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3 Reasons to Stop Saying “Engage Your Core” as a Coaching Cue

by | Coaching, Main Blog

Have you ever videoed yourself teaching a Group Fitness class? If not, try it out sometime. It’s an amazing tool to assess yourself as an instructor. It can also be excruciatingly painful to watch in that you’ll immediately notice you say the same 5 phrases over. and over. and over. and over. A few months ago, I was cleaning out some old CDs and DVDs for classes I no longer teach and found a few self-assessment videos from about 6-7 years ago. So of course, I watched them. I kid you not, within five minutes of watching, I counted myself saying the phrase “engage your core” 14 times.

FOURTEEN.

What does “engage your core” actually even mean? To be honest, I’m not really sure I can answer that question. And if someone who considers herself to be a fitness professional can’t answer it, the general population of class participants probably can’t either. I’ve since eliminated that cue from my repertoire because it makes no sense to say words that we can’t effectively explain as instructors. We all pick up cues from a variety of places - maybe it’s from other instructors or from workout DVDs. We grasp on to things we hear in repetition and then we repeat those same words to others.

But how often, though, do we take a step back and consider the cues we constantly use in our classes? How often do we question their validity? Creditability? Logic? Not often enough.

A little reasearch

I was curious to know what others thought about the cue “engage your core” so I did a little research project. I asked a few other professionals and class participants and what this phrase meant to them and received some interesting responses:

From other professionals, the responses varied:
  • “We are never static for long and shouldn't be. Engage to me, means active and ready and able to respond to every little tiny shift in center of gravity and alignment, working in concert with all the other muscles of the body”. - Caroline, Physical Therapist
  • “To create pressure in your abdominal cavity to perform a movement that requires a stable base.” - Nick, Personal Trainer
  • “Effectively and properly contracting abdominal muscles” - Lynn, Group Exercise Instructor
  • “Pull abdominals in and up but don’t hold your breath” - Jennifer, Group Exercise Instructor
  • “Using the abdominals and back to support the action you are performing with other muscle groups…but not everyone knows what the core muscles are or what they do so “engage the core” would mean nothing to them” - Karyn, Group Exercise Instructor

From most class participants I heard these repeated themes:

  • “Tighten your abs”
  • “Bellybutton to spine”
  • “Keep everything pulled in tight, during the exercise and after”
  • “Suck it in - I also had one instructor tell us to suck it in and hold it in all day long so that we’d be working our abs constantly”

What are we trying to say?

The cue “engage your core” tells our class participants that they have to be a static state of contraction, forever pulling their bellybuttons to their spines with the hopes that they’ll someday have flat, tight abs. Encouraging them to constantly contract the muscles in the abdominal cavity isn’t going to be the magic pill that helps them build a strong core.

It may, however contribute to:

  • a hypertonic (non relaxing) pelvic floor in women which can cause problems such as painful sex and constipation
  • impaired breathing patterns due to the loss of connection between the diaphragm and pelvic floor
  • a culture of obsession with thinness

We’re in a unique position as fitness instructors; our clients look to us as role models, as coaches and as professionals. If they are leaving our classes thinking that they have to constantly “suck it in” to build a stronger core, we are clearly sending them the wrong message with our words. Instead of continuing to use cues and phrases just because we always have, we owe it to our classes to constantly evaluate:

  1. What we’re telling them to do
  2. Exactly how they are supposed to accomplish what we’re telling them to do
  3. Why we’re telling them to do it and how it’s going to benefit them

If the words we’re using in our instruction can’t answer these three questions, we need to eliminate them from our teaching vocabularies.


2 Comments

  1. teitei

    I usually say “engage the core” and other variations when I’m trying to get the students to fix their posture. What do you suggest? Thanks.

    • Summer Sides

      Hey. If you are trying to get them to fix their posture I would question what specifically are you trying to fix. Are they slouched over (kyphosis) – say “Squeeze your shoulder blades”. Are they sticking their butt out (lordosis) – say “squeeze your butt”. I’ve found ‘squeeze your butt’ to be one of the best cues to help them really engage the posterior chain as well as activate the deep transverse abdominals. Let me know specifically what it is about posture you’re trying to fix and I may be able to give some better cues!

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