What Does It Mean When Your Trainer Tells You To 'Engage Your Core'?

In the workout world, "engage your core" is rather trite. Whatever your exercise of choice — dance, Pilates, weight lifting, cycling — you've likely heard your trainer call out this phrase at some point. But the average person doesn't know exactly what it means. You probably just suck in your stomach or tensely contract all of your abdominal muscles, praying that your instructor gives you a nod of approval and moves on. 

While this might fly under your trainer's radar, it's crucial that you learn how to successfully engage your core. Michelle Razavi, a fitness and yoga instructor at Equinox, explained to Shape that when you properly engage your core, "It stabilizes your pelvis and your spine to reduce lower back injury, to protect your internal organs, help with your posture, and all these other essential functions." 

So, before you hit your next sweat session, you need to learn exactly how to engage your core so you can ensure your safety and the success of your workout. 

What the core actually refers to

One of the biggest, albeit somewhat unrealistic, fitness goals that people typically have is a perfectly toned six-pack. Oftentimes, when someone wants abs, they will obsessively dedicate themselves to plank variations for the ultimate core workout. However, core workouts strengthen much more than just your abs. 

As Dr. Chris Collier, a sports-based chiropractor, clarified on YouTube, "Your core is not your abs. Your core is actually a three-dimensional structure. The front of it is your abs. And then you've got the muscles on the sides, you've got your lower back muscles, and then on top of [your core] you've got your diaphragm and then [below it] your pelvic floor."

Thus, engaging your core involves more than just squeezing your abs. This system of muscles is so important because it's a core part of every movement you make (pun intended). Whether you're walking down the street or lifting a heavy dumbbell, elements of your core are involved. And, if you want to learn how to make your ab workout much more effective, you'll need to understand core engagement too. 

Tips for proper core engagement

Engaging your core is a tad more complicated than you might think. Writing for workout company DoYou's blog, Pilates instructor Sam Harris-Hughes noted that a common mistake with core engagement is overusing the hip flexors. According to Hughes, the group of hip flexor muscles can be located where the hip meets the quad. These are responsible for daily leg movements. 

"By not initiating the movement from the core ... the strong hip flexors do most of the work ... Not only does it then become less of an effective exercise for the core and abdominals, but it can also be a factor causing lower back pain," she explained. To properly engage your core, there are a few things to think about. First, you need to breathe correctly. Instead of puffing up your chest, place your hands on your rib cage and expand and collapse them horizontally. 

Next, avoid tipping your pelvis and creating an arch in your back. To do this, try shifting the bottom of your ribcage to hover directly above your pelvis. Then, imagine a string attached to the inside of your belly button, pulling it upward and inward towards your backside. You're doing it right if you feel a slight tuck in your lower back. We know this is a lot to think about. But with consistent practice, you'll acquire some muscle memory, and it'll start to feel natural.