woman doing cat cow

Make sure to consult your gynecologist to get the green light.

Common Mistakes with Ab Workouts

The first and most common mistake is to focus solely on getting six-pack abs. Weak core muscles increase the risk of injuries, remember? So, there’s nothing wrong with sixpack abs, they look awesome but they are not everything.

Choosing risky exercises. Sit-ups ruled the abs exercises for ages. Unfortunately, they are in the group of exercises that put too much strain on your back. It’s safer to avoid sit-ups, crunches, Russian twists, v-sits, and similar exercises.

Training abs too often. In order to get quick results, people tend to overwork their abs. All muscles need some rest and recovery time. 2 to 3 sessions a week is a good plan to begin with.

Targeting belly fat. Distribution of body fat depends on gender, genetics, hormonal status, and a few more things. Any exercise can help you to lose fat. But none of it can target specific areas.

I am truly sorry, but it’s not how fat metabolism works. The good news is that even if you’re somewhat over 50 – like me –  you can high-intensity training are beneficial quite effectively, but it’s a whole other story.

Not enough isolation exercises. Abs usually work together, but we use some of them much more than others. So, you need to do some isolation exercises to awake all the muscle layers.

Too many isolation exercises.  I am not playing with you! It’s all about balance. No muscle is designed to work alone. While they may need some individual training, you should also train them to work as a team.

As you begin to feel the core muscles become more and more activated you will become aware of which part of the core is working and targeting the different areas will become easier.

Core Exercises for Older Adults

The older we get, the more important exercising becomes. It needs some adjustments, though.

You can’t stop the aging process. But, you can slow it down if you exercise regularly. A strong core is especially important for older adults as it provides stability, balance, and correct posture.

Modern research shows that even some kinds of high-intensity training are beneficial for seniors. Still, avoiding injuries should be at the top of your list.

There’s plenty of low-impact exercises to help you maintain a strong core. You can try modified planks, superman, bridge, and leg lift. See below.

Tai Chi vs Yoga, this is a group practicing Tai Chi outside

Yoga, Tai Chi and Pilates are great ways to strengthen your core, as well. Both disciplines offer modified alternatives for older practitioners.

Ab Exercises and Back Pain

Lower back pain is the most common problem associated with ab exercises. However, it’s pretty easy to identify the culprit and prevent the problem.

If you have a weak core you may feel back pain after your workout. It’s usually harmless, but you should stop performing the exercise. The solution is to start with easier core exercises and do less but still regularly.

Some exercises put too much pressure on your spine. I’ve mentioned some of them in the “Common Mistakes with Ab Workouts” above.

Whether it’s hyperflexion, hyperextension, or rotation, the result is the same – low back pain. Consult your instructor or experts before you choose your core regime.

It’s also possible that you’re doing the right exercise, but doing it wrong. Make sure you follow the instructions properly. And use a mirror. It’s not there to admire your stature. It can help you to maintain the correct posture and position.

Finally, back pain can emerge if you work too much. More is not always better. Let your muscles recover between sets and sessions.

Fitness Equipment to Help Strengthen the Core

Although exercising the core can be done without any equipment as you get stronger the need to push the boundaries might call for a little help.

You could invest in expensive equipment but for simple resistance moves, it might be worth a visit to the local gym otherwise it’s easy enough to up the resistance with a little imagination. So we’ll be largely focusing on affordable fitness accessories and equipment that has multiple functions.

Exercise Balls

Exercise balls, Fit balls, or the half Bosu ball are great for exercising the smaller interconnecting anterior muscles of any group as you make minor adjustments whilst holding positions or performing small movements on the ball.

Doing crunch-type movements with an exercise ball will also ease the strain on the lower back.

Incredibly useful for improving balance and coordination so maybe something us older participants should make time for.

Dumbbell Weights

Using free weights, however light will always add a little frisson to an abs workout. You may only need one at first but as the repertoire becomes more extensive you may want to invest in more.

Adjustable weight dumbbells are handier than fixed weights especially the ones that are a single unit but the weight can be changed by a selector of some sort.

We favor the Powerblock (currently very reasonably priced) which has got a clever device for a quick change of weight. We’ve reviewed it along with other dumbbell options.

Powerblock EXP dumbbell weightsExercise mat

Not really equipment as such but an exercise mat is a must have especially if, like me, you have got mostly wooden (faux) floor surfaces.

Mats come a number of different options. Ones that are made variable in size by interconnecting square pieces – used a lot in commercial gyms.

And simple affairs that may also be called yoga mats that roll up – depends on what you’re after but to get the core activated you’ll probably be spending a good deal of time on the floor.

