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Engaging your core is not the same as sucking in your belly. Here’s the right way to do it

By Jocelyn Solis-Moreira, CNN

(CNN) — A typical New Year’s resolution is to exercise more, although where to start can feel daunting. Some opt for a fitness class; others create a plan with a personal trainer or work out from home. Regardless of the choice, chances are the phrase “engage your core” will come up in training.

Engaging or tightening your core is critical to achieving any fitness goal. A strong core produces the power to get physically stronger, become a better runner or play sports more effectively, said Jahkeen Washington, a strength coach and owner of Harlem Kettlebell Club in New York.

Training the core also has benefits out of the gym, with it improving stability and reducing the risk of future fall-related injuries.

Whether you’re a regular gym goer or looking to get back into shape, activating your core muscles is important for almost all workouts. But what does this entail? Fitness experts break down what muscles to use, how to know if you’re doing it correctly and exercises to build core strength.

READ MORE: Exercise quiz — find the best workouts for you

What exactly is your core?

The first step to activate your core properly is knowing which muscles are being used. Many people think of a six-pack when talking about a strong core, said Ashley Vielma, also known as Coach A.V., a Pilates instructor at Club Pilates Richmond in Texas.

While your abdominal muscles are part of core strength, they’re not the only factor.

“Some people can have visible abs but not necessarily a strong core,” Washington added. “You can also have someone with no visible abs and a tight core based on how they trained the abdominal muscles.”

In addition to abs, a person’s core involves muscles in the back and pelvic floor. All these muscles help to do everyday movements — sitting, walking, bending forward, standing — by supporting the spine and stabilizing the trunk area. Vielma said having strong core muscles gives a person the ability to rotate and twist the torso. It can look like the force needed to pull someone back into an upright position after bending over.

How do you know if you are engaging your core?

When it comes to engaging your core, people confuse it with sucking in the belly. Instead, sucking in the gut can actually weaken the core. Vielma explained the action puts pressure on the back and neck as it forces the shoulders to lift and the neck to sink, which could cause chronic pain from the constriction and compression over time. Additionally, the unnecessary tension makes it hard to breathe normally and weakens other core muscles such as the pelvic floor.

“Sucking in is considered to be the opposite activation for proper core engagement,” Vielma said. Regular breathing practices can teach the subtle differences between a relaxed and tense stomach. When exhaling, Washington said the stomach pulls back in, and that’s where you’ll get the bracing action one should feel when activating the core.

Since core muscles are used every day, she said to make core work a priority in every workout. For beginners, doing so would start off with breathwork exercises to become more familiar with core engagement.

Visualization is another way to learn how to activate the core. Imagine being a boxer about to get punched in the stomach, Washington said. The next course of action is to avoid as much damage as possible. Absorbing the blow to the gut would mean keeping the body stiff and abdominals tense. Another visualization is to picture drawing the belly button inward to the back of the spine, said Marisa Fuller, owner of Studio Pilates International in the Brooklyn borough of New York.

Recommended exercises for strengthening core muscles

Planks land at the top of the list for core strength-building, especially since they require people to draw their belly buttons in to maintain proper form. Planks have people hold their bodies in a straight line, a stance similar to a push-up for as long as they can. Maintaining a plank pose is more effective at activating the core muscles than crunches, research has found.

To perform a plank, a person should have shoulders away from the ears, wrists directly in line with the shoulders and a neutral spine to avoid arching or sinking into the mat. A neutral spine would have the three natural curves in the neck, upper back and lower back aligned together.

Washington recommended starting small, such as a 10-second hold for two sets and building your way up to 20- or 30-second holds or side planks.

“If a 30-second plank is all you have right now, do not fight for two minutes, because that’s where you can strain your core from the high demand,” Washington warned. Instead, it’s better to gradually increase the time spent holding and incrementally work up to greater intensity over the course of several sessions as you gain strength.

Vielma recommended a core-blasting Pilates exercise called the hundred. A person would lift the neck and chest with shoulders off the mat and arms extended in front about an inch or two above the hips. The legs are lifted an inch or two off the ground (extended or bent like sitting in a chair), where they crunch up while simultaneously pumping the arms 1 inch up and down.

One set of 100 reps is the usual recommendation for this workout. People inhale for five seconds while pulsing their arms five times. There are then five seconds of exhalation with another five beats of the arms. In total, there should be 10 combined inhales and exhales, equaling 100 arm beats.

“The hundred is one of the most effective exercises for building core strength, and it’s also a full body workout, so you can think of it as a plank in a sense,” Vielma said.

As with any workout, results will appear more for those most consistent in their training. Washington recommended sprinkling in one to two core moves in every workout. Even if a person can only work out once a week, incorporating core work in that session helps build up strength, Fuller added. When consistently training, people may start to see results in as little as eight weeks.

For best results, Fuller recommended practicing core exercises at least three times a week.

Jocelyn Solis-Moreira is a New York-based freelance health and science journalist.

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