How to Activate Core Muscles – Easy Steps to Core Activation

Learn how to activate core abdominal muscles correctly in this Physical Therapist guided exercise DVD.

Knowing how to correctly activate deep abdominal core muscles and how to do safe core abdominal exercises are often common concerns for women, particularly those women with pelvic floor prolapse problems.

In this core exercise video Michelle guides you through some simple steps for how to activate core abdominal muscles. She also demonstrates a series of pelvic floor safe core training exercises to help you improve your core control and core abdominal strength with exercises suited to the home or gym environment.

Michelle is the presenter of Inside Out Strength, the pelvic floor safe exercise home workout for women.

Video duration: 6 minutes

We welcome your comments and questions about core exercises below the written guidelines (scroll down)

How to Activate Core Muscles

Step 1 – Posture

Good posture is essential for core activation – if your posture is slumped your core abdominal muscles won’t work as well. Sitting tall with your chest lifted, spine tall and normal inward curve in your low back is the best position for core activation.

Step 2 – Find and Feel Your Core Muscles

Your core abdominal muscles wrap around your trunk like a corset. They run from the front of your abdomen, around your waist and insert via connective tissue into your spine. Deep abdominal muscles work to assist spinal and pelvic control. Ideally these muscles should work with your pelvic floor muscles.

The best position to locate your deep abdominal muscles is just inside your pelvic bones. If you wrap your thumbs and forefingers around your waist, your fingers will rest directly above your core abdominal muscles, just inside your pelvic bones. This is the best place to feel your deep abdominal core muscles as they are the deepest of your layered abdominal muscles.

It can be challenging to feel the gentle tension created when your core muscles are correctly activated. Ideally you should feel a gentle tension or tightness under your fingers with correct core activation. You shouldn’t feel a strong abdominal in draw – core muscles are postural muscles that should be gently active all the time, just like the postural muscles holding up your head.

Step 3 – Activate Your Core

Gently draw in your lower abdominal wall towards your spine – this is slow and controlled activation. Try to slightly draw in the area of your abdomen that sits beneath your briefs. Remember this is a very subtle and gentle contraction; it should not be too strong or forceful. Try to breathe normally during all exercises for the core.
Commence with up to 10 second deep abdominal muscle holds. Progress the duration of your holds as your core control improves with practice.

Step 4 – Arm Movements to Challenge Core Training Exercises

Progress your seated core exercise ball exercises by combining your core activation with:

  • Keeping the ball as still as possible while you move your arms
  • Keeping your feet close together
  • Reaching out slowly with both arms
  • Alternating arm reaching in front of your body
  • Reaching both arms overhead
  • Raising alternate arms slowly overhead
  • Progressively reducing your base of support; supporting your body weight through your heels rather than through flat feet.

Step 5 – Leg Movements to Further Challenge Core Activation

Further progress the challenge to your core muscles by combining these leg movements with seated core activation:

  • Keeping your exercise ball as still as possible while you alternate leg movements
  • Extend one leg and touch your heel to the ground in front of your body
  • Raise one foot slightly off the ground at a time
  • Raising one leg and extending that leg in front of your body
  • Progressively decreasing your upper body hand support on the ball; supporting with all fingers in contact with the ball, to two fingers, and then no hands when you are confident in your balance and core control.

Mistakes to Avoid During Core Training Exercises

Try to avoid these common mistakes during core training exercises:

  • Slumped posture
  • Over bracing all abdominal muscles
  • Breath holding
  • Doing intense exercises for the core before understanding correct activation
  • Performing intense core exercises with pelvic floor problems

Key Points from How to Activate Core Muscles

  • Deep abdominal core muscle activation is gentle not strong
  • Appropriate posture is an essential element for successful core training exercises
  • Take the time to find your lower abdominal muscles
  • Use your fingers to feel correct lower abdominal exercises
  • Appropriate core activation involves gentle maintained deep abdominal contractions
  • Commence your core exercises gradually with:

– Longer abdominal muscle holds
– Arm movements sitting on and exercise ball
– Reducing your base of support sitting on an exercise ball
– Leg movements sitting on an exercise ball
– Reducing upper body support with leg movements.

