How to Engage Your Core

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core exercise

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‘How to Engage your Core’ is probably one of the most commonly instructed cues in fitness, and yet often misunderstood. Many exercisers think it means sucking in your stomach, or holding your breath.

Here’s 9 Top Tips on How To Engage Your Core:

1. ‘Sucking in your stomach’ is not engaging your core

It’s merely shifting pressure and mass upwards or downwards. If you suck it all in hard and your waist goes narrower (it will for as long as you hold your breath anyway), all the stuff that was hanging out has gone somewhere. Upwards, pushing into your diaphragm, or downwards pushing onto your pelvic floor. Imagine a tube of toothpaste. If you squeeze in the middle… the contents of the middle of the tube haven’t disappeared, they have moved.

Sucking in your breath or holding your breath whilst pulling your stomach in hard, is not training muscles. Its shifting pressure and displacing mass.

2. ‘How to engage your core’ Step by step!

TL; DR: Watch how to engage your core with MUTU System Founder and Mama-in-chief Wendy Powell.

You exhale, GENTLY drawing your belly button back at the same time as gently drawing your pelvic floor upwards. Your abs are drawing gently inwards, but not pulling in hard. Both transverse abdominis and pelvic floor are part of your core, and they work together.

Making an ‘Ssssss’ sound as you exhale may help you find the right deep abdominal muscles. For the pelvic floor part… imagine you’re sucking a smoothie with your vagina as the straw… or picking up a grape with your vagina… weird. But it works.

Inhale as you relax the muscles, engage again on the next exhale. So you’re working the muscles on the exhale, relaxing on the inhale.

If you watch side on in a mirror, this shows as a very slight movement of the lower abs – not a big one. The spine is neutral, your chest should not thrust – so lower ribs stay back, stacked directly over ASIS (the hip bone bits that stick out at the front), stacked over the pubic bone.

You don’t hold your breath. Your shoulders don’t tense and very importantly, your tailbone or backside doesn’t tuck underneath you. When you isolate your TVA muscle and engage it, you should not see movement anywhere else in your body.

Try lying on your back, on all fours, sitting or standing, but the same indicators apply – your spine should be in neutral alignment: lower ribs over ASIS, ASIS on the same vertical plane over the pubic bone.

If your butt tucks under, if you suck it all in, hold your breath, thrust, tense or hunch anything else… that’s not isolating your TVA.

Correct alignment is VITAL to making this work and is explained in detail in our programmes.

3. How do you know if you’re engaging your core correctly?

Place your hands on your ‘hip bones’ – the bits that jut out at the front of your pelvis on each side). Move your fingers slightly inwards and downwards from there, where it is soft. When you engage your TVA, you will feel a tensing of the broad flat muscle under the pads of your fingers. If your stomach pooches or pushes outwards, if you’re holding your breath or anything is pushing away, then you’re working the outer abdominal muscles and TVA isn’t doing its thing.

4. ‘I can feel something happening in my pelvic floor muscles’

GOOD! The TVA is part of your core system of muscles, as are your pelvic floor muscles. When you draw TVA inwards, the pelvic floor should also lift. Remember, to really work your pelvic floor muscles, it’s a deep lift up inside, not a little lateral squeeze at the front. Imagine drawing up the walls of your vagina and back passage (try them separately, and together… undercarriage acrobatics) as if you’re picking up a small grape and pulling it up inside you.

So the ideal TVA contraction = exhale, draw the belly button gently back to the spine, draw the pelvic floor gently up. Pelvis doesn’t move. No tucking, hunching, thrusting or breath holding.

5. Isolating the Transverse Abdominis muscle

This is a necessary first stage of achieving a functioning core because you need to reconnect with it if you’re going to work with it. But it is only the first stage. You don’t have to carry on doing TVA isolation exercises for ever. Just find your core. Then reconnect the brain to the muscle and make it work right.

But to really work, to really function, the TVA is only one part (a very important part, but one part all the same) of your core system of muscles. These include your diaphragm, pelvic floor and the multifidus of your spine. Your stabilizing muscles that are utterly vital to your body working right. You find them, you figure out how to make them work on their own, then you teach the whole system to work every time you move.

6. How to engage your core – controlling intra abdominal pressure

Intra Abdominal Pressure is why your stomach muscles push out, why you get diastasis recti, hernia, prolapse and a tummy you don’t like. You need to reverse this pressure to get a tummy that looks and feels like you want it to, for the long term. This is about alignment and learning to use your entire core system right…. you have to address the cause, not just the symptoms

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7. You’ve got to find it before you can strengthen it

If you haven’t found, reconnected with and learnt to engage and use your entire core system of muscles from these foundations, no Pilates class, boot camp, binding tight things around your waist or any other abdominal exercise is going to get you a flat stomach.

8. Now I have found it, should I ‘engage’ it the whole time?

No! The core muscular system’s function is to stabilise your body without you consciously contracting it every time. You need to connect, to isolate, in order to find and retrain it – you do NOT have to hold it in the whole time. You definitely don’t suck it in hard (see no.1). Hypertonic muscles are too tight – weak and tight. A constantly contracted muscle is absolutely not a strong one. So let your abs go! You need to untuck your backside and allow your pelvic floor and abdominal muscles to work through their full range of movement, to help your body find it’s neutral, optimally functional alignment – and to do this the relaxing and stretching parts are every bit as important as the contracting part.

9.’But I still don’t have a flat stomach!’

That’s because there is fat sitting on top of your muscles my Lovely. The fat you carry on your waistline (and everywhere else – its the same stuff) is determined by the food you do or don’t choose to eat, by your hormones and by your activity levels. Stomach exercises (even the right ones) won’t give you a flat stomach you can see if a layer of fat is obliterating the view.

How to engage your core – is actually about a lot more than your core – A holistic approach

This is why MUTU System programme works. They teach you how to find the right muscles, how to reconnect with them on an emotional as well as the physiological level (the latter won’t work without the former, and many mothers have lost the former), make them work, and then make the whole system work every time you move. MUTU teaches you how to reverse the pressure causing the problem through correct alignment, without which no ab exercises will work long term. It teaches you how to eat the right foods and balance your hormones to lose the fat that sits on top. MUTU System fills in all the gaps, all the missing links in why the regime or exercises or methods you have tried before, may not have flattened your tummy

Wendy Powell
Wendy Powell
Wendy Powell, Dip PT is Founder and CEO of MUTU System. Wendy is a highly certified postpartum specialist and master trainer, as well as a speaker, Femtech entrepreneur and mentor.

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