How to Engage Your Core: Steps, Muscles Worked, and More – Healthline

You’ve probably heard the phrase “engage your core” at least once in your life even if you’ve ever seen an exercise program, read a fitness magazine, or stepped foot in a gym. Sometimes it’s gently encouraged, while other times it’s yelled while you’re sweating out your last rep.
However, you may wonder what your core is, what it means to engage it, and how to do so.
The core consists of the muscles surrounding your trunk, including your abdominals, obliques, diaphragm, pelvic floor, trunk extensors, and hip flexors.
Your core provides stability to the trunk for balance, plus movements like lifting weights and standing up from a chair. It also provides mobility to allow your torso to move as needed, such as when you reach for your seatbelt or swing a golf club (1, 2, 3).
Furthermore, core muscles are involved in normal daily activities like breathing, posture control, urination, and defecation (4).
Every time you exhale and inhale, your diaphragm plays a large part in allowing air to flow into and out of your lungs. When you sit up straight, your core muscles contract to keep your trunk upright. When you use the bathroom, they’re there to start and stop your business.
This article discusses what the core muscles are and their role in trunk stability, as well as reviews core exercises that you can incorporate into your workout regimen.
Your core muscles are comprised of several muscle groups.
The rectus abdominis, also known as the six-pack muscle, attaches from the lower ribs to the front of the pelvis. Statically, it stabilizes your trunk. For example, when you’re doing pushups, it keeps your pelvis and trunk level.
The primary movement it performs is bringing the shoulders toward the pelvis, such as when you sit up in bed or perform a crunch.
The internal and external obliques attach on the lateral sides of the trunk from your ribs to your pelvis. Statically, they provide stability to the front and sides of the trunk.
Their primary movements involve trunk rotation, such as when you swing a baseball bat, and side bending.
The transverse abdominis attaches from the lower spine under the ribs and around the body to the rectus abdominis. It’s the deepest of the abdominal muscles, and its job is to tighten up and provide support to the spine.
The pelvic floor muscles attach to the underside of the pelvis. These muscles start and stop the flow of urine and feces.
The diaphragm attaches to the underside of your lower ribs. It’s responsible for breathing in and out.
Your back extensors are multilayered muscles, including the erector spinae muscles, quadratus lumborum, and multifidi. They attach along the spine to the pelvis. Their job is to support the spine when you’re bending forward and lifting loads, such as during squats or the bicep curl.
Hip flexors include the psoas and iliacus muscles. They attach to the spine and inside of the pelvis. They bring your legs toward your torso, such as when you do high knee exercises.
Your core comprises several muscle groups, including your abdominals, pelvic floor, diaphragm, back extensors, and hip flexors.
Below are basic abdominal stability exercises you can use to engage your core. They’re by no means exhaustive but helpful in understanding how to engage your core muscles.
Watch this video for a walkthrough of the abdominal draw.
It’s important to note that this exercise puts high loads on your spine. If you have back pain, it’s advisable to refrain from this exercise.
Watch this video for a walk-through of the plank.
Watch this video for a walk-through of the side plank.
Watch this video for a walk-through of the bird dog.
Watch this video for a walkthrough of the dead bug.
Watch this video for a walkthrough of the bridge.
There are multiple exercises to engage your core muscles. Basic ones include the abdominal draw, plank, bird dog, dead bug, and bridge.
Your core has multiple functions, including stabilization, balance, breathing, and bowel and bladder control.
During activities like lifting something over your head, picking something up from the floor, or pushing or pulling an object, your core muscles contract to keep your trunk stable and support your spine (1).
These muscles are also important in weightlifting and athletic pursuits, such as judo, running, and soccer. Keeping your spine stable reduces the risk of injury (5).
Your core muscles aid in maintaining balance when you’re standing still, as well as when your balance is challenged dynamically (6, 7).
For example, when you are bumped into, your brain and trunk recognize this abrupt force and change in balance. They then react to help keep your body upright.
Your core muscles also support balance in activities like Olympic weightlifting, in which your trunk has to react and stay stable during changes in weight distribution.
The diaphragm is a major muscle in control of breathing. It has an inverted “U” shape and lines your lower ribs.
It flattens as it contracts, allowing room for the lungs to expand when taking in a breath. Conversely, when the diaphragm relaxes, it compresses the lung cavity, forcing air out of the lungs similarly to how bagpipes work.
In addition, the diaphragm can isometrically contract to hold your breath when you’re straining when lifting something heavy. This action supports the trunk to avoid injury and maintain stability (8).
The pelvic floor muscles help control your bowel and bladder, allowing you to urinate or defecate (or hold it if you can’t make it to the bathroom).
If these muscles aren’t strong, a condition called incontinence occurs. Yet, these muscles can be strengthened to help prevent or manage this condition in many cases.
Additionally, the pelvic floor and diaphragm muscles work in conjunction with the rest of the core to maintain spinal stability by increasing abdominal pressure at your spine (9).
The core muscles have multiple functions, including trunk stability, balance control, breathing, and bowel and bladder control.
You engage your core during a variety of basic scenarios. These include:
You can engage your core while sitting or breathing. You also use your core extensively during weightlifting, cardio, and yoga.
Engaging your core means contracting your trunk muscles to provide support for your trunk in static positions and during dynamic movements of the extremities. These muscles are used for balance, lifting, pushing, pulling, and general movement.
A strong core helps improve balance, decrease the risk of injury, and support your spine during forceful movements.
Overall, your core muscles are involved in the stability and mobility of the spine. They’re the “core” of all movements that your body does throughout the day.
Last medically reviewed on February 16, 2021