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If you’ve ever been to a workout class (or streamed a workout class), you’ve probably heard the instructor say, ‘Engage your core,’ like, a million times. But what does that really mean? And what is your core in the first place? Let’s dig in.

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how to engage your core cat
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First of All, What Is Your Core?

You might think your core is just your abs…it’s not. There are actually several main core muscles, including the rectus abdominis (the six-pack muscles), transverse abdominis (the lower abs), inner and outer obliques (they're on your sides and help you twist side to side), multifidus (the deep muscles of your lower back), erector spinae (the muscles that run along your spine), diaphragm (the muscle at the bottom of your ribcage that supports breathing) and pelvic floor muscles (the muscles low in your pelvis that help control continence and have a huge role in pregnancy and birth).

Why Is It Important to Build Strong Core Muscles?

Good question. According to L.A. personal trainer Danny Saltos, “You can’t have a sturdy building without a strong foundation. A strong core creates the power needed to hit a tennis ball, swing a baseball bat, throw a football, mop the floor, clean out the garage, pick up a toddler, plus a million other movements.” With more than a decade of experience in the fitness space, Saltos is the secret behind the rock-solid abs of some of your favorite Instagram influencers, like Jen Atkin, Camila Coelho and Aimee Song. But the benefits of a strong core go way beyond selfie envy. “Core exercises can help prevent injury, improve posture, increase balance and improve stability.” Ever had to deal with back pain? A weak core could be to blame. This study showed a significant reduction in lower back pain after just two weeks of core stabilization exercises (whoa). It even found core work to be more effective than physical therapy when it came to treating lower back pain. That’s the power of a plank, people.

What Are Some Exercises to Strengthen Your Core?

best core workouts plank
DIGITAL ART BY SOFIA KRAUSHAAR

1. Plank

Step 1: Begin on all fours in a push-up position. Place your forearms on the floor with your elbows directly below your shoulders. Clasp your hands together in front of you or keep your palms flat on the floor.

Step 2: Engage your leg muscles to help stabilize your body. Contract your abs to keep your lower back lifted. Keep your butt as low as possible without arching your back. To avoid unnecessary strain on your neck and spine, concentrate your gaze on a spot about a foot beyond your hands.

Step 3: Adjust as needed and get comfortable. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds and release.

best core workouts plank jacks
DIGITAL ART BY SOFIA KRAUSHAAR

2. Plank Jacks

Step 1: Begin on all fours in a push-up position. Place your forearms on the floor with your elbows directly below your shoulders. Clasp your hands together in front of you or keep your palms flat on the floor.

Step 2: Engaging your core, jump your legs out wide and then back together as if you were doing a jumping jack. Keep your gaze forward and your pelvis steady.

Step 3: Complete 20 reps. Rest and repeat.

best core workouts bird dogs
DIGITAL ART BY SOFIA KRAUSHAAR

3. Bird Dog

Step 1: Begin on all fours with your knees hip-width apart and your hands placed directly below your shoulders.

Step 2: Extend your left arm forward while simultaneously extending your right leg back until it’s straight. Keep both your extended arm and leg in line with your torso while your hips stay square to the ground. Engage your core to keep your lower back from arching. Pause, return to the starting position, switch sides and repeat.

Step 3: Complete 10 reps on each leg (20 total). Rest and repeat.

best core workouts bicycle crunch
DIGITAL ART BY SOFIA KRAUSHAAR

4. Bicycle Crunch

Step 1: Lie on your back with your legs out straight in front of you. Interlace your fingers behind your head.

Step 2: Bring your left knee in toward your chest and lift your shoulder blades up off the floor. Bring your right elbow toward your left knee, crunching up and twisting slightly. Keep the grip behind your head loose and do not pull on your neck. Switch sides and repeat.

Step 3: Complete 10 reps on each leg (20 total). Rest and repeat.

best core workouts leg lift
DIGITAL ART BY SOFIA KRAUSHAAR

5. Leg Lifts

Step 1: Lie on your back with your legs out straight in front of you. Place your hands, palms down, directly below your butt or on the floor beside you.

Step 2: Lift both legs up off the floor. Engage your core to keep your lower back firmly on the floor. Pull your navel in as you lift up. Slowly lower to the floor and repeat.

Step 3: Complete 20 reps. Rest and repeat.

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