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How to Engage Your Core, Plus 7 Abs Exercises for a Stronger Middle

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Have you huffed and puffed your way through hundreds of sit-ups without seeing results or feeling any stronger? You're not alone. Despite our favorite class instructors and trainers constantly hammering in the words "activate your core," it can be know if our muscles are actually firing, no matter how hard we work. So why does everyone seem to be totally core-crazed? A core workout is key to bringing your sweat sesh—abs or otherwise—to the next level.

What Exactly Is the Core?

It's more than six-pack abs (which, by the way, we all have). The core is comprised of layers of muscle on your stomach, back, and butt, which support your pelvis and spine. These muscles work as a team to keep your posture tall and your back safe from any strains or unwanted forces that can cause pain or injury down the road. In a nutshell, your core exists to help your torso turn (think about your upper half during a jog—it slightly moves from side to side), and to resist rotation (think about holding your ground during a crazy concert). (Try our Flat Belly Core Fusion Workout!)

So What?

Your core is the secret ingredient to having your best workout ever. Whether you're swinging a kettlebell or hitting spin class, engaging the core allows you to work other muscle groups in a more effective and efficient way. Ever try to crank up the weight in a dumbbell shoulder press and find yourself majorly arching your back? Cue the core. By zipping up your abs and squeezing your butt, your spine is way more protected and your shoulders are able to move through a safer range of motion.

Outside of the gym, a strong core helps to resist slumping into slouched posture, which doesn't look good on anyone. As we age, it gets harder to resist the force of gravity and poor posture habits that have been developed through the years. Building a strong core as early as possible will help combat stooping and relieve smaller muscles from doing the brunt of the work that really belongs to the core. (These exercises will get your closer to perfect posture.)

It's Worth the Work

It can be tempting to forgo a core workout after a hardcore circuit. Challenge yourself to feel the burn. Weak cores promote postural deviations that can act as a host to various injuries, from a disc herniation to runner's knee. We're often so focused on the injury, we forget to look at the culprit: a weak core. The core muscles serve as the powerhouse of the body, so it's crucial to make sure those muscles are strong and sturdy.

How Do I Know I'm Doing It Right?

Engaging your core is different than sucking in your tummy. Imagine bracing your stomach muscles as if you're going to bounce a coin off your abs (#goals). They should feel rooted and secure. Roll your shoulders open so your chest appears tall and proud to avoid collapsing in. By gently tucking your pelvis and firing your glute muscles, you should feel the lower part of your abs engage to support your lower spine.

Try These Core-Blasters!

Cat-Cow

Cat/Cow: This soft rocking motion through the pelvis is perfect for waking up your abs before kicking your workout into gear.

A. Come to all fours with hands under shoulders and knees under hips. On an inhale, look up and arch spine, lifting tailbone and rolling shoulders away from ears (cow).
B. On an exhale, press the floor away with hands and knees, and round spine (cat), relaxing head toward the floor. That's 1 rep. Continue alternating for up to 10 reps.

Trainer Tip: Align your breath with the movement—inhale as you arch your back and gaze at the sky, exhale to fire your abs as you round your back, allowing the head to hang heavy. Feeling this more in your shoulders? Try to soften the elbows to resist the temptation of your arms doing the work.

Hip Bridge

Hip Bridge: This is one of the most fundamental exercises that just about everyone should have in their workout program! It's important because your flutes tag team spinal stability with your abs—to be able to move forward with more intense exercises, it's necessary that both components of your core are equally strong. Try using this as an active recovery to reinforce the proper muscle activation during your deadlifts.

A. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat. Lift hips up toward the ceiling for a bridge.
B. Release your hips to lower your pelvis two inches from the floor, squeezing your glutes. That's 1 rep. Repeat for 10 reps.

Trainer Tip: Keep those toes down! Press through the arches of your feet to fire your hamstrings and glutes while staying out of your lower back.

