How many times have you heard “engage your core”? How did your body interpret that? Engage your core is a term that is ubiquitous in all fitness classes. Still, a considerable part of the population doesn’t know how to engage the core correctly. “Draw in your navel” is another term you might have heard. It’s a verbal cue that everyone interprets differently. I commonly see an overarching in the lower back, a flaring of the ribs, and protrusion of the belly. Let’s regroup, and learn to engage these muscles. This post will review the core, its function, and ways to begin tapping into those vital muscles using more descriptive cues. Build a six-pack that won’t wreck your back and will pull in your waistline.
What Makes up Your Core?
In brief, the core is everything aside from our limbs and head. The core has many muscles that range from deep to superficial and support the pelvis and spine. Some people are surprised to learn that the pelvic floor and diaphragm are part of the core. Imagine them as the top and bottom ends of a cylinder, with the abdominal and back muscles encasing the middle. The diaphragm and pelvic floor help to modulate intra-abdominal pressure, which pretty much is happening all day long if you are breathing! This pressure will vary upon the activities we are engaged in.
Imagine the pelvic floor as a muscular sling. The diaphragm is a dome shaped muscle that increases the volume of the thoracic cavity during inhalation. Though it’s known as the major muscle for breathing, it impacts a lot more via it’s fascial connections, and it’s attachment to the ribs. These muscles partner up with inner core stabilizing muscles which support the spine during movement. Some of these muscles are the multifidus and transverse abdominis (TVA). For this post, I’ll review cues to help you tap into your TVA.
As we inhale the diaphragm flattens (contracts) expanding the ribcage, the abdominals and pelvic floor lengthen under the load. When we exhale the diaphragm returns to its starting position, the abdominals and pelvic floor contract and shorten. It helps me to imagine the ribcage as a slightly more rigid slinky to visualize its breathing pattern.
The most commonly known and frequently trained ab muscle is the rectus abdominis. Everyone wants to build a six-pack, and why not? They’re darn sexy. However, sexy does not equate to solid and functional. If you’re not engaging your core correctly, you’re not protecting your spine during movement. This opens up room for injury and leaves you susceptible to back pain. Why is this? The rectus abdominis is a powerful muscle that can take on heavy loads and produce lots of force. This force results in lots of intra-abdominal pressure that needs to be regulated. A slow-reacting inner core won’t be prepared to handle the load, potentially leading to injury and even diastasis recti – not to scare you or anything. Low load and paced movements are essential to train the inner core muscles effectively.
Having a bit of insight into these muscles builds awareness, setting you on the path of understanding how to engage your core correctly.
Neutral pelvis is another term frequently used in the fitness world, this is the precursor to engage your core. Let’s make sure this is in order before moving forward. Visualize and follow the steps below:
- Lie face up on a mat with legs bent
- Place your hands on top of your hip bones. You are feeling for the shift in the pelvis as you rock it back and forth.
- As you rock your pelvis back, your lower back should press against your mat.
- As you rock your pelvis forward (lower abs come closer to your thighs), your lower back arches, and you might be able to slip your entire hand between your lower back and the mat.
Pace these movements and breathe rhythmically. Practice a few times to get familiar with how it feels. A neutral pelvis will be right in the middle of these two movements; You are neither overarching your lower back or pressing it into the mat. A neutral pelvis may also be achieved in a standing position. Your lower abdominals are pulling up on the pubic bone, and the lower back extensors are keeping the pelvis from collapsing into the mat (or tilting forward when standing). It’s the perfect length-tension relationship.
Engage Pelvic Floor and TVA
I’ve heard the pelvic floor described as a hammock. However, the hammock I have at home is entirely droopy – so not the way I want to envision my pelvic floor! Instead, think of it as a muscular sling. The pelvic floor has the small task of keeping all our organs from dropping out of our body! But, no pressure, okay!
Visit this link if you want to learn further about pelvic floor dysfunction.
Kegels are a popular pelvic floor exercise; you might have done them without even knowing. I’m doing them right now! It’s when the pelvic floor contracts to stop the flow of urine, and hold back flatulence. My favorite Kegel (I never thought I would say that, much less write it) is the one with the elevator analogy. Imagine you are drawing in your pelvic floor with a third of your strength to stop urinary flow. Continue drawing in, slowly increasing the power of contraction, drawing in and up.
Now we’re prepared to add the TVA contractions. You might have noticed that as you do a Kegel, your other core muscles engage. I’m going to laser in on the TVA. The TVA is the deepest abdominal layer. It wraps the torso like a corset from the ribs to the pelvis and connects at the lower back via fascial connections. It compresses our abdominal contents and stabilizes the spine during movement. Here’s an exercise that will introduce you to your TVA;
- Lie down with your legs bent and place 2 fingers on the top of your hip bones.
- Follow the hip bones curve inward toward your pelvis and sink your fingers in—gently cough.
- Hello, You’ll feel the TVA contract.
Are We There Yet?
Yes! Let’s coordinate the breath with the movements. I’ll break down two exercises that target the pelvic floor, TVA, and other core muscles; the single-leg slide and single-leg lift. I’ve embedded a couple of videos for visual support (I’m working on creating a content library, so hang tight for that). You’ll notice that one of the videos uses a different breathing-movement pattern. Choose the one that works for you. The aim is pelvic stability and abdominal coordination.
Lie faceup on a mat, legs hip-width apart and bent to 90 degrees, feet on the floor with a neutral pelvis (review cues above). Your feet are just outside the mat, and place either a small towel underneath your foot or wear socks for ease of movement. Place your hands on your hip bones to feel for shifts in the pelvis. The aim is to maintain a neutral pelvis throughout the exercise while moving freely through the hip joint.
Single Leg Slide: 6-8 repetitions
- Inhale to prepare.
- Exhale as you draw in the pelvic floor, activate your TVA; slide the leg (with the towel underneath) out until it’s fully extended. Your hands are feeling for any shift in the pelvis – aim to keep it steady.
- Inhale as you slide the leg back. Perform this slowly, maintain a firm TVA but DO NOT let it limit your inhale.
Single Leg Lift: 6-8 repetitions
- Begin face up with knees bent and neutral pelvis, as in the single-leg slide, feet on the mat.
- Focus on maintaining a stable lumbar spine and hips as you lift one leg to 90 degrees.
- Inhale to prepare.
- Exhale, draw in the pelvic floor, activate your TVA, and lift your leg to 90 degrees.
- Ensure your abdominals are not bulging and your hips do not rotate.
- Inhale, place the leg back down.
When executed correctly, these exercises will build the core support necessary in sport and everyday tasks. It will improve your body awareness leaving you less prone to injury. It’s the base not just for proper function but for creating a toned and slim physique.
If you need guidance and support for your unique fitness goals click here to schedule a free 20-minute virtual consultation. Learn how to use exercise as a tool to enhance health, longevity and build a resilient body.
Thanks for stopping by!
Stand tall, Breathe deep –
ACE Certified Trainer
NASM Corrective Exercise Specialist
NYS Licensed Massage Therapist