I recently answered a few questions for an article on Fresh Juice, found here. I also wanted to share with you some lengthier elaborations, as they may be of some use to my readers and to my clients:
Visualization techniques for engaging the core:
There is a natural collapse inward in the abdominal muscles as we exhale. Therefore, exhaling can emphasize a tightening or a closure through the core. In order to first learn to wring air out of the abdominal area, thereby engaging the core, start with the breath. Sit up straight. Lock your pelvis still. Take a deep breath in, and as you exhale, think about pressing the belly button back toward the spine. We are releasing the air in the belly, tightening the gap between the ribcage and hipbone, and using the abdominal muscles to support the muscles of the lower spine. I often use these three images when urging clients to "put their brain in the muscle" (emphasize a contraction by being more mindful):
1) Think about a bottle cap being closed, but still having room to be tightened. As you breathe out, tighten the bottle cap to its very tightest and most closed. This can apply to any muscle contraction. 2) Think about wringing out a wet towel, as you breathe out. Dimissing all excess water, and in this case air. 3) "Wrench" the muscle in tighter. Again, the image of grinding the muscle closed, more tightly.
All in all, connect both your breath, and your brain, to the muscles.
How to engage the core while sitting at a desk:
The first component to core engagement throughout the day is proper posture. Check in with yourself: Are your shoulders rounded, is the spine curved, is your head jutting forward? If yes, your core is loose and slumped as well. So, try to remain cognizant of your shoulder blades being tightly pressed together, your spine straight, and this should automatically press your head back into place as well (straightening the top of the spine - the neck). Now that your platform is in tact, you are in a better position to tighten your core simply by using the visualization tricks listed above. Exhale, wrench the gap between the ribcage and hipbone to keep the abdominal muscles pressed back into the spine. Perk: You will automatically look and feel 5 pounds lighter!
An engaged core's effects on posture and breathing:
Lordosis is a common postural condition, whereby the lower spine curves convexly on the anterior side (front) and concavely on the posterior (back) side. So, when the abdominals are loose, and the lower back tight, people can hoard an extreme curve in the spine, affecting the position of the pelvis - and really, the whole body. Learning to engage the core helps the abdominals to remain pressed inward ("held" in urges people to hold the breath and suck in - NOT what we are after, here), serving as support to the lower spine. When the abdominals are pressed in, the spine is then stretched straight. When the abdominals are loose and hanging forward, the lower spine gets scrunched inward. This is the most common reason why people are experiencing such terrible back pain, and is the first place that I start in correcting it.
Engaging the core can improve breathing by teaching one to focus on, and connect to, one's breath. Breathing is about dismissing the bad with each exhalation, and taking in all of the good. Even being conscious of dismissing old air from the belly as you exhale, while attempting to improve the condition of your core, you can adopt this mentality which is very cleansing, and renewing, in the very most natural and productive way we have available to us.
Benefits of engaging the core outside of the gym / studio:
Other than postural correction, the strength component and LOOKING better, engaging the core throughout the day corrects lower back pain, and actually results in us being more confident, and powerful. The core is the power centre. If you don't believe me, TRY it. Strengthen and engage your core. If you then don't feel more confident, self-aware, fit, attractive, and have lesser back pain, I want to hear from you!