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How to Find and Actually Activate your Core Muscles

"Suck in your abs!" "Pull your belly button in toward your spine." "Use your trunk!""Engage your core."

If you’ve been to a fitness facility in the last twenty years (and if you’re reading this, there’s a very high likelihood you have) you’ve heard at least one of these common cues used by a fellow gym go-er or the trainer beside you, trying to help someone use their abdominal muscles. But what does any of it mean? Sucking in your belly button by itself doesn’t “require” you to properly engage that muscle group to prepare for movement. To help you better understand what everyone means by these phrases and the response they’re looking for, we’ll be discussing:

  • What muscles are involved

  • The importance of learning to “brace” your core/trunk

  • Reviewing a common exercise and some of its variations to help you understand it

  • And HOW to properly activate your core muscles


What is my core?

To most professionals, the core is the lumbar-pelvic (trunk) and hip complex. The Core is composed of as many as 35 different muscle groups connecting into the pelvis from the spine and hip area. Many of these muscles are hidden beneath the exterior musculature people typically train. Major muscles include the pelvic floor muscles, psoas, transverse abdominis, multifidus, internal and external obliques, rectus abdominis, erector spinae, and diaphragm. Some minor core muscles include the latissimus dorsi, gluteus maximus, and trapezius.

Why is it important & how do I brace it?

The core is the center of gravity and where all movement begins. It is also the center of stability for the lower limbs and creates the necessary rotational forces for movements like throwing. For muscles to move bones, other muscles need to hold on to bones creating a solid base or anchor. Therefore, the muscles in the core function as stabilizers and/or mobilize bone to allow movement.

How do the muscles know which to do: stabilize or mobilize? The brain bosses around the muscles. All we have to do is think it… and the brain sends a message to the muscles that are needed for whatever activity we need to perform, e.g. sprint, slide to the right, or jump. Sometimes the muscles are injured, fatigued, or out of shape and then, automatically, other muscles take over to help out. This is how we create imbalances that lead to injuries.

The core is an important part of any sport that involves running, jumping, and sprinting (so, most of them). Good muscle activation and strength within the core is critical for all athletes to continue to build muscle size, endurance, and power.

Since we have the time, (with the unemployment rate in April at 14.7% and growing) proper bracing, or activating of the core area will be a simple way to help you maintain the results you had achieved before COVID. Or maybe help you regain anything that may have started slipping during this seemingly never-ending pandemic.

One of the most basic ways to activate the core is to lay on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the ground. (This is also the basic starting position for a common exercise we will go over in a second.) Taking a light-to-moderate weight (if you don’t have a dumbbell because they were sold out 1 hour into the stay-at-home order, you can use a household item such as a jug of water) place it on your belly button and “don’t let the weight push through you to your spine.” Now, “engage your core” so that the weight is held in place by your abdominals. Another way of describing the sensation can also be referred to as “bearing down” as if you had to go to the bathroom, but without the end result. You should still be able to breathe during this, so if you can’t take a breath without the weight sinking in, you still have some more work to do.

An example exercise & its variations

Many exercises can help not only activate your core muscles, but also increase your core strength, endurance, and power. Today we will review one of the basics- a classic- the dead bug. If you take the time to do it right, it should still provide you with plenty of challenge.

To perform the dead bug, get back into our position laying on the ground, with knees bent and hands raised so that your fingertips point at the ceiling. With your knees bent, raise your feet off the ground and position your knees so they are directly over your hips.

Using the bracing technique we discussed earlier to engage your core, begin to move one arm and one leg in an alternating and opposite fashion (your right arm and left leg move at the same time while your left arm and right leg stay steady and immobile).

Bring your heel and thumb to hover for a split second just before it touches the ground, and then return to the starting position. Come to a complete stop before switching the active arm and leg... congratulations, you’ve just done a dead bug!

Pro tip: Remember, your lumbar/lower back should stay slightly arched, but should not “POP” off the ground; if your low back comes off the ground, you will more than likely experience discomfort/pain in the lumbar region.

You can modify the dead bug to adjust its challenge, depending on how well you can perform the basic version.

To make it easier: place your feet flat on the ground and perform the activity in the same way, but instead of your feet coming off the ground, slide them away from your body so that your knee extends and your leg ends flat on the ground.

To make it harder: (assuming you can do a minimum of 2 sets of 10 per side without experiencing low back pain) you can use several different methods.

  1. Hold a weight in your hands and keep the weight above your chest while alternating your legs.

  2. Tie a resistance band to an anchor and hold it so that the band is at a 90-degree angle perpendicular to your torso. Resist the urge to actively rotate and continue to alternate your legs, to make sure you stay balanced, perform the same number of sets and reps on each side.

(If this word salad doesn’t make sense, stay tuned to our Instagram page for posts on how to activate and train your core. If I were a betting man, I’d bet you’ll see this on there soon!)

The whole of our parts

Lastly, as important as a strong core is, it is but another section of the body, and your workout should reflect this. Nothing truly works by itself, as everything in the body is connected in some way. A recently published study in the Journal of Sports Rehabilitation looked at how exercise intervention might improve scores in the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) of collegiate athletes. The synopsis of the study showed that, although training for core and functional movements are important to include in a fitness program (especially for injury prevention), they should not be the only/primary emphasis of any training program.

In other words: get a full-body strength workout to get them #gainz. If you’re only doing cardio and core, you’re missing out on your body's full potential.

If you have any questions on this, feel free to reach out to us through our website or you can always ask us on our Instagram, where we host Ask A Trainer Tuesdays in our Story.

A woman lifting a weight in a V-up position, with blog title overlay.
Pin this so you remember to try the Dead Bug later!

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