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How to tighten your core, abs during exercise (and why it’s so important)

In this week’s #QandAWed video we tackle a really valuable question, “how do I tighten my core, abs?” Since this is such an important topic, I wanted to go into more detail than we did in the video here with this post to explain a few key points further and to offer some specific workouts to try to further develop core strength.

What exactly is your “core?”

Your “core” muscles involve much more than just your abs – in fact, these spinal stabilizing muscles run from your shoulder blades, along your spine and back and include the four muscles of the abs (transverse abdominis, internal and external obliques, rectus abdominius) as well as the major muscles in the hip.

How do I engage it?

The various cues for core engagement may vary depending on the specific movement you are doing, but in general, here are a few ways to turn on the core muscles while standing:

1) Engage your abs from the inside out by drawing your belly button in to your spine (without holding your breath or ‘sucking in’ your stomach) and focus on holding the contraction of the abdominal muscles.

2) Press your shoulder blades down and away from your ears (this helps to ‘cap’ the contraction of the abs and engages the core muscles in your back).

3) Think of ‘lifting up’ through the pelvic floor to engage the muscles in the pelvic floor and deepen the contraction of your abdominal muscles. While not necessarily a defined part of your ‘core,’ contracting the pelvic floor muscles can help you maximize your abdominal contraction, and may additionally build strength in the pelvic floor at the same time.

Test it out – standing with feet hip width and knees slightly bent, imagine standing on a unstable surface (like a rocky ship or subway train) and shift your weight quickly from one foot to the other, maintaining all of the contractions listed above (you can even place your hands on the sides of your waist to feel these muscles contracting).

Why is a strong core important?

Think of a strong core as your body’s support system – these muscles help you stand taller, move more smoothly, and potentially even lift more weight safely. By stabilizing your spine, your core muscles provide you with a strong, stable foundation for everyday activities like lifting heavy objects (like your toddler) and assist with movements that require balance and coordination (like jumping over that puddle at the last minute).

A strong core may also help boost your workout performance too, which could translate into both a better fitness level and faster results. One 2009 study done by researchers at Barry University found that 6 weeks of core training drills helped improve the performance of recreational and competitive runners.

What are some of the best ways to strengthen your core?

Targeted abs workouts can be great for engaging and strengthening the core, but don’t forget that you can also get build core strength from focusing on it during your total body workouts as well.

Aim for a mix of training that works your core in a multitude of ways, including exercises that involve challenging the core muscles to do what they are designed for — stabilize your spine. While most of our workouts here on JESSICASMITHTV involve engaging the core in some way, here are a few routines to try that really zero in on core strength.

These 3 abs-centric YouTube videos are specifically designed to help you practice deep core engagement:

#1: 15 Minute Core Concentration

#2: 12 Minute Standing Pilates for Flat Abs

#3: 15 Minute Crunchless Abs

For more options, check out our full playlist of abs videos here.

These 3 total body workouts that also challenge the core muscles while working the entire body:

#1: 30 Minute Met Con 5

#2: 35-Minute Straight Up Strength

#3: 30 Minute Kickboxing Ballet Body Sculpt

For more options, check out our full total body training playlist here.

Tell me, what workouts or exercises have helped you the most when it comes to building core strength? Share with us in the comments below!

How to tighten your core muscles during exercise and why it's so important

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19 comments… add one

  • Michele September 21, 2018, 12:07 am

    I go through the same thing. I just can’t do it, either.

  • dhivya March 23, 2017, 6:29 am

    Hi jesica ,
    I had a normal delivery n my son is 6 months old.i have my belly big seems to be 4months again.i am currently doing ur 40mins walking workout for hip,thighs n tat enough to reduce my weight r do I need to change my weight is 70 kg n 164 cm.pls suggest me

  • Lauren January 19, 2017, 2:47 pm

    I have had 2 previous C-Sections. I don’t have any feeling in my stomach so I cant feel when my abs are engaged and I noticed a firmness when I “clinch” and hold my breath. I don’t know if that is engaging them but I feel like I’m going to pass out when I do that…
    HELP 🙂

  • Tina January 9, 2017, 2:19 pm

    I can’t tighten my core and ab muscles without holding my breath, everytime I try to breath while having my muscles tightened it gets loose and just can’t keep it up. please help, I really don’t know how to dot this.

