You hear it all the time.
Especially in group exercise classes.
“Engage your core.”
“Activate that transverse abdominis.”
“Turn those ab muscles on, ladies!”
But what does that even mean? And how can you make sure you’re actually engaging your core right (or right-ish)?
This can be really tricky – especially for new moms who are having a tough time even feeling their ab muscles work.
So what do you need to know to actually get this core engagement thing down pat?
Well, for starters, I get that you may have a tough time with this because you feel like you need to “hold everything in” after having a baby.
You may feel like you need to brace and squeeze and suck in so that your abs are “on”.
But the truth is that there’s a big difference between contracting your core muscles with all your might and engaging your core muscles in a functional way.
In fact, it’s a really small action. A slight contraction. It shouldn’t feel like you’re sucking your belly button to your spine or your abs are braced so hard you’re having a tough time breathing or twisting from side to side.
When you suck it in and brace really hard you’re not doing your body any favours and you could actually be creating (or contributing to) issues like leaking.
In fact, just the other day I got an email from one of my client’s pelvic health physiotherapists letting me know that her sneeze-leaks (or snissing if you will) are probably actually being caused by a too tight or hypertonic pelvic floor.
She has great engagement of her pelvic floor and transverse abdominis – when she gets the right cues.
Her body knows what to do, we just need to help it along by giving her the cues that work for her and encouraging her to relax, release and not squeeze so darn hard so her muscles can do what they’re designed to do.
This is why it’s important you know the signs that you’re engaging well (or not so well) and some simple cues to help you get it if you’re still struggling (even after watching my how to engage your core video).
But before we get into the tips, I need to make it clear that when I say “engage your core” I mean your whole core system.
A lot of times us trainers like to talk about engaging your transverse abdominis or your “corset-like muscle” in isolation. “Let’s target that transverse”. But the truth is nothing in your body works in isolation – especially your ab muscles.
So when you’re engaging one, the others are there for a supportive boost as well.
This includes your pelvic floor too. Fun Fact: When most women do a Kegel their transverse abdominis muscle gets activated automatically too.
So we want the whole system to work well as a team.
But to get started (and not overwhelm you) let’s focus today on engaging the transverse abdominis (which is an important stabilizing muscle that moms want in tip-top shape) and turning the pelvic floor on (AKA doing a Kegel like a rockstar).
These two muscles working together are key to help ensure you’re engaging your core well.
Let’s first dive into some of my favourite cues to help you get it just right. Then we’ll chat a bit more about signs you are getting it right – and signs you need to make some tweaks here or there.
My Fave Cues to Experiment With
I’m giving you 6 ideas to try (3 to engage the transverse abdominis – or TVA – and 3 to engage your pelvic floor – or PF).
You’ll want to combine 1 TVA cue with 1 PF cue so that you’re engaging your transverse while engaging your pelvic floor at the same time. Make sense?
As you’re going through these remember that the point isn’t to perfect each one, the point is to pick 1 TVA cue and 1 PF cue that work really well for you.
Every woman is different and responds uniquely to each cue. So if one works, great! If another one doesn’t, great! Either way you’re that much closer to getting it.
Also don’t feel like you need to use them all or even a handful of them. You just need one simple cue to work.
And of course I can’t in good conscience leave ya hanging without saying…
I highly, highly recommend you check in with a pelvic health physio or awesomely knowledgeable trainer in your area who can actually get their hands on you (in a gentle, permission-based way, of course 😉 ) to see how you’re doing with this.
Sometimes it just takes a little tweak or idea or hands-on approach from someone else to really get it.
So if that’s an option for you, go for it!
And keep in mind as you’re practicing that with all these cues we’re going for gentle movements in the core muscles. It’s not a big suck in or up or squeeze. It’s a gentle but strong enough contraction to get the job done.
Here are some cues to help you get that just right…
Remember, pick one TVA cue and combine it with 1 PF cue so you’re doing both at the same time.
Again, there’s a lot more going on with your core system than these two areas but these are two of the most common muscle systems that a lot of postpartum women have trouble activating well.
Once you’ve got this down pat, ensuring your whole core system works as a whole in an awesomely well way will be a heck of a lot easier.
How to Know You’ve Got It (And Signs You’re Not Doing So Hot)
There are some signs and nudges that your body will give you to suggest you’ve got it (and other things you need to stop doing to give your abs the best chance possible of engaging well when you need them to).
Here’s what I mean…
1. Feel The Work
Put your hands on your lower belly between the two bony parts of your pelvis that stick out over top of your thighs.
When you engage your transverse abdominis you should feel the muscle tense under your fingers slightly.
It shouldn’t bulge forward or push out.
It also shouldn’t suck in like crazy. Just a slight movement is when you know you’ve hit the golden spot.
2. Go For The Max, Then Back Off
Squeeze your vagina and anus as hard as you can.
Now back off to about 30% of that.
That is how you want to engage your pelvic floor for most exercises – not as hard as you can, just enough to get the job done.
3. Breathe. Seriously.
You should still be able to breathe normally. We want your belly and ribs to be able to expand out and contract in – even when your core is engaged.
Yes. This means no holding your breath. There may be moments (after you’ve healed and retrained your body postpartum) where a breath hold or Valsava Maneuver is necessary. But right now – when you’re working on rehabbing your core and floor – we want you to breathe through the movement.
Exhale on the hard part. Inhale on the easier or resting part.
4. Avoid the Dome
You don’t want to see any coning or doming in your abs.
This is a sign that you need to adjust your engagement strategy or adjust the exercise because your abdominal wall is having a hard time handling that challenge right now.
Do you have to stay away from that exercise forever? Not necessarily. But for right now it’s not working for you. So back off and come back to it to test how things are working in a couple months.
Sometimes our bodies just need more time and re-training to do more challenging movements post-baby.
5. And Also the Pressure
There shouldn’t be any pressure, pain or bulge-like feeling into your pelvic floor or vagina.
“Oh you just had a baby, that’s normal” is a common response to women experiencing these kinds of symptoms but the truth is that it’s telling us that something is up.
Our entire core is a pressure system – you can think of it like a balloon.
Imagine that if you squeezed too hard (AKA braced your abs or sucked your belly button to your spine really hard) that pressure or air needs to go somewhere (up into the diaphragm or down into the pelvic floor).
So if you’re getting that pressure in the vagina feeling, chances are we need to work on your engagement and breathing strategies a bit more to make sure that the pressure is better distributed throughout the whole system.
6. One Size Doesn’t Fit All
Match how much you engage your core with the demand of what you’re doing.
It doesn’t take the same amount of effort to pick up a pencil off the floor as it does to pick your 30+lb toddler off the floor.
This means you don’t need to always squeeze and lift and give ‘er at the same level. In fact you shouldn’t.
Only engage as much as you need to feel stable and strong doing whatever you’re doing.
7. Untuck That Booty
And stop squeezing it with all your might.
It’s a really common reaction to tuck and squeeze your butt when you engage your core because your booty gets FOMO (fear of missing out) and wants to be part of the fun.
But we don’t want it to join the party in that way. We want a well functioning core and pelvic floor so that means we need to let our glutes go.
8. Your Inhale is Tres Importante
You’ve gotta release and relax on the inhale. I know I’ve mentioned this before but it’s so important – and something a lot of women forget about.
We’re so focused on the engage part we forget that how well we can engage is largely determined by how well we can relax.
You can think of it like any muscle in your body.
In order to work properly your ab muscles and pelvic floor muscles can’t be constantly turned on.
It’d be like constantly holding your bicep in a flexed or semi-flexed position.
At some point that muscle is gonna say “Mercy!” and you’re not going to be able to pick anything up – especially not your squirmy toddler.
Same is true of our ab muscles and pelvic floor. We need to not be afraid to relax and let them go.
So let your abs and pelvic floor relax (at least partially) between reps so that you can dive back in on the next one with the right amount of strength and avoid overwhelming the muscles.
9. Give ‘Em a Rest Already!
Let your abs go when you’re not actively trying to engage them.
It’s super common – especially when you feel self-conscious about your belly – to suck in your stomach all day, every day.
But the problem with that is that when you suck in your belly all that pressure in your abdomen needs to go somewhere (remember the balloon – it’s gonna go either up into your diaphragm, or down into your pelvic floor).
And in order for your core system to work well it needs to be able to manage the pressure in that system well. And when you suck it in all the time it’s not able to do that.
This is especially important if you’re experiencing any kind of core + floor problems – like pelvic organ prolapse or diastasis recti. The last thing we want to do is create a mismatch of pressure in that system and make it harder for our bodies to heal well.
Remember – Progress, Not Perfection.
Don’t sweat it if you’re not getting it right away.
While it may seem simple, for a lot of women this is actually really hard to accomplish so you’re not alone if you feel like screaming “Why hasn’t it just clicked already?”
Keep experimenting with different ideas.
And remember that you always have the option to ask a pro for help.
This is a such a foundational strategy that’s essential for you to master to get the most out of your rehab, retraining, and postpartum workout program so I don’t want you to get frustrated and give up trying.
It doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to work for you and your body.
So find what does work and run with it.
P.S. Have a mama friend (or 10) who you think would find this helpful? Please pass it along! Thanks so much for sharing the goodness 🙂