Activating Your Core: Why “Sucking It In” Isn’t Enough

I’m sure you’ve all heard the cues “squeeze your core” or “tighten your abs” from your trainer or lifting partner, but what does this actually mean?  We tend to think that when someone tells us to brace, squeeze, or tighten our core, they want us to suck in our bellies as hard as we can.  Well, this isn’t completely true.  I’ll explain what you should really be doing and how exactly to do it correctly!

First, let’s dive into the core in general.  What even is your “core”?  Your core includes several muscles between your shoulders and your legs.  If you want to get technical, your lumbar spine, the muscles of the abdominal wall, the back extensors, the quadratus lumborum, latissimus dorsi, and psoas all comprise your core.  In street terms, the muscles in your stomach, sides, and back are your core, and your glutes (butt) are also heavily involved in core activation as well.  These muscles must all work together for full and proper core activation.

This brings me to why it is so important to not just “suck it in”.  When you are just sucking it in, you are only activating a small group of muscles in the grand scheme of it all – your rectus abdominis.  These are part of the abdominal wall and they are used to contract the rib cage down as in a “crunch.”  That is all fine and dandy, however, look at everything else we are missing.  There are 3 other abdominal muscles that we are missing out on, as well as all of the muscles of your back, hips, and glutes.  (I won’t get into all of them but trust me – you’re missing out on a lot!)

I know what you’re thinking – “so what if I’m not activating all those muscles?  That is just less work I have to do!”  Well, while I totally support making things more efficient, let me explain why this isn’t the case.  Our abdominals work in a way that is much different than our other muscles.  They primarily work to increase stability or resist certain movements rather than initiating movements.

For example, find a partner.  Stand face to face with your partner and bring the palms of your hands to meet the palms of their hands out in front of you.  Tell your partner not to let you push them back, and then push with all your might (maybe not all your might if your partner is much smaller than you!) As you push, you should feel your core activate to resist pushing yourself backward.  Your partner should feel his/her core activate to resist being pushed backward.  This is what I mean by stabilizing and resisting movement.  This is what your core is responsible for primarily.

The unfortunate news about this is that “sucking it in” can actually reduce core stability because you are then not allowing all of your stability muscles to work, isolating the rectus abdominis and asking them to do it all.  So then, how do we actually get our entire core to work here?

Finding Your Core

There are many ways that you can learn to actually activate your core, but I will go over one simple way.  Start by lying on your back with your feet planted flat on the ground and your knees up.  Imagine pulling your shoulders down into their sockets, far away from the neck.  When you do this properly, you should feel muscles in your back wake up.

Next, place your lower back flat on the floor, removing the slight arch in the lower back.  Place your hands on either side of your rib cage with your fingers draped over the front and your palms more on the sides.  Take a slow, deep breath feeling your belly rise with the inhale and keeping the shoulders down.  Exhale, allowing the belly to sink down, completely emptying.

Go through a couple of breaths, just noticing and feeling the muscles in the stomach area naturally contract and release.  Once you can feel and notice that, it’s time to do the work!  On your next inhale, again fill the belly and imagine pushing the air all the way down into the pelvic floor (toward your privates)!  Notice all the muscles contracting and keep that contraction during your exhale.

Go through 2-4 slow breaths while keeping this contraction up, keeping it smooth.  Make the contraction gentle and not forceful.  Do a few rounds of this until you feel like you have mastered breathing through core activation!

Using Your New-found Core

Now that you have felt these muscles and learned how to breathe while contracting them, it’s time to put them to good use!  My favorite core exercise is the ordinary forearm plank because it is so easy to perform anywhere at any time with no equipment.  Now, don’t let that fool you!  It is not an easy exercise!  Start by getting on all fours on the ground.  Then, place your elbows on the ground, keeping hands and forearms flat on the floor.  Keeping your shoulders situated right above the elbows, reach your legs back behind you and start by coming into a flat back position with your knees on the ground.  You should be in a straight line from your head back to your knees.  If this is easy, you can press your toes into the ground with long straight legs for a harder version.

Either way, once you are here you want to make sure that your core is activated.  So, taking a deep breath down into the pelvic floor, find those muscles you used earlier.  Push your shoulder muscles down into their sockets as far away from your neck as possible.  Imagine your hands pressing a deep handprint into the floor.  Remain contracted gently through several breaths while holding the position.  Start with a 15-second hold and build from there!  Your whole core will be strong in no time!

Building the core and pelvic floor muscles is so important to avoid many common injuries, especially of the back.  When the core is weak, the back steps in to compensate and gets over-worked, resulting in back pain.  It is also common to actually impair your spinal discs with improper activation or core weakness.  Properly activated, strong core muscles can also help you with all of your other lifts you do in your workouts!  So get up and find that core!

Happy lifting!

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