You’ve probably heard your fitness instructor tell you to “engage your core.” As if every gym newbie knows what that means. But if you’ve never done it, you might not be sure how to engage your core. Is there a proposal involved?

Here’s the DL on engaging your core. Spoiler alert: No engagement rings required.

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Mihajlo Ckovric/Stocksy United

“Engage your core” means that you should contract the muscles surrounding your belly and lower back. These core muscles help you balance and move. They’re helpful whether you’re pumping iron or just getting out of bed.

You have a bunch of core muscles that come into play. There’s your ab muscles:

  • Rectus abdominis. (aka the six-pack muscle): This muscle goes from your lower ribs to the front of your pelvis. It stabilizes your trunk. (You’ll use them when you’re doing push-ups or planks.)
  • Internal and external obliques. Your obliques extend from your ribs to your pelvis and provide stability to your front and sides. (They’re important when you swing a golf club or do a side bend.)
  • Transverse abdominis. Extending from your lower spine under the ribs to the rectus abdominis, your transverse abdominis is your deepest-set ab muscle. It works to support your spine.

But your core isn’t all about your abs. There’s a few other types of core muscles that help out, too.

  • Pelvic floor. Your pelvic floor muscles attach to the underside of your pelvis. You can thank these babies for starting and stopping the flow of your urinary and bowel movements.
  • Diaphragm. The diaphragm attaches to the underside of your lower ribs. When you breathe deeply (like during meditation), you’re breathing through your diaphragm.
  • Back extensors. Your back extensors extend from your spine to pelvis. They support your spine when you bend forward or lift something (like during a squat).
  • Hip flexors. Hip flexors attach to your spine and inside your pelvis. They help bring your legs to your torso (like when you do happy baby in yoga class).

If your back slumps when you sit or you lose your balance easily, you may need to strengthen your core muscles. Here’s how to put in the work.

  • Sit and be fit. Sit straight and tall with your back straight (not arched). Move your belly button toward your spine. Tighten your tummy as if it’s about to get punched. You should def feel some action in your core now. Bonus: You’re ready to defend yourself in an imaginary fight.
  • Breathe deeply. Relax your shoulders, neck, and abs. Slowly breathe in through your diaphragm (remember that’s under your lower ribs). You should feel your stomach gently swell. Your chest stays still and your shoulders should stay level. Bonus: This may even help your whole body relax.
  • Pump some iron. Resistance exercises like weightlifting (bicep curls, deadlifts, etc.) work your core as well as your arms or legs. According to a 2020 study, lifting free weights is a great way to activate your major core muscles.
  • Work your core with cardio. Whether your cardio of choice is jogging, dancing, or swimming, you can count on it to raise your heart rate and work your core.
  • Do yoga moves that work your core. Most types of yoga will promote balance, flexibility, and give your core a healthy workout. Try moves like the Side Plank, Bridge Pose, and Chair Pose with a twist.

1. Helps prevent injuries

Core muscles are basically the MVPs of everyday heavy lifting.

Whether you need to get that box down from the top shelf, bring in the groceries, or move some furniture, your core muscles provide trunk stability that will support your spine and protect you from injuries. (Thanks, core!)

Naturally, that means these muscles are also great for athletic tasks, too. According to a small 2020 study, core stability training led to notable performance benefits in novice Olympic weightlifters.

2. Increases your balance

You don’t need to be a ballerina or yogi to benefit from better balance. Your core muscles help you out even when you’re standing or sitting still.

And if someone bumps into you on the street, don’t worry. Your core muscles have your back (literally) and can help keep you stable.

3. Improves your breathing

You might not think about your breath a lot. It happens automatically, after all. But the way you breathe can actually have a big impact on your health.

Your diaphragm, which looks like an inverted U under your lower ribs, is clutch when it comes to breathing. It flattens when it contracts to give your lungs have plenty of room to take in air. When it relaxes, your lungs move air out. (You can think of it like bagpipes.)

When you lift something super heavy, your diaphragm may automatically contract. This supports your middle and helps you stay stable and avoid injury.

4. Supports your bowel and bladder control

If you’re good at holding your pee until the next rest stop, you prob have a strong pelvic floor. On the other hand, weakened pelvic floor muscles can lead to incontinence (aka pee probs). Usually, strengthening these muscles can treat or manage this type of issue.

Your pelvic floor and diaphragm also work with the rest of your core to maintain spinal stability.

Anyone can benefit from a stronger core. And you don’t need any complicated exercises or equipment to get one! To start, try these classics.

1. Plank

The classic plank is the move to master if you want a stronger core.

How to do it:

  1. Start in push-up position. (Modify by supporting yourself on your knees and elbows instead.)
  2. Draw your abs to spine and keep booty in line with your bod.
  3. Hold the position for 20 to 60 secs, then lower to the floor.
  4. Try to repeat 3 times.

Feel your core working? Good! If not, make sure your back isn’t arched.

2. Side plank

Doing planks on either side will give your core a well-rounded workout.

How to do it:

  1. Turn on your side with elbow on the floor and feet stacked on top of another.
  2. Lift yourself onto your forearm and the side of your foot. Keep your hips in line with your head and feet, shoulder directly above your elbow.
  3. Hold for 20 to 60 seconds, then lower your hips.
  4. Switch sides and try to repeat 3 times.

3. The bridge

Bridges should be strong, and your core should be, too! You’ll feel both your core and your booty working in this one.

How to do it:

  1. Lie on your back, knees bent and feet flat.
  2. Squeeze your butt to lift your hips off the ground until your butt is in line with your head and knees.
  3. Hold for at least 5 seconds, then lower to the ground.
  4. Try to repeat 10 times.

Still have some lingering core Qs? We’ve gotchu covered.

How can you tell if your core is engaged correctly?

Straighten your spine and place your hand on your stomach as you squeeze your core. If you can feel the muscles contracting then you’re doing it!

How do you keep your core engaged while you’re breathing?

Breathing deeply through your diaphragm can help keep your core muscles engaged. It may take some practice, but it can eventually become second nature.

If you can feel your stomach (not your chest) contracting, you’re doing it.

How do you engage your core all day?

Just like your other muscles, your core needs to relax now and then. You don’t need to have it engaged all the time. By strengthening it, you’re already doing your body a favor.

But if you want to strengthen your core for a longer stretch of the day, consider sitting on an exercise ball while you fire off those emails.

Your core is essential for your overall health and wellness. It helps you balance, lift stuff, and protects you from injury — especially back injuries.

Engaging your core happens when you contract the muscles around your belly and lower back. You can do it whether you’re sitting still or pushing a shopping cart.