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I hear the phrase engage your core all the time, and honestly, I've never really understood what people saying it are trying to get me to do, and the answers to the question How to 'engage your core'? don't communicate enough detail for me.

Nathan Wheeler's answer describes stability and smooth motion as the goals, but I can achieve both stability and smooth motion without doing anything that feels like I'm using or "engaging" my core. So I'm still left with questions.

For a long time I've interpreted it to mean contract your abs or suck in your stomach, but these don't feel right to me.

  1. Contract your abs. When I simply contract my abs, it tends to pull my body into a slight arc, with my chest dropping, my shoulders coming forward, and my back rolling ever so slightly. My intuition tells me this is not an athletic posture because it makes it more difficult to move with control and agility.

  2. Suck in your stomach. When I try sucking in my stomach, it has a tendency to inhibit my ability to breathe freely and deeply. My intuition says this isn't right either.

So what does it really mean to engage your core? An article about engaging your core from a yoga perspective suggests that it's really about posture.

When all the muscles of the trunk work together harmoniously, we have good posture while static (meditating) or moving (everyday activities as well as asana practice).

From this I came up with my own interpretation: to maintain good posture in an exercise, keeping a long torso with the lower abs and lower back slightly taut—you might even say engaged ;). In more detail, to me this means:

  1. Keeping the chin raised and gaze high, rolling the shoulders back slightly, and lifting your chest.
  2. Further elongating your torso and pulling in your lower abs slightly, but opposing that by also activating your lower back muscles for stability.

To me this is all about elongating your torso, keeping it stable, and being contracted enough to take a light punch to the abs. (Not because taking a punch is particularly important, but because that helps me think about which muscles I should be activating.)

What still bothers me about my latest interpretation is that the particular sequence of words "engage your core" fails to imply anything about posture.

The question

So, do I have it right? Is engaging your core really about posture?

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Isn't the phrase context-sensitive? Wouldn't "engaging your core" mean different things to different trainers and trainees, or vary in meaning when in reference to a squat versus standing at your desk? –  Dave Liepmann Apr 13 '12 at 19:11
    
It's not too useful if it means different things to me and to the person saying it to me. –  Christopher James Calo Apr 16 '12 at 3:50
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2 Answers 2

up vote 6 down vote accepted

The core, is a group of muscles that include:

  • Pelvic Floor muscles
  • Transversus Abdomoninis
  • Multifidus
  • Internal and External Obliques
  • Rectus Abdomonis
  • Erector Spinae
  • Longissimus Thoracis
  • Diaphragm

Long story short, engaging your core is to engage all of these muscles. Only engaging the abdominals will pull you forward.

Probably a better way to think about it is to "brace yourself". Take a deep breath, and tighten up your sides, back, and ab muscles while holding that breath. You'll feel a lot more stable. Now, try to tighten up everything while you still breath. You'll still have the majority of that stability even though you aren't including your diaphragm in it.

It's not so much about posture--even though your posture is affected--as it is about keeping all the muscles grouped together in the core contracted and tight.

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The phrase "brace yourself" is really helpful. Sounds like it's really about being strong and stable in whatever posture you're in, and that requires many of the muscles you mention. –  Christopher James Calo Apr 20 '12 at 13:36
    
Depends on the activity I guess. There's no need to tension everything all the time. That restricts breathing and blood flow. Eg. if you lift one leg to the side, you'll tension the same side but you can relax the other side, so blood can flow breathing is easier. –  BKE Nov 5 '13 at 9:27
    
If you are lifting, you are bracing yourself during the lift until you rerack the bar. There are other sports where bracing yourself is for protecting yourself during impact, or in fighting sports where you are delivering a blow. –  Berin Loritsch Nov 5 '13 at 12:33
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The phrase means different things to different people. We're never going to get consensus between Olympic weightlifting coaches, yoga instructors, physical therapists, and gym rats on what the phrase means.

Generally, however, "engaging the core" means squeezing both your abs and your back simultaneously. Other muscles may be involved, depending on the context. I would agree that most people saying it mean that you should "lock in" your posture according to the dictates of the activity you're doing. (Those dictates will differ somewhat between gymnasts, yogis, lifters, et cetera, as well as between coaches.) I do know that it doesn't mean squeezing the abs without also squeezing the back, and that it means the opposite of sucking in the stomach in most cases.

In many contexts--a plank, barbell squats, snatches--I would not say that the activation of those muscles should be "slightly taut". I imagine they should be engaged hard, even near-maximally.

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I really like the phrase "lock in your posture." Thinking of it that way is helpful to me. I've also noticed that I'm more stable not when I suck in my stomach but when I do the opposite, as you mention. It's frustrating that this phrase would mean different things to different people. I would love to hear about those differences, but that's probably for another question. –  Christopher James Calo Apr 20 '12 at 13:40
    
The suck-in-the-stomach piece can be helped by visualizing the trunk as a pillar of a building. (It's acting as a support pillar for lifting or whatever, anyway, so it's a good analogy.) You get more stability with more cross-sectional area, assuming the structure remains solid. –  Dave Liepmann Apr 20 '12 at 13:49
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