If you have been following my Instagram account #evolvebymelissa, you will have seen how important having a strong core is in everything we do. Development of a strong core can be a common goal for numerous reasons, such as: improving physical physique, preventing/relieving back pain, improving performance in recreational or competitive activities and building a stable base for our arms and legs to perform normal activities of daily living.
I began researching core activation to better understand my own repeat injuries and post-pregnancy issues. After my second child (a whopping 10lbs) I had a lot of Diastasis (where your abdominal wall separates to make room for growing baby and doesn’t close enough after pregnancy) leaving post-pregnancy lower belly pooch. I stayed pretty active during both or my pregnancies and was able to return to exercising very shortly after both pregnancies. What I didn’t know is lack of core stability and strength from the diastasis as well as lack of knowledge on core activation, led me to multiple back and hip injuries/pains. I decided to seek out the advice of a physiotherapist specific to post-pregnancy patients. The knowledge I gained from her, and continue to learn, has completely changed my life. My diastasis disappeared, the chronic back and hip pain disappeared, I found I was stronger and healthier than ever.
I hope by sharing this information on How To Activate the Core and providing Exercises to incorporate into your daily fitness routines will not only showcase how to develop a strong/stable core, but also explain how the development of a strong core will improve overall function for not only the lower back, but our bodies in general (men and women).
The first key to a strong core is developing a stable inner core. The inner core works as a unit to create dynamic stability around the spine and pelvis.
Most people aren’t even aware of how to properly activate the core. Your core abdominal muscles wrap around your trunk like a corset. They run from the front of your abdomen, around your waist and insert via connective tissue into your spine.
The best position to locate your deep abdominal muscles is just inside your pelvic bones. Lie on your back, feet planted, knees up and relax. If you wrap your thumbs and forefingers around your waist, your fingers will rest directly above your core abdominal muscles, just inside your pelvic bones. This is the best place to feel your deep abdominal core muscles as they are the deepest of your layered abdominal muscles.
Gently draw in your lower abdominal wall towards your spine – this is slow and controlled activation. Try to slightly draw in the area of your abdomen that sits beneath your briefs (Similar to if you have the urge to use the toilet and have to hold it). Remember this is a very subtle and gentle contraction; it should not be too strong or forceful. Try to breathe normally during all exercises for the core. Try to hold for 10 seconds. Progress the duration of your holds as your core control improves with practice.
It can be challenging to feel the gentle tension created when your core muscles are correctly activated. Ideally you should feel a gentle tension or tightness under your fingers with correct core activation. Core muscles are postural muscles that should be gently active all the time, just like the postural muscles holding up your head.
If you want to further this tension, the next step is to feel the difference in activating the lower abdominal wall with the rest of your core. In the same positioning, engage the lower abdominal wall as above and now try to pull your rib cage down as you continue to lie flat on the ground. Not a jerky movement, this should also be controlled and should be similar to bracing your core as if you were about to be punched in the stomach. Think about drawing your belly button towards your spine (but not sucking in) while drawing the rib cage down towards hips. Feel the difference in where you feel the tension with a simple lower abdominal contraction vs activating the entire core from diaphragm to pelvic floor. Remember to breathe while holding these contractions.
You want to be able to engage these inner core muscles during everyday activity and therefore need to know how to do this while moving. The first step to learning this is to start with pelvic tilts. Lying on your back with knees up, hold onto your hips, activate your core and slowly tilt the pelvis forward and then return to resting. Feel to make sure that while you tilt your pelvis forward that your core muscles are remaining activated.
