By activating and using your core so it does all of these movements properly, you’ll be able to move more efficiently and effectively, Femi Betiku, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., Club Pilates instructor in New York, tells SELF. That also ultimately means a lower risk of injury.
One reason? It’ll help keep your lower back in a safe position. Squeezing your glutes in particular will give you a slight posterior pelvic tilt, which just means your pelvis is tucked under a tad, so that your lower back is in a neutral position, says Stokes. (If you don’t engage your core, you can revert to a more anterior pelvic tilt, where your butt’s popped out and your back is arched, which ultimately puts a lot of pressure on the lower back.)
Engaging your core also helps you cut down on over-relying on other muscles to get the power you need to crush each exercise.
“When you’re using your core along with arms or legs or both, you’re able to use the least amount of force for maximum impact,” Betiku says.
It’s a lesson Betiku recently taught one of his clients, a soccer player recovering from a hip strain. Because she was not activating her core when she kicked, her hip flexors were taking on all that work, leading to overuse. Once he taught her to fire her core, she was able to cut her reliance on her hip flexors, reduce the strain to them, and kick a soccer ball with more power.
But you don’t have to play sports to reap that benefit: The concept applies to pretty much any movement. When you’re doing a lunge, if you engage your core, you’ll take some of the work off your legs, helping you move more efficiently, do more reps, and maybe even lift heavier too. During bent-over rows, an engaged core will keep your torso from rotating in a way that tweaks your back. Same thing for deadlifts, squats—you get the picture. You’ll still primarily work the muscle you’re targeting, but your core will do the other work that needs to be done so that other muscles don’t end up overcompensating.
Here’s how to know if you’re activating your core properly.
Okay, so you know why firing your core is important, but that doesn’t mean a whole lot unless you can recognize what it should feel like so you can determine whether you’re doing it right. To do that, you can try a few different drills.
Stokes suggests lying on your back with your knees above your hips in tabletop position. In this position, squeeze your glutes and your core muscles so that your lower back presses into the floor. Aim to be as flush with the floor as possible, though your back’s natural arch may prevent it from pressing down completely. (It’s easiest to feel core “activation” when lying on your back, Saliba notes, because you can use the floor for feedback.)
From here, place your palms on your quads and try to push them forward and toward your feet as you simultaneously resist the tension using your entire core. If neither your legs nor arms move at all despite your pushing, your core is activated.
Another option is to get into tabletop position, but instead of pressing against your legs, simply extend one leg out straight, Betiku says. As you do it, use your glutes and abs to keep your lower back from lifting off the ground—the goal is for your torso to stay completely still.
Doing one of these drills first will help you better transfer the concept to standing and sitting positions. Then, once you know what “activating your core” feels like, you should make it a point to fire it up before you do any exercise, whether it’s an abs move or not. When you do any other exercise, you should feel some muscle activity in your midsection—meaning, you should feel all of those muscles contracting and working, even if they’re not working to the same extent of the muscle you’re targeting, Betiku says.
And remember that putting your brain into your movement can go a long way. The more you think about engaging your core, and really focus on how it feels, the more muscle awareness you’ll develop and the easier it will become, Betiku says.
It’s something you’ll always have to keep in the back of your mind, but with practice, it’ll become second nature for you to do. “Eventually, once you understand the feeling, you’ll be able to feel yourself drifting out of it because you’re so in tune with your body,” says Stokes. “But you always want to think of minding your muscle, not just passing through movement.” That one simple thought can truly make a total-body difference.