By Kim Duke, NETA & AAFA Certified Trainer

I will often tell my clients and group fitness participants to “engage their core.”  More often than not, my clients are not sure what that means and sometimes end up holding their breath while trying to engage their core.

What I have explained to these folks is that engaging or flexing your core means tightening your muscles through your torso.  Think of it this way:  Try flexing your muscles as if your are preparing for someone to sucker-punch you in the gut.  There, of course, is an element of breathing that goes along with this.  Inhale and exhale slowly, and you should be able to feel your abdominal wall moving with you.

But people often interpret “engage” to mean “suck in,” so they proceed to suck in their belly buttons while exercising.  Unfortunately, that is the exact opposite of how you should engage the core, as it actually de-stabilizes your core.

When someone’s about to tackle you, you don’t prepare yourself for impact by putting your feet close together, right?  No, you plant them farther apart to create a wider, better base of support. Sucking your stomach in towards your spine is the core equivalent of standing with your feet close together.  So how do you create that wider base of support?

When engaging your core for stability, the goal is to create as solid a ring of muscles around your mid-section as possible.  To achieve that, you have to activate your core muscles  slightly outward, stiffening them to create a protective “cylinder” around your abdomen. It’s a crucial component for good function, but it’s also easier said than done for those out of practice.  Here are a few ways to get the feel for it:

• Use your front six-pack abdominal  muscle to “pull up”  on the front of your pelvis (not in), then bear down a little in order to push your abdomen out in all directions.

• Try using a quick, forceful grunt to help you push your mid-section outward, as if bracing it for a punch to the gut. Do it repeatedly to really get the feel.

• Your core naturally engages as the very first step in coughing or laughing. So another way to get the feel for how to correctly activate your core is by initiating one of those actions–you’re looking for that abdominal activation that takes place just before any cough or laugh actually occurs.

• Or rest your hands on either side of your abdomen and try to push them away using only your abdominal muscles.

It’s a little tricky at first, but soon becomes second nature.  I promise, you won’t have to walk around with your hands against your abdomen forever!