  • Dawen October 7, 2016, 11:40 am

    Okay, so you say to “draw the belly button towards the spine without holding your breath or sucking in your stomach,” which is what my aerobics teacher also says and this doesn’t make sense. How do you do that? How /can/ you do that without sucking in or holding your breath? That’s the only way I know how to do that!

  • Justine Putot August 16, 2016, 2:20 am

    Hi Jessica,

    Super amazing post!
    This is really helpful and so perfect! Just the exercise I was looking for.
    Cheers to you! and keep up the great work!

  • Andy July 31, 2016, 7:37 am

    One thing I have heard some pros say is to brace your core muscles like you’re preparing to get punched in the gut. That’s the only thing that has helped me understanding how to engage your core more than anything else. Hope that helps you too. 🙂

  • Joy June 30, 2016, 6:25 pm

    I have a lot of weight on my tummy and all the exercising does not seem to help. i have been exercising consistently over 3 months now – first with yoga and then I found your website. I started with the fit-in-15 which was completed 2 weeks ago and now I do other exercises from your channell – core, cardio. But my belly is still there. Help!

  • janet April 27, 2016, 10:07 pm

    I just sign up need to lose 30 lbs badly, I am 29 and at 203 lbs now, am 5 ft 8″

  • Karen January 26, 2016, 10:08 am

    Would these be some of the videos you would suggest for diastasis recti?

  • Beverly January 8, 2016, 10:08 am

    How can I buy the New Healthier You Fitness Plan I have on myfitnesspal?

    • Jessica Smith January 8, 2016, 1:49 pm

      Hi Beverly! The New Healthier You Plan on MyFitnessPal is free on their site and we offer our “Walk STRONG: Total Transformation 6 Week Program” for purchase here on our website – hope that helps! 🙂

  • Paola Marquez October 1, 2015, 6:40 pm

    Excellent information! A great reminder to no forgets that your core is much more than a six-pack.
    Thank you for be such an inspiration!

  • Linda September 6, 2015, 10:10 pm

    Thank you Jessica for all you do for us you are so amazing and so sweet and kind! I admire you so much! I pray to God each day to strengthen me and give me Grace and Favor to be committed and dictated to working out each and every day! I am single and live alone so the moviatation is Challenging for me! I am thankful and grateful to you and Peanut! Wish I had you and a bunch of deciated women close by! Buddy plans do work like a Skype where when you work out we all check in on Skype to we can work out together for the Moviatation and Until we can committed in doing this workouts everyday. I pray that God hears my prayer! I want to be healthy and in shape not only for just me myself and I but the amazing man that will enter into my life healthy and in shape as well. Thank you again Jessica I am grateful to you always. Love you and Peanut! Linda from NC

    • Jessica Smith September 7, 2015, 9:48 am

      Hi Linda! Thanks to YOU for being a part of our community here! We’re so glad you are joining us for this and know that we are here with you and we’re only a click away! Love your spirit and focus – keep up the great work you are doing taking care of your body and your health and keep focusing on the positive energy and people you want to attract into your life. They are on the way 🙂 We’ll see you soon for our next session together!

  • Doris August 20, 2015, 1:27 pm

    Thanks great work out.

  • Amy August 16, 2015, 8:00 am

    I have Degenerative Joint Disease in my spine and my doctor’s (and physical therapist) have determined and shown me how I have been using my core muscles incorrectly while exercising for the past 15+ years! Your tips above are crucial for everyone engaging in physical activity. Just because I have a relatively small waist, I thought my core was strong. WRONG!
    Thank you Jessica for such important information!

    • Jessica Smith August 16, 2015, 10:25 am

      Thanks for sharing that Amy! So glad you found this helpful. Thanks for reading and keep up the great work you are doing taking care of your body and your health 🙂

  • SYLVIE August 15, 2015, 2:25 pm

    One thing I try to always keep in mind is a tip of a friend (worth it ?) = we mustn’t have a blocked diaphragm to allow muscles of abs working well. In fact we must be rather relax and just think to breath !


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