How to activate core muscles has been designed to help women with correct understanding of appropriate core activation techniques. All too often women are uncertain about correct core activation and pelvic floor safe core training exercises. This video information aims to assist women to have a better understanding of how to activate their core muscles for pelvic floor safe core stability and strength exercises.

Inside Out Book & DVDABOUT THE AUTHOR, Michelle Kenway

Michelle Kenway is a Pelvic Floor Physiotherapist and author of Inside Out – the Essential Women’s Guide to Pelvic Support, along with Dr Judith Goh Urogynaecologist. The Inside Out exercise DVD and book show women how to strengthen the pelvic floor and exercise effectively with pelvic floor safe exercises.


  1. When you engage those lower core abdominal muscles as you explain, should you feel a contraction of your pelvic floor muscles as well?

    • Michelle Kenway says:

      Yes Hi Ali,
      Some women will feel a contraction of their pelvic floor muscles when they activate their lower abs – this is in fact what we want…it’s called coactivation and it helps to control the pressure within the trunk called intra abdominal pressure. Some women can’t coactivate, and they overbrace their abs causing downward pressure on their pelvic floor and this is not what we want. So the idea is to aim for gentle coactivation of the pelvic floor and TA (lower abs) with the goal of both these muscle groups working together functionally.

  2. Also, are pull-ups/chin-ups bad on the pelvic floor?

    • Michelle Kenway says:

      I would avoid pull ups/chin ups with pelvic floor weakeness of pelvic floor problems. These exercises have a strong upper abdominal muscle involvement. I think even assisted chin ups have the potential to impact upon a weak pelvic floor but ultimately depends on the individual’s pelvic floor functioning.

  3. Merry Christmas to you all.

  4. Hi Michelle
    If I activate my pelvic floor muscles for a long hold, and then activate my core – my pelvic floor fails way before my core does. Say I am doing something on the ball, say single leg lifts while sitting tall on the ball, my pelvic floor is activated, then my core is actived, then I start doing lifts, when my pelvic floor deactivates, can I boost it back into activation without stopping the exercise and deactivating the core, or should I stop everything, exhale and start everything again?

    • Michelle Kenway says:

      Hi Wendy
      This depends on what you are trying to train and for what purpose.

      If you are trying to train your pelvic floor and your deep abdominal muscles to work together, then stop, rest briefly, correct your posture and start again. If you are already doing pelvic floor exercises separately, and these abdominal exercises are for your abdominal control, I don’t see an issue with you just continuing with your abdominal exercises even if your pelvic floor muscles are deactivating.

      What is most important from a pelvic floor protection point of view is that your pelvic floor is strong enough to counteract the downward pressure of everyday activities and exercises. There is no need for women to walk around trying to voluntarily coactivate both the deep abdominal and pelvic floor muscle groups all day. In terms of gently activating TA’s during daily activity, this is desirable but it is not correct to try to voluntarily contract the pelvic floor during extended activities and exercises. Pelvic floor exercises should strengthen, thicken, and promote automatic functional activity of the pelvic floor muscles such as when coughing and sneezing. Actively contracting pelvic floor muscles for extended periods of time and during prolonged activities is not the way these muscles shold be used and can create some problems with inadequate relaxation.

      I hope this makes some sense to you Wendy, let me know if you need further clarification.

  5. Thank you so much Michelle, your videos are so helpful! As I am evaluating exercises I have done, I came up with another quick question. How about hanging knee raises?

    • Michelle Kenway says:

      Hi Ali
      Again this is an intense abdominal muscle exercise, and one that women with pelvic floor problems are best advised to avoid.

  6. Thanks so much for your response Michelle. Just expanding on that response please. I was understanding that doing quick short contractions of the PF were good for functions such as coughing and sneezing, however was under the understanding that long contractions for as long as possible through load bearing movements (lifting baby out of pram for example) were also very good to practice. Can you please clarify “extended periods”.