Once you have mastered this, we can begin with slow and controlled leg lifts. From the back lying position, engage the core and then lift one leg up to 90 degrees (making sure to keep 90 degree angles at knee joint and hip joint). Slowly return the leg back to the floor with knees up, feet resting on the floor. Repeat with opposite leg. Continue to feel for core activation and focus on keeping these muscles activate as you lift each leg and return to resting position. You should never allow your lower back to arch off of the floor. Keeping the core activated will keep the lower back in a neutral position against the floor. See my YouTube video link below to watch the hip tilt and leg lifts in action. HIP TILTS and LEG LIFTS
The next step will be to work on core activation during leg and arm movement via Dead Bug Exercises. With all of the same concepts as above we will go through the various progressions of the Dead Bug to help you find the level that you currently are at with Core Activation and Movement. Start with controlled toe taps, before moving to arm movements, followed by leg movements at various angles, and finishing with both arms and legs moving at the same time at various angles. Keep in mind to breathe and keep the entire core engaged throughout each of these variations. Remember, by activating the core throughout the movement your lower back should never arch off of the mat. If this happens, return to the previous level (See picture below). A great tip when performing the full Dead Bug is to use a yoga ball to make sure that your legs and/or arms are staying in the neutral position. (See picture below) Watch my YouTube video link below to see the variations of the Dead Bug for a video guide on technique. Dead Bug Variations
Another facet of core activation is to make sure that we can maintain this activation through dynamic movements such as force and/or rotation. With force we will look at the Plank. This is a great exercise to work on Core Activation while working against the force of gravity. When planking it is important to maintain that core activation you now know how to do from the previous steps. When setting up for the plank, make sure your elbows are directly underneath your shoulders, feet are together, neck is in line with spine, and muscles of glutes and legs activated. From here, activate your core by drawing your lower abdominal wall in and bringing the rib cage down to the hips creating a hollow position with your body. Once you learn how to maintain core activation through a static plank hold, you can add more dynamics into the plank with toe touches, mountain climbers, arm/leg reaches etc. See the picture below for cues on hip placement to make sure you have your core fully activated throughout the plank hold.
Rotation is a huge part of daily life and activity. The core is responsible for making sure that our bodies don’t over-rotate putting us at risk of injury. A good exercise to incorporate into your routine is the Pallof Press, which activates the core to work on anti-rotation. Again, there are many variations of the Pallof Press, making it a great exercise for all abilities. Whatever variation you are attempting, make sure to keep feet, hips, shoulders square and stable while you create a longer lever for your core to react to by sending the arms out and in front of the sternum. Key points to remember are to keep the movement in your arms from sternum to directly in front of sternum slow and controlled, keep the rest of your body still by activating your core muscles throughout the movement, keep knees from caving in, keep glutes engaged in order to maintain proper posture from head to floor, and relax the traps. See my YouTube video below for variations on the Pallof Press. PALLOF PRESS Variations
The final exercise I like to incorporate for core development is the crawl. The crawl is a great exercise that includes: anti-rotation, force, movement all while maintaining that core activation. To set up for the crawl, start with knees directly under hips, hands directly under shoulders, toes on floor. From here, you can go ahead and activate your core and lengthen your spine to create a flat back. Turn your toes under and slowly lift your knees off the floor so they are hovering about 1inch from the ground. This is the next level, so check to make sure your core is still fully engaged, your spine is still lengthened and flat, and knees are still under hips and hands still under shoulders. From here we will add in the movement by taking very small steps forward. You should move your left hand/right foot at the same time without rotating through the shoulders or hips. Check to make sure that your knees are still only an inch off of the ground and that your back is flat. Repeat with the right hand/left foot taking a small and controlled step forward. You can perform the crawl in a forward, lateral or reverse direction as well as add weight to progress the movement further by placing a weighted plate on your back or wearing a weighted vest. One tip you can use to make sure that you are not allowing hips to rise high in the air/or sink to the floor and/or rotate side to side is to place a cone on the small of your back and try to keep it from falling off as you crawl.
There are several other key exercises you can be incorporating to work on core activation through movement. Hopefully these 3 exercises will get you started and can be done at the gym or at home with minimal space and equipment.
Any questions about what you have just read? Ready to start working towards your goals and looking for a coach and program that is right for you? Feel free to contact EVOLVE by Melissa at any time. http://www.evolvebymelissa.com.
Written by: Melissa Gut; Strength and Conditioning Coach