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What does ‘engage your core’ mean and are you doing it properly?

When we do Pilates, we are often told to ‘engage’ our ‘core’ but do we really understand how to do this effectively? Here is a quick overview of what the core actually is and some tips on how to engage it.

The science bit.

What we are aiming for is the activation of the ‘transversus abdominis’ (or TVA), one of four sets of abdominal muscles that make up the abdominal wall. It’s the deepest muscle of the torso with most of the muscle fibres wrapping horizontally around the trunk to create a ‘muscular corset’ (this is why I often ask you to imagine you are putting on a corset). The other three muscles are the internal and external obliques and the rectus abdominis.

The TVA is a stabiliser (postural) muscle lying deep beneath the rectus abdominis, situated towards the front of the spine running around the sides to the back. Together with the pelvic floor muscles, the TVA creates a strong ‘core’.

So how do I engage my core?

There are many visualisations available to help you. One of my favourites is to imagine you have a wide belt with 10 notches around your waist. Draw your navel in as if you were putting the belt on the tightest notch. This may feel uncomfortable, and you may find it difficult to breathe. This is 100% engagement. Gently let this go.

Draw in again to 50% (or the 5th notch).

Now let it off 3 more notches and maintain this feeling. You have now engaged the transversus abdominis by around 20-30%, which is all you need to build endurance.

You could also imagine lying down and trying to zip up a tight pair of jeans. It’s that feeling of a gentle narrowing around your waist as the zip slides up (but without pressing your back down into the floor as your spine should be in ‘neutral’ – perhaps the topic of another blog post!).

Why do we focus on the deep core muscles?

If the stabilisers stop working effectively, there can be an increased risk of injury. A weakened core can also alter body alignment and affect the optimal position of a joint.

The deep core muscles work to stabilise and support the lower back, which is why we focus on them so much in Pilates, rather than the rectus abdominis (known as the ‘six pack’).

We often work with fewer repetitions than people expect, and Pilates exercises are slower and more controlled than the ‘ab crunch’ style exercises you may do down at the gym.

My preference? Pilates every time.

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