Have you ever struggled to engage your abs during exercise? This guest post from my friend, Maria Savvenas, will explain it all. – Pamela
You’re in an exercise class doing crunches. You hear the instructor say, “engage your core.” You think for a second and guess to brace or harden your abs. You go on with the exercises applying the directive to the best of your ability.
Two days later, you’re in a yoga class. You hear the instructor say, “draw your naval to spine.” You suck your belly in, hollowing out the area to remove as much structure as you can between your belly button and back.
Between the two scenarios, you go between completely hardening your abs to completely sucking in your abs. Your back hurts. And you’re not sure how to breathe. You don’t feel your abs getting stronger. It seems like everything is getting stronger but your core. So, what is really going on here?
What it means to engage your abs during exercise
You need to understand what muscles are involved in activating the core. You need to understand which muscles in what order. And moreover, you need to understand that the core is a pressure system and everything from breathing, postural demands, and muscle-recruitment-for-loading affect how effective your core strategy is.
I’m a movement teacher who specializes in the deep core and pelvic floor. Here is what I have learned about how to implement the best core strategy to protect your body, strengthen the core muscles, and utilize the whole body.
The Typical Hold-up in Core Strategy
To get right to the point, the hold-up is your exhale, most likely. It’s important you know right off the bat that the quality of your exhalation matters here. Your exhale should be strong yet effortless. Your exhale should not be a hindrance to your core strength.
There are four compensation patterns, typically, altering the quality of your exhalation and affecting your core strength.
- Breath holding
- Bearing down
- Bulging out
I’m going to teach you how to exhale to engage your core as effectively as possible. But I need you to scan your body first. Engage your core right now. Make a quick note as you scan your body. Imagine you’re about to pick up something really heavy and scoop it up in your arms and carry it away. What are you doing?
Are you doing one of the four things that hinder the quality of your exhale?
First, holding your breath. Second, bracing your abs as if you’re about to get punched in the stomach. Third, bearing down, your obliques kick on so strongly you feel pressure going down into your pelvic floor. Or fourth, if you put your hands one above, one below – on your belly – your belly bulges out and pushes into your hands.
We don’t want any of that.
Now, I want you to engage your abs again. Act as if you’re lifting up something really heavy to scoop into your arms and carry away. I want your abdominals to draw in and up.
Is that happening? When you engage your core, does your belly draw away from your hands in and up with no hindrances? Can you still breathe while that is happening?
Most likely, this technique is difficult for you. It’s not your fault, really. Core specialization wasn’t really a thing until pretty recently. Thankfully, some pretty kick-ass women and our biomechanical patterns have come full-stop into our understanding of fitness.
We have been so stuck in strange daily habits, moving about the modern world, with compensatory patterns. Some of these patterns involve immobile rib cages and shortened breath. We tend to carry a ton of tension in our diaphragms, too. Chances are if your diaphragm is tight, your pelvic floor is, too, and so is your jaw. It’s all connected. Why?
Your Core Is a Pressure System
Because your core is a pressure system, your core functions as an integrated unit that depends on postural and breath awareness, spinal mobility and stabilization, and a recruitment order of the muscles involved, as a system. There are four components, a top, front, bottom, and back: the diaphragm and ribs, abdominal wall, pelvic floor, and spine, correspondingly.
A functional core has mobile ribs that expand and contract easily and smoothly on a breath. A functional core manages intra-abdominal pressure effectively. A functional core has a supple pelvic floor that responds to corresponding pressure well. A functional core has a mobile spine that you can isolate movements at the bottom, middle, or top.
As far as dynamic fitness goes, your spine needs to move laterally, flex, and extend easily. Your pelvis and hips need to be strong and balanced. Posture and alignment matter here, otherwise you can’t direct the order of the muscles, recruiting them in optimal order.
Directing the Order of the Core Muscle Recruitment
Start with the transverse abdominis. Draw a breath in and then exhale strongly through your mouth. Feel your abdominals draw in and up, first deep in your core and then on the surface where your rectus is. Your obliques are the last to muscles to draw in.
Draw in the abdominals using the breath. An exhalation is your resistance to wake up the deep core, the transverse abdominis, or TVA. You use the exhalation to engage the core. You can vary and play with the rate of resistance by changing the quality of your exhalation.
The best way to exhale for core strategy is through an open mouth. Try various exhalations: a prolonged sigh, an ujjayi breath, a hiss. Vary the speed of the exhale. Notice how your abdominals draw in with the varying exhalations. Then, you practice drawing your abdominals up and in on your exhales in a variety of exercises.
Last but not least, are you comfortable making a sound when you exhale? In my classes or my studio, everyone exhales with sound. But, if you’re the only person making noise while you exhale to engage your muscles, you might feel self-conscious. I say f that.
Give yourself permission to use the best tool you have to strengthen your core muscles—your exhalation. Allow your exhale to be strong and full of sound, and then watch your belly easily and effortlessly draw in and up on exactly the strength it needs, on the resistance it makes.
Your core will strengthen over time. You will be amazed at how much stronger you feel and how supportive your core can be. Once your core strategy is optimized, your core will turn on automatically—reflexively—when you need it, without having to think about it. Until then, become best friends with your exhalation.
Maria Savvenas – Ms. Core – is a core and pelvic floor movement teacher helping you get back to optimal health and moving freely. Catch her public classes, or sign up for private sessions or workshops. For more information, go to www.mariasavvenas.com.