How to Really Engage Your Core Muscles, According to a Yoga Expert

  • To build a stronger core, learn to properly activate your abs and pelvic floor, says a yoga expert.
  • Exercises that emphasize balance and stability lead to better results than crunches, she said.
  • If you struggle to find your core muscles, think about pulling your belly button toward your spine. 

Your core muscles play a crucial role in protecting your spine, supporting nearly every type of exercise, and helping to develop an athletic physique. The muscle group includes your abs as well as the hips, lower back, and glutes.

Getting a strong core comes from understanding how to properly work the muscles, according to “The Core Expert” Jessica Schatz, a master yoga and pilates instructors whose clients include Broadway actors, professional athletes, and dancers. 

“You think of core exercise and think getting stronger, which is great, but what I emphasize is core stability,” she told Insider. “We need stability to function at our best, and I try to help people understand what it actually means to do that.”

To get the most of your core exercises, visualize the movement to activate the right muscles, and focus on using your whole body instead of isolating the abs, Schatz said. 

To really activate your abs, focus on pulling your belly button into your spine

Schatz said it can be unhelpful to tell people to “engage their core” in a yoga class or personal training session, since the phrase is often meaningless, particularly for exercise newbies.

Instead, she tries to offer cues about what the movements should feel like. To tap into those core muscles, she said to picture your belly button drawing inward toward your spine. 

At the same time, it’s crucial to engage your pelvic floor, a group of muscles at the base of your core from the pubic bone to the tailbone. To do so, imagine you’re trying to pick up a jelly bean between your legs using your groin muscles, Schatz said. 

You should get immediate feedback from your body when you’re properly stabilizing your core, as your abdominal muscles will feel the burn during exercise.

“You’re going to start feeling those abs,” she said. 

Sit-ups are overrated for building a strong, sculpted core, Schatz said

Schatz said a common misconception is that abs are built by doing isolation exercises for the core.

“It’s a mistake to believe that crunches and sit-ups are the answer,” she said. “They’re fine. It’s not that I’m mad at them. Maybe a little — it’s just what they promise people who maybe don’t have all the information.”

The best way to work toward having a strong, athletic core is to get your whole body involved in exercise

Her favorites are movements that coordinate across the body, such as requiring you to move one arm and the opposite leg in unison, and incorporate balance as well. 

Some examples include side planks, bird dogs, and pike toe touches. 

She also encourages people to think of the appearance of having a strong core or six-pack abs as a side effect, not as the  main goal of working out. 

“People hear core and think about abs and all of that,” she said. “I talk about the aesthetic of our bodies as a really nice bonus for the work we do, but that’s what it is. What I do is help people feel better through movement, and learn to listen to their bodies.”