Updated: Oct 5, 2021
Engaging your core is probably one of the most important things you can do to help prevent injuries. When you think about the core you may think it’s made up purely of the abdominal muscles which sit at the front of the body but it’s actually many more muscles and their collective purpose is to support the spine. Engaging your core helps you move more efficiently and takes pressure off your spine which is really important not only while you are working out but also in everyday life. If you can make sure your core is engaged and ready to support the body while you withstand additional load (be it hand weights or a bubba) then not only are you getting stronger but you’re also making sure you don’t cause any injuries to your back. This blog piece will take you through a few simple steps to help you engage your core properly.
Let’s start with your breath. The aim is to get you into a deep 360° breathing pattern to ensure you’re getting good diaphragm contraction and rib expansion as you inhale, and pelvic floor contraction and core engagement as you exhale. Test your breathing pattern by popping your hands on the lower part of your ribs with your thumbs around your back. As you breathe in you want to feel your ribs expanding to the front, sides and back. As you exhale you’ll find the ribs naturally drawdown and in. If you find you’re taking more breath into your chest then you’re in more of a shallow breathing pattern and you’ll want to work on trying to take deeper breaths and sending the air down towards your lungs rather than into the chest. I’m prescribing meditation for all you shallow breathers out there!
Once you’ve got the hang of inhaling with rib expansion you want to shift your focus to what happens when you exhale. Take your attention down towards your pelvic floor - the space between your pubic bone, your coccyx and both hip bones. As you exhale try to imagine this space gathering and lifting up. Your transverse abdominals are the stabilising core muscles that wrap around your spine and there are 3 levels; lower, mid and upper. As you gather and lift your pelvic floor, you want to imagine drawing up all 3 levels of transverse abdominals until you reach the bottom of the ribcage. If you struggle to find this feeling, try and slow your breathing down and breathe more intentionally out of your mouth as you exhale. You should find that you end up with great core engagement at the end of your exhale and the space across your tummy appears flatter rather than a doming in the lower part of your core. It's a feeling of lengthening and lifting up through the core rather than pushing pressure down.
You might find it easier to try this sitting and then move down to practice while lying on the floor. Once you feel confident with it you can start to introduce some leg raises from a tabletop position, taking the time to set up properly and only starting to lift the legs once your core is engaged. I've popped a couple of demonstration images below to show you the alignment in a little more detail.
In this first image, you can see I'm forcing pressure towards the lower part of my core and my pelvic floor to lift into a crunch and this is creating a doming in that lower core area. Added to that I've pulled my chin down towards my chest by drawing my elbows forwards which has created some pressure in my neck.
Below you can see the lower part of my core is flatter as I'm lifting and lengthening that area rather than pushing pressure towards my lower abdominals and pelvic floor to lift into the crunch. I've also kept my elbows wide, let the weight of my head sit into my hands and kept my eyeline higher which helps keep the space between my chin and chest. This feels much better on my neck and you could even take more pressure off the front of your neck by applying a light amount of pressure into the hands.
It might take a wee bit of practice to get your head around this technique but it will be so worth it! You'll find your core stability and balance really improves and any discomfort you felt in your lower back should feel better. This postnatal core and breath work session is the perfect class to put all of this work into practice. There are also some great core-focused technique sessions that you can watch here.