How to Engage Your Core Correctly – Introduction
You need to know how to engage your core while working out.
If you read any exercise description, invariably, somewhere in the instructions, you’ll be told to ‘engage your core!’.
This is often called bracing.
The word core might be replaced by abs or midsection, but all these terms refer to the same thing.
What Is Bracing?
In building and engineering, bracing means providing additional support.
For example, you could brace a wall to stop it from falling down.
In medical terms, a brace is a device that supports a joint, such as a weak knee or unstable shoulder.
The main core muscles are:
- Rectus abdominis (front of the abdomen)
- Obliques (sides of the abdomen)
- Transverse abdominis (sides of the abdomen)
- Erector spinae (lower back)
Core muscles – rectus abdominis,obliques, and transverse abdominis
Erector Spinae Muscles
Diaphragm and Pelvic floor
In addition, bracing involves engaging the diaphragm and pelvic floor.
These muscles come together to form a sort of cylinder, with the diaphragm at the top, the pelvic floor at the bottom, and the other muscles forming the front, sides, and back.
Picture a soda can, and you’ll have an idea of how these muscles are arranged.
Done correctly, engaging your core and bracing supports your midsection from within, which stops it from collapsing under load.
Bracing helps keep your spine in a neutral position, where your lumbar spine is slightly arched and neither rounded nor hyperextended.
3 natural curves of the cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine
For example, imagine doing squats with a heavy barbell on your shoulders.
To lift that heavy weight, you need to transfer the force generated by your leg into the barbell.
If your midsection collapses, you’ll lose energy, and while your hips will rise, the weight may not.
As well as being an inefficient way to lift weights, if you allow your midsection to collapse, the stress that should have been supported by your muscles will end up on your spine, ligaments, and intervertebral discs.
All of these structures are easy to injure and slow to heal.
In the case of intervertebral discs, damage may need to be repaired surgically.
That’s why bracing is such an important skill to master.
When you brace, you stabilize your midsection to keep it rigid.
With your core braced, the forces generated by your legs transfer efficiently to the load you’re lifting.
No energy is lost, and there is less stress on your spine, ligaments, and discs.
You should brace during every exercise in your workout.
How to Brace
While many exercise instructions tell you to brace, very few actually explain how to do it.
Bracing should be something you do without thinking about it.
But, long periods of sitting and lack of practice may mean you’ve lost this skill.
Also, when lifting very heavy weights, it may be necessary to engage your abs more forcefully to generate maximal IAP.
Follow these four steps to learn how to engage your abs and brace:
Stand up straight and place your hands on your waist, so your fingers point forward.
This will provide feedback and confirm you are bracing correctly.
Press inward and make a mental note of the firmness beneath your fingers.
Tense your abs like you’re expecting to get punched in the stomach.
Do not pull your abs in.
Instead, push your abs out without letting them bulge outward.
Don’t just tense your stomach; engage your obliques, too.
Use your fingers to feel the tone of your muscles change.
Pull up your pelvic floor like you are trying to stop the flow of urine mid-flow and avoid breaking wind.
I know – kinda gross but doing this helps maximize IAP.
Inhale and draw that air down and into your stomach.
You should feel your midsection swell slightly.
You are now braced.
Press inward with your fingers; your entire waistline should feel solid.
You should also feel your lower back muscles expand slightly.
This is called the hydraulic amplification mechanism and is your body’s response to bracing.
It “pumps up” your back muscles to further increase core stiffness.
Of course, you can’t hold your breath indefinitely, and your abs will soon start to tire if you try to keep them contracted for too long.
Subsequently, you need to learn to time your bracing to match the demands of the exercise you are doing.
Bracing and Breathing for Moderate Weights
Many workout descriptions say things like “breathe in as you lift and exhale as you lower,” and while that works for a lot of exercises, it’s not always correct, especially when lifting heavy weights.
They also tell you to brace at the start of your rep but fail to tell you what to do between reps.
Do you just relax?
How you breathe and brace depends on the exercise you are performing and how much weight you are using.