    • Michelle Kenway says:

      Yes Wendy, by extended periods I mean for example when running or walking or even just contracting the pelvic floor habitually. Sometimes women can get the wrong message that their pelvic floor muscle holds should be maintained throughout prolonged activities, when in fact their pelvic floor exercises should improve the strength and overall support function of the pelvic floor for during these types of activities. By all means actively brace to protect for those intermittent activities or events that increase intraabdominal pressure and subsequent pressure on the pelvic floor; lifting included. This is why I believe that if you are doing seated abdominal core routines and if your pelvic floor becomes inactive after say 10 seconds or so, I don’t see this as a major problem for your core training. I hope this clarifies this for you a little.
      Best of luck

  7. Hi Michelle. Thankyou for this wonderful opportunity to email you and also read other womens’ questions and your responses… some of my questions have alresdy been answered!
    so…. generally-uplifted posture is enough to keep a little tone in the pelvic bowl muscles ? For milder exercises, or standing up or sitting down – a gentle drawing in of lo abs ? For stronger exercise – activating lo abs and PF, but for no longer than 10sec… so that means positions shouldnt be held for longer that 10 secs? I teach yoga so am very curious about this, and very much want to get it right for students… I also noted that Uddiyana bhanda was not good for women with pelvic floor dysfunction in your article. We practise it on the outbreath… when there is a natural drawing up of PF and then also consciously draw up PF. I would like to know your opinion. Jo

    • Michelle Kenway says:

      Hi Jo
      Thanks so much for your questions, I will answer each one in turn. This is a long reply as your questions are quite involved and so my apologies in advance if this is a little long-winded.

      1. Does uplifted posture assure pelvic tone? – no unfortunately uplifted posture doesn’t activate core abdominal or pelvic floor muscles automatically however there has been some excellent research telling us that appropriate posture optimises the ability of these muscles to work and strengthen most effectively. In short some of Ruth Sapsford’s research showed that when women activate their pelvic floor muscles with the lumbar spine in neutral or increased inward curve in the lower back, the pelvic floor muscle activation was optimal compared with lumbar spine flexed (slumped posture). The same holds true for deep abdominal core muscle activation and this is why it is not appropriate to imprint the low back into the mat for lying down core abdominal exercise. If the low back curve is held in it’s neutral (slight inward) position, then the pelvic floor and deep abdominal muscles can work most effectively and this is very useful for all women to know especially mature women and those who have pelvic floor problems such as prolapse and incontinence. Some women with osteoporosis and slumped posture have a great deal of trouble with core activation because they can’t achieve the appropriate posture for core activation. So posture is a vital first step in core abdomianal exercise.

      2. Training and progressions for abdominal exercises need not be from lying to standing although some women will find it easier to activate their lower abs if you position them in side lying and get them to palpate their lower abdomen as they activate as shown in this video. Other women find it easier to activate their deep abdominals in upright sitting or standing so it really varies from woman to woman. So in summary find the position that your client can best activate her deep abdominals and then work from there in terms of progressing the complexity of the exercise, such as the seated progressions shown in this video from arm reaches to leg lifts etc. One thing I do consistently find is that it is very difficult for most women to learn correct deep abdominal activation lying on their back (without an ultrasound to provide feedback) and many women tend to overbrace their abdominals in this position so it’s not the greatest starting position in my mind when teaching deep abdominal muscle activation.

      3. Determining the appropriate length or duration of muscle holds in training… for pelvic floor strengthening on its own I tend to pitch at 8-12 second holds as these are maximimum voluntary contractions aimed at strengthening muscle fibres and not extended holds. For deep abdominal muscle training, these are postural muscles that should work for extended periods of time and hence it is appropriate to train them to work (gently) for extended periods of time longer than 10 seconds is great, promote extended training of these muscles with correct activation. For coactivation which is generally used for activities such as lifting, these are usually relatively brief activities and again trained as such but not limited to 10 seconds.

      4. Good question on Uddiyana bandha (“belly lock”) – yes the pelvic floor rises naturally on the out breath but there is no way you can assume that just because a woman is breathing out her pelvic floor is not suscptible to being forced downwards with a strong abdominal indraw. The upward movement of the pelvic floor with the outbreath is just a passive movement of the pelvic floor, not an active contraction of the pelvic floor muscles and there is quite a difference between the two. Jo what do you see as the value of the belly lock for women? I don’t see an issue with it for women without pelvic floor problems but I don’t see why it would be trained in women with or at risk of pelvic floor problems where we try to promote gentle abdominal control. If anything i would think that the belly lock is training them to actually increase the downward on their pelvic floor. As always I am really open to discussion on this and maybe someone else has some thoughts on this too, I just don’t see the value in really strong core activation for most women.