Forearm Plank

Forearm Plank: Made for those who have injury-prone wrists, the forearm plank is a classic exercise for a reason: It emphasizes all of your core muscles by resisting rotation!

A. Start in a push-up position on forearms. Keep arms perpendicular to body, forming a straight line from shoulders to ankles. Engage core and hold for thirty seconds.

Trainer Tip: Roll your shoulders back before you get into position. This will help sustain an open chest during your plank. Psst: Squeeze your butt! It'll facilitate a flat, lower back through the entire exercise, which will keep you from rounding or hyperextending the lumbar spine, which could lead to disc herniations and pinched nerves.

Side Plank

Side Forearm Plank: Sister to your front plank, the side plank highlights muscles that help you rotate quickly and safely. Extra perk? A nipped-in waistline will be yours in no time.

A. Lie on side with bottom elbow on the floor. Raise hips so that the body forms a straight line from ankles to shoulders. Extend the top arm laterally so that it is perpendicular to the floor. Engage core and hold for 30 seconds.

Trainer Tip: Start simple. Begin with your bottom knee on the ground to reiterate proper muscle activation. Envision sending your bottom hip to the sky. If you feel like this is more of a stretch than a workout, straighten your legs and try to stagger your feet with your top foot in front of your bottom foot. Still yawning? Stack the feet! Keep an eye on squaring off your top and bottom hip the entire time.

Plank Jack

Plank Jacks: If you've gotten your front plank down to a science, crank it up a notch by adding dynamic movement! Hop your toes to the outside of a yoga mat and then back together while maintaining your pretty, flat back.

A. Start in a full plank position with feet together and abs tight.
B. Jump feet apart into a wide V, then immediately jump them back together (like a jumping jack). That's 1 rep. Start by incorporating 8 reps into your circuit. If this feels super easy, up the number to 10. Consider increasing by two reps every two weeks as long as you can maintain strong form.

Trainer Tip: Keep your shoulders over your hands. The shoulders can take a major beating during this exercise if you're not careful. By keeping them in proper alignment, the core is doing all the work!

Mountain Climbers

Mountain Climbers: Hello fat burn! These guys are one of the most efficient ways to get your heart pumping and to reach your fat melting zone. The good news? It doesn't take long. You can intersperse short periods (around thirty seconds) to supercharge a circuit.

A. Start in the push-up position with your arms completely straight and directly beneath your shoulders. Your body should form a straight line from your shoulders to your ankles.
B. Squeeze your abs, lift one foot off the floor and bring your knee up towards your chest while keeping your body in as straight of a line as possible. Return to the starting position and repeat the movement with your opposite leg. That's 1 rep. Start by doing 10 reps on each leg. Time how long this takes you. Use this as a baseline, then see if you can increase the number of reps during the same amount of time.

Trainer Tip: Maintain a long spine by keeping your hips in line with your shoulders. It's common for your hips begin to pike as a way to decrease pressure on your abs. Fight the urge! On the other hand, be sure that your spine doesn't begin to majorly arch. Start with brief sets to make sure you've got the form down before kicking it into high gear.

Farmer

Farmer's Walks: Um, who doesn't juggle tons of bags, computers, and groceries on any given day? Farmer's Walks are an awesome way to check your posture before you load up for the next day.

A. Hold a heavy dumbbell or farmer's carry bar in each hand. Avoid leaning forward at hip. Stand tall and chin parallel to ground. Keep your shoulders pulled back and down throughout the entire exercise. Avoid letting your shoulders round forward.
B. Stand tall and walk forward for 10 paces, then turn around and walk 10 paces back to where you started.

Trainer Tip: Pick a heavy but maintainable weight. The purpose behind this exercise is to introduce stress similar to your daily demands. Stand against a wall before you get a-walkin' to feel that your spine is tall, core is braced, and butt is firing. Your shoulder blades should be against the wall, your lower back should minimally slope away (beware of hyperextending!), and your butt should graze the wall.

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