Correct Core Activation
Activating your core can be a tricky concept, but it’s important to get right. Correct core activation is literally the key to best results. Trainers often say things like “rib to hip connection” or “core tight and strong”, which are all cues to remind you to activate those trunk muscles and protect the spine. Plus, it will help you get more out of each drill.
WHAT DOES “ACTIVATING YOUR CORE” EVEN MEAN?
Activating your core is not bracing your abs and midsection so that you can’t move. It’s also not ‘sucking in’, inflating your ribs and lifting your shoulders. It’s tightening the abdominal muscles and sending your breath into the backs and sides of your waist (lateral breathing) to achieve intra-abdominal pressure. This pressure created with correct core activation protects your spine and allows you to move.
Let me explain...
STEP BY STEP GUIDE TO ACTIVATING YOUR CORE
Correct breathing is crucial for core activation and correct movement patterns. A great technique is lateral breathing, which is what I suggest for most drills.
As you inhale, keep your shoulders down and breathe deep into the backs and sides of the waist. This eccentrically loads the external obliques and opens up the lower back. As you exhale, those same muscles will contract to squeeze the breath back out of your body. This style of breathing recruits your core with each breath allows you to move.
Activating your core by trying to ‘suck in’ or ‘draw your navel to your spine’ doesn’t allow for a full range of motion in each pose. It is important to feel muscle tension to activate your core, but you shouldn’t look like a boxer going into the ring with a rounded lumbar section. It should feel like you’re wearing a supportive corset in every exercise!
We have four layers of abdominals:
Transverse abdominis (TA)
Transverse Abdominis (TA)
This is the deepest layer of your abdomen. Think of this muscle as your corset, working with your pelvic floor as your deepest core stabiliser.
Draw your hip bones in together, like they could touch under your belly button, then draw in and up. Keep the sternum melting down the front of your body too, this muscle connects the pelvis to the rib cage.
Internal and External Obliques
These muscles help with stability when you are trying not to let your trunk twist or sink through a drill (like dead bug, opposite arm and leg, side planks). They also work as prime movers, when you want your waist to twist and bend (like Criss Cross). If you don’t know what these drills are, you’ll find out within the first week of training!
Lift your waist away from the mat underneath you in a side plank or with any side series. In rotation exercises, focus on wringing your waist out like a wet towel – really twist! When using as a stabiliser, avoid any twisting through the trunk by activating your lats (your oblique’s best mate), pulling down through the sides of the shoulder blades, and shortening the distance between the ribs and hips equally on both sides of the body. Don’t allow any shift or sheering of the torso.
Rectus abdominis works to flex the spine for drills like ab curls. My preference as a trainer is for my clients to utilise full c-curve or imprint through the lower spine when they are working in flexion. This is what we mean when we say “lengthen lower back to mat”.
Feel your abs ‘scooping in and up’ from the base of the trunk. Generally, you exhale as you curl up, keeping the lower abs flat and your lower back lengthened down to the mat underneath you. You want the same feeling in your spinal articulation drills like hip rolls or moving from dog to plank. It’s all about igniting the front fascial chain to lengthen the posterior fascial chain.
ALL TOGETHER NOW!
So, in a stabilising exercise, focus on TA, pelvic floor and to a lesser extent the obliques to hold your torso absolutely still. Feel the abs, see the stability. In core strength and moving drills, focus on the movement coming from activating the abdominals rather than allowing bully muscles to take over (like your neck, hip flexors, quads and lower back).
SIGNS YOUR CORE IS NOT WORKING:
There are a few telltale signs your your core is not being activated:
Lower back activation (If you are feeling it in your lower back)
You have sore hip flexors during or after your workout
Clicking hip syndrome
If you feel any of these during a workout, it is so important to stop and reset. Working with poor form (especially with core drills) does more harm than good. You should reach overload when your form is correct, so if you’re feeling the burn in the right places, keep going.
TIPS TO CHECK AND CORRECT:
Abdominal doming. This is where your abs are poking out in a triangle shape. If this happens, correct by ‘glad wrapping’ them flat. This should improve and eventually eliminate hip clicking or tight hip flexors during and after a workout.
Lumber curve. When your spine is in neutral and you’re lying on your back, you should have a small gap between your lower back and your mat. Your deep core stabilisers will support the natural curve of your spine and you should not feel any lower back pain. If you feel your lower back gripping, it usually means the gap has grown, so keep it small
and supported. This is common in exercises like dead bug when you’re lying on your back and the gap between the mat and your lower back is too big, or in plank, when your lower back will appear to be sinking and no longer looks or feels lengthened and supported.
Losing imprint in core strength drills. In exercises like ab curls or criss cross, your spine needs to be lengthened down onto the mat. In these drills it’s really important to maintain a ‘scoop’ feeling from your pubic bone to your belly button. The abs draw in and up and the lower back must stay on the mat. Avoid the hips from rocking forward and the lower back peeling off the mat by using that deep abdominal connection.