The heavier the load, the more IAP you’ll need to generate to maintain optimal spinal alignment.
For deadlifts, exhale as you stand up and inhale as you descend.
For squats, inhale as you descend and exhale as you return to standing.
Using this method, and combined with bracing, your IAP will peak when you need it the most – when you are bent over and in the most mechanically stressful position.
For Heavier Weights 1- 5 Reps
But, if you are lifting heavier weights for 1-5 reps, you’ll need to generate more IAP, so you need to time your breathing accordingly.
For deadlifts, you’ll brace your core before reaching down for the bar, inhale as you get into your liftoff position, and then hold your breath for most if not all of the ascent.
Exhale slowly but not completely as you lower the weight back to the floor, inhale, reset your core, and then do your next rep.
For squats, brace your core as you unrack the bar and inhale.
Hold your breath as you descend and start your ascent.
Only begin to exhale as you pass halfway approach lockout.
Once you are standing up, inhale, reset your core, and then do your next rep.
It’s important to note that while holding your breath and bracing increases IAP, it also causes a significant rise in blood pressure.
This is because of something called the Valsalva maneuver.
It’s this rise in blood pressure that can cause nose bleeds and burst capillaries in strongman competitors and powerlifters.
This increase in BP is not a problem if you have normal blood pressure, and it’ll quickly return to normal when you relax.
But, anyone with hypertension should not hold their breath while lifting heavier weights.
For this reason, very heavy strength training is not recommended for people with high blood pressure.
What About Weightlifting Belts?
A lot of exercisers think that wearing a lifting belt helps support their spine.
Instead, wearing a belt means you can use your core better to generate more IAP.
When bracing and lifting heavy weights, your abs may bulge outward, reducing IAP.
Wearing a weightlifting belt gives you something to actively push your abs into.
The belt doesn’t replace the need to brace; it just means you can brace harder.
If you wear a belt, don’t treat it as a passive form of support.
Instead, learn to work with it.
Belts that are the same width all the way around are best for bracing.
Those with a wide back and narrow front don’t provide you with much surface area to push against and are far less useful.
See the 5 Best Weightlifting Belts You Can Buy Today for more details.
Getting Better at Bracing
Now you know why and how to brace, you probably want to know how to get better at it.
After all, the more proficient you are, the more weight you’ll be able to lift.
Your risk of injury should be lower too.
Strengthen your abs
The harder you can tense your core muscles, the more IAP you’ll be able to generate.
Make sure you train all your abs to strengthen these all-important muscles.
However, that doesn’t mean more sets of high-rep crunches or sit-ups.
Instead, you need to train your abs more specifically for bracing.
Choose demanding exercises that overload your muscles with plenty of weight.
If you can do more than 20 reps, it’s unlikely you’re going to get much stronger.
Train your abs like any other muscle group – hard and heavy.
You can practice bracing almost anywhere and anytime.
Get into the habit of bracing throughout your day.
In time, you should be able to brace without thinking about it.
Not only will all this practice make you a better bracer, but it’s also good for your posture and could help alleviate back pain.
Activate your core before lifting
Fire up your core muscles before training.
This will increase core activation and bracing.
For example, you could do a couple of quick sets of maximal tension planks or any other exercise that forces you to brace, such as:
Don’t turn this into a workout; you don’t want to fatigue your core prematurely.
Instead, do just enough to wake up your core and ensure it’s fully engaged.
Stop well short of failure, and only do 1-2 sets of a small number of reps.
How to Engage Your Core Correctly – Wrapping Up
Engaging your core is a vital part of many exercises.
It’s only by bracing that you’ll be able to stabilize your spine and prevent it from rounding or hyperextending.
While learning to brace can take a little time, once you’ve mastered it, you’ll be able to lift more weight and do more reps with better form and a lower risk of injury.
Time spent learning to brace is time well spent!
As an added benefit, bracing during your workouts turns every exercise in your program into a core workout.
Your abs will undoubtedly thank you for the extra attention!