Chances are you’ve heard about “core engagement” or “strengthening your core” in the last 20 years but may have questions about what this means and how to do it effectively. Proper core engagement is fairly technical, so it takes some coaching and practice to do it well. But, when you do, everything in life improves whether is better sports and fitness performance or less back pain and more vitality for daily living.

Let’s clarify what the core muscles are. They are the muscles around the trunk and pelvis: glutes, low back and abdominals. Whether you’re a skier, gardener, horseback rider or grandchild “cuddler,” strong core muscles will keep you enjoying activity for decades.

There are four different abdominal muscles. The rectus abdominis are the most well-known and create the six-pack look on strong, lean torsos. They function to flex the spine forward. The internal and external oblique muscles are along the sides of the rectus abdominis and allow us to twist. The more challenging of the core muscles to engage and train properly are the transverse abdominus, (TVA). The TVA muscles are low and deep, running cross-wise, somewhat like a corset, and work with all movement. They hold organs in place and support the low back. We cannot see the TVA because they lie beneath other abdominal muscles, so they will not directly contribute to the six-pack goal, however strong TVA will create strength for the significant amount of exercise necessary, if one is hoping for such.

The easiest way to identify and feel the TVA is to lie on your back with your knees bent and press your fingertips into your low belly, beneath the navel. Cough a few times and feel those muscles working.

There are many exercises to strengthen the TVA, but, it is very important is to first engage them properly, so they are in fact working and not just along for the ride while rectus abdominis take charge. To engage them, still lying on your back with knees bent, press the lumbar spine to the floor. Do this without using your legs to rock the pelvis into place. Imagine marshmallows under the feet and don’t squish them. Press the low back to the floor. Then draw the navel down toward the spine. Holding this position will be some effort and require concentration. Together, these two actions of depressing the lumbar and the navel engage the TVA.

Simply holding this pose will help strengthen the TVA. To onlookers, it will look like nothing, but you will feel the work. From here, lift one foot six to 10 inches off the floor without letting the low back or navel position shift at all. Replace the foot and lift the other. Don’t forget the marshmallows. As simple as this looks, it’s a fairly challenging exercise, but it is safe and effective.

If the low back arches, an easier variation is to lift the legs toward the ceiling, press the low back down, draw the navel toward the spine, and slowly move the legs in a walking motion. I call this “walking on the ceiling.” The leg and pelvis position makes it easier to keep the lumbar down.

Regularly strengthening all core muscles and gently stretching the hips and back will go a long way towards enabling a lifetime of physical activity. Our bodies are meant to be in motion, and even if you don’t like sports or exercise. per se, there are some activates that bring joy, and doing them will foster health and happiness.

See you out there!

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