It’s really not fun when you hear fitness trainers—in videos or in person—nonchalantly ask you to activate your core, or keep your core tight, while performing an exercise. This is the point when a thousand questions are running through your muscle memory: does it mean I should hold my breath? Does it mean I should keep my abdominal muscles flexed at all times? Is my core active if I keep my chest up during a rep? It gets even more annoying when you read about how keeping your core active during all your exercises means you may not even have to end your workout with some deadly ab routine. Activating one’s core can quickly become a relentless chase to unlock a fitness secret which is so openly shared but so difficult to find.
But before you embark on a search, you must know what you’re looking for. The core doesn’t just include your ab muscles. In fact, research has shown that it comprises your lower back, glutes, hips, abs and the pelvic floor. Which probably explains why it’s so tough to engage the core while performing exercises where you’re already activating certain muscles. A common example is the core failing to keep the hips up when you’re doing push-ups. That’s when the lower back caves in, even though your chest can take the load of the exercise.
“Most newbies may struggle with squeezing their glutes, engaging the abs and retracting their shoulders at the same time. What you want to eventually achieve is the feeling of such activation that you think your feet are screwed to the floor while doing a deadlift. But one has to start simple: let’s say someone is doing conventional squats and their chest is falling forward, I make them do the squats against the wall which immediately gives a feeling of stability,” says strength and conditioning coach Sahil Prabhakar, who owns Box XI in Vadodara, Gujarat.
So, why do you need to activate your core? The simple answer to that is that doing so will make every exercise you do feel easier. Take a shoulder press, for example. While your shoulder muscles will surely be used in lifting the weight overhead, keeping your core engaged while doing this will mean a safer lower back position and more lifting capacity, since you won’t be using just one muscle group. It will also help you avoid injury when you’re going for heavier weights. Now imagine an entire workout with disciplined core activation and feel the difference.
“People should ideally learn how to activate their core and then learn to lift. For those who are chasing a six pack: engaging your core and performing deadlifts, front/back/overhead squats and even the bench press will give you the aesthetics you’re looking for. It is important to remember that the core muscles also need to recover,” Prabhakar says.
The core is not just about strength, though, it also plays a key role in stabilising your body. When someone pushes you, the muscles that stop you from losing balance are all part of the core. Anything you do: rotations, squatting, running, kicking, smashing a badminton shuttle, everything will need core engagement to ensure these movements don’t destabilise the rest of the body’s muscles.
There are a couple of simple movements that will give you a sense of what activating the core feels like. Lie on your back with the knees raised above in a table-top position. While squeezing your glutes and core, make sure your lower back presses into the floor. Don’t worry if the natural back arch will mean there will be a gap between lower back and the floor. But minimising this gap—not by relaxing but by engaging your muscles—is what core activation is. If you push your quads forward with your palms and resist this force, it will be your core that is actively trying to stabilize your body.
If you don’t want to press against your quads, try extending one leg out straight from the table-top position. You will notice how your lower back may lift off the floor when you do this. To resist this and still stay stable, your core must activate. Both these moves will give you floor feedback, and over time, you’ll be able to do this in a standing position as well. This will also help in keeping a “neutral spine”—another phrase from fitness jargon—when you’re performing exercises which require a straight back.
Core training is important even if you’re not a gym regular. With options of performing pilates and yoga, both of which focuses on holds to strengthen, there really is no excuse to avoid it. The aim is to tune yourself into firing the core muscles even for day-to-day functional activities, like picking up a chair and placing it somewhere else. “If you’re going to prioritize different areas of the body the core would be number one because everything else branches off from that,” says Virginia-based personal trainer Sarah Walls in a healthline.com interview.
Her favourite core exercise is the Palloff press, which you can do using bands or a cable machine (in the gym). The Paloff press basically involves pulling a cable from one side with both hands and bringing them together almost in prayer position, before pushing the cable/band away from your chest. Check out the video below for some variations as well.