      In terms of health I see a potential negative impact on the pelvic floor, and in terms of aesthetics to flatten the abdomen if this is a woman’s motivation (and we do know that it is not possible to spot reduce fat from the abdomen with abdominal exercises) then why the focus on intense core activation? Maybe there is specific reason for doing belly lock in Yoga and I welcome input on this as it is a frequently asked question in relation to yoga exercise and the pelvic floor.

      So hope this helps you and yur clients, thanks again for your great questions Jo

  8. Sorry…just thought of another question. You said that when lo abs are drawn in, for some women that also activates the PF, but for some it mustnt. So to be on the safe side… should we still be advising working lo abs and PF, whatever the exercise?

    • Michelle Kenway says:

      Hi Jo
      To be on the safe side we need to be advising pelvic floor muscle activation first and foremost before any abdominals. If we are confident that a woman can correctly activate her deep abdominals (and her pelvic floor) then yes we can encourage appropiate deep abdominal activation. Bear in mind that the deep abdominal also have the potential to be overbraced and increase pressure on the pelvic floor. There are three sections to the TA’s (upper, middle and lower) and it may well be that some women overbrace the upper and middle parts of the TA’s can increase pressure within the abdomen and hence downward pressure on the pelvic floor. Since we cannot assume that any woman can coactivate their pelvic floor and deep abdominal muscles always be cautious in encouraging this across the board – some women will not be able to do this.

      My solution in classes is to always er on the side of caution and assume nothing in terms of pelvic floor fitness. You can know who is more at risk of pelvic floor injury with exercise but you can never know their pelvic floor fitness without a physical examination and this is just not realistic or feasible in your average exercise class. So what I do is to educate ladies about core exercises, teach appropriate core abdominal activation and then provide them with informed options for progressing core exercises.

  9. Thanks for your earlier respose Michelle and all the info you have provided in response to jo’s question is also very useful. I am actually a trainer and my clientele is mostly pre and post-natal. My question now relates to exercise on the swiss ball. I have watched a particular video directed to pregnant women where the entire class is on the ball – which I love, however question with regard to pelvic floor safety. This session has been developed by physiotherapists and endorsed by obstetriticians. The video advises that no workout is complete without an abdominal component. Basically they perform a reverse type situp movement going from sitting upright on the ball and then leaning back as far as possible and forward again, in pulse type movements. This video may now be superceded, Im not sure, but as I am a PT for pre and post natal clients most of the time, I would like to know the suitability of these moves and if they are infact safe for the pelvic floor – and with regard to avoiding excessive diastisis recti. Once again, thanks so much for your answers so far and I look forward to your newsletter whenever it is released – it is by far superior to any other information I have been able to find on this subject.

  10. Sarah B. says:

    Dear Michelle.
    I hope you can be able to help me. I have a few problems with my pelvis. I gave birht three years ago normally, then got the following problems. My right leg is stiff and I have pain in my vagina when I get intimate with my husband. The pain is on the right wall of the vagina. I also have a lot of pain when I walk or run on the right upper leg near the crotch. My right leg is so stiff that I cannot cross it over the other, or lift it over the left knee. I cannot sit on the floor with legs crossed either. I have pain on the right back muscles . I dont have any form of incontinens.
    I have been th the doctor who said that my vagina walls were too tense thus causing the pain during sex.
    Please advise me on the right excercises , and training tools that will bring my life back. My marriage is falling part due to my lack of interest in sex.
    Sincere regards

    • Michelle Kenway says:

      Hi Sarah
      I would love to help you out here, but this is an issue that individualised assessment and appropriate treatment. Did your doctor refer you to a women’s health physiotherapist for treatment Sarah? From what you describe there are a jnumber of possible causes of your discomfort – the pelvic floor spasