How to Engage Your Core During Exercise


If your boxing exercise does not include a core workout, you aren’t doing it right.

Engaging your trunk muscles is fundamental to proper boxing technique and fitness exercises in general. Besides sculpting out chiseled abs, a core workout increases strength around the midline and helps you exercise with better form, balance and stability. 

Obviously, core engagement while exercising is crucial. Gym instructors all over the country seem to agree on this one, and you’ve likely heard variations of this slogan a million and one times at gyms and fitness classes:

  • “Engage your core!”
  • “Brace your abs”
  • “Strengthen your midsection”

But how exactly, you ask? Let’s start with Core Anatomy 101.

What is the ‘Core’?

Your core is not just abs and lats, it actually consists of over 20 muscles and muscle groups in your midsection. Of these, five groups are most prominent: 

  1. The rectus abdominis (or abs), which are responsible for the coveted “six-pack” and help bend the spine forward. It’s a long, flat muscle divided into ten sections stretching from the rib cage to the pubic bone.
  2. Internal and external obliques at either side of the abdomen help keep the trunk straight. They also contract when you bend sideways, ‘suck in’ your stomach, or twist your trunk.
  3. The lats, (or latissimus dorsi, in case you’re loving the Latin) also help twist the trunk. Lats are those huge V-shaped muscles extending from the shoulders to the spine and provide stability for the back.
  4. Erector spinae are superficial back muscles arising from an aponeurosis which blends with the thoracolumbar fascia. In English, the spinal erectors are on either side of the spine from the neck downwards. 

Like the lats, they’re back muscles, but often not as large. They also straighten the back and aid side-to-side motion.

  1. The Transverse abdominis (or TVA muscle) lies at the core of your core. It is the deepest abdominal muscle layer, surrounding the entire midsection from the ribs to the pelvis. 

The TVA muscle is essential to diaphragm motion during breathing.

Besides the abs and back muscles, engaging the core also requires contraction of glutes and hip flexors. The fact that all these muscles must be involved makes engaging your core seem highly complicated. Yet, like any other fitness training technique, it can be mastered.

But it’s only a boxing exercise; why should I bother?

You may think boxing is all about having chiseled arms. But that’s less than half the story. Having a stronger core helps provide both the stability needed to maintain a defensive position and the power to deliver solid punches

It doesn’t end there. When you engage your core during fitness boxing, you reduce the chances of sustaining injuries from your workout. Core engagement also helps you exercise with better form, and may even alleviate chronic back pain.

Protection from Injury

Most fitness exercises put a strain on your backbone, and racks up the chances of injury to spinal discs. There is a horrifyingly large variety of spinal defects that can possibly arise: including lumbar spondylosis. However, these risks can be minimized by engaging your core while exercising.

Bracing the muscles in your midsection keeps you from overextending your vertebrae and prevents injury to the shoulders and elbows. It also does not allow for over twisting, which can be dangerous. Safety is key in a workout, and core engagement allows you to exercise safely.

Improved performance

Olympic weightlifters typically brace their core to deadlift those massive barbells.  For fitness boxers, a stronger core offers more endurance for performing different kinds of boxing exercise without expending too much energy. 

This improved performance might have something to do with reduced pain levels. Even pros tend to reduce the intensity of a workout once it gets painful. However, working out with an engaged core minimizes muscle pain, which helps you exercise longer with excellent form.

Core engagement also enhances actual boxing performance. Many core muscles run from the pelvic girdle to the chest, providing that vital link that transfers explosive power from the legs to the fists. The evidence shows that a harder core produces a stronger punch.

Performing a Core Workout

In a core workout, you contract the muscles around your midline, while maintaining normal breathing. In fact, all of core engagement can be summarized by muscle contraction and consistent breathing. 

Pretty simple, right? Well, to begin with, three types of muscle contractions occur when engaging your core during a boxing exercise:

  • Concentric contractions where muscles shorten to cause movement. Your core muscles contract in this fashion when lifting your upper body off the ground during a crunch.
  • Eccentric contractions lengthen muscle to restrict, or slow down motion. This is what happens when you gradually lower your body while declining a crunch.
  • Isometric contractions that completely inhibit any form of motion. Consider the plank, for instance – the core muscles are engaged in keeping the body perfectly stable for the entire duration of the plank.

Core workouts require that all of these types of contractions occur while breathing freely. Obviously this cannot occur if your stomach is ‘sucked in’; that halts your breath and leaves you gasping for air. Natural breathing is particularly important as it is what makes the core muscles tense up like a sheath around the spine. 

To create this effect, first inhale deeply to fill your belly with air. With your abdomen tightened, continue to breathe while ensuring only your rib cage is moving. Now perform any drill from your workout routine, preferably a boxing exercise. This is core engagement.

Core Engagement during Weightlifting

When you lift weights, there are numerous chances for spinal movement – arching your back, bending your shoulders, hips, knees and ankles. It is most crucial to engage your core during weight lifting to prevent hyperextension of the spine and allow you to lift better.

During the deadlift, for example, take a deep breath as you contract your core muscles to maintain a vertical posture while raising the bar bell. This lets you keep your shoulder blades retracted and your back as straight as possible during the exercise.

Core Engagement during Ab Workouts 

During crunches, or russian twists, watch for signs that you need to engage your core. The most common sign is excessive flexing of the back, or hyperextension. For planks though, you need to engage your core throughout the duration of the isometric hold.

In an ab workout, squeezing your glutes and tipping your tailbone forward can help with stabilization and core engagement. Minimizing the lumbar curvature of your spine also makes you workout with better form.

Core Engagement during Cardio

Although cardio exercises are not considered core workouts by a long shot, engaging your core during cardio helps with posture and endurance. Aches and pains from prolonged cardio are also reduced when you exercise while bracing your trunk muscles.

Boxing is essentially a cardiovascular activity. It requires good physical conditioning as well as stamina, agility and strength. When you start to incorporate a core workout into your boxing exercise routine, you tap into a larger fitness potential in these areas.

At Delray Boxing Club, we instruct you on how to engage your core muscles to box like a pro. Thinking of signing up

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