Sit Up Bench (Weights Bench)

As I mentioned before I’m not a fan of the traditional “sit up” or crunch as they tend to put a strain on my back. Maybe I just did them when my core and back muscles weren’t strong enough.

Anyhoo, a sit up or weight bench is a surprisingly versatile piece of home gym equipment especially one with an incline/decline feature and if it’s foldable then even more useful for the home.

Total Gym Bench

To take the exercise bench one step forward and to get a full abs workout and a lot more besides,  the range of Total Gym models can just about be the end of your needs for a home gym.


7 Safe and Effective Ab Exercises

Plank

Plank exercises have become the gold standard when it comes to core engagement. A basic form starts in a push-up position on your forearms. And it ends there. Hold the position for 10 to 30 seconds and gradually work it up to 60 seconds.

mature couple doing a plank outdoorsThree sets of one-minute holds – that’s your final goal. It involves a large number of muscle groups but the primary muscles are abdominals and spinal erectors (side back muscles).

When you get bored with the basic plank try the full plank which means you are resting on your hands with straight arms.

Then try lifting one arm straight out, to the right, behind. An arm row. And try using light weights.

Expert tip: Keep your body in a straight line without arching or rounding your back and keep face down. And breathe.

Cat-Cow

This is originally a yoga exercise and an excellent way to start your session. Kneel on your mat. Keep your shoulders over your wrists and hips over your knees. Arch your back and lookup. That’s your cow position. Then round your back like a cat and let your head hang towards the floor. Inhale while arching and exhale while rounding your spine. Repeat the action up to 10 times. Nice and slow and smooth.

See the 2nd image of the pregnant woman above.

Expert tip: Roll your shoulders, but don’t use your arms.

Side Plank

A younger sister of a regular, front plank, side plank perfectly complements it. It targets somewhat different muscles such as internal and external obliques, and hip abductor muscles.

Lie on your left side resting on your elbow and forearm. Raise hips until your body forms a straight line. Now, raise your right arm until it’s perpendicular to the floor. Hold it for up to 30 seconds. Repeat on the other side.

Expert tip: Make sure your shoulder stays directly above the elbow.

Mountain Climber

This is basically a plank with a (vigorous) movement.

Get into a push-up position. Keep your body straight from head to ankles. Pull one knee up towards your chest. Then, return to the starting position. Repeat with the opposite knee. You may want to do 10 reps ( both legs make one repetition). As you grow stronger, try to do it faster rather than do more reps.

Woman doing a mountain climber exercise to strengthen her coreI love this exercise. It provides a good cardio workout as well as strengthening the abs depending on how quickly they’re are performed.

Alternatives can be done by the position of the knee which can point outwards, inwards as well as straight up -nice.

Expert tip: Don’t overextend your elbows. It can put too much pressure on your shoulders.

Bird Dog

Maybe it won’t make you fly, but this exercise is great for a number of muscles including abs, back, glutes, and hips. Moreover, it is safe while recovering from a back injury.

Kneel on your mat. Keep your shoulders over your hands and hips over knees. Simultaneously lift your arm and the opposite leg until they are parallel to the floor. Hold for a couple of seconds and return to the starting position. Then switch to the other side and that’s one rep. Slowly increase the number of reps until you can do 3 sets of 5 reps.

See the image of the pregnant woman above.

Expert Tip: Start lifting your foot and the opposite arm only a couple of inches until you learn to keep your balance. Also, avoid tilting your shoulders.

Bridge

Another yoga inspired move, the bridge or pelvic lift primarily targets glutes, low back, and lower abs.

Young sporty woman doing Glute Bridge exercise to strengthen her coreLie on your back with bent knees and feet flat on the floor. Lift your hips up until you create a straight line from your knees to your shoulders. Hold for up to 10 seconds and return to the starting position.

Expert tip: You don’t want to arch your back. Inhale while lowering your hips and exhale while lifting it.

Dead Bug

I don’t know where the name came from, but the exercise is pretty lively.

Lie down face up. Bend your knees and lift your legs to 90-degree angles. Your knees should be directly over your hips and your arms facing the ceiling.

Lower and straighten your left leg while lowering your right arm above your head. Make a short pause and return to the starting position. Then, do the same on the opposite side. It’s a sort of reversed bird/dog movement.

Expert tip: Make sure to maintain contact between your lower back and the floor.

Conclusion

Now you know it: the core strength goes way beyond six-pack abs. It provides support for your entire body and enhances your overall athletic performance. You’ll be faster and stronger.

“ You can’t shoot a cannon from a canoe”. Yes, you got it right – a weak body core is like a canoe in this old adage.

Thus, before you start sculpting your six-pack abs, biceps, pecs, or glutes, remember that your strength and stability come from all the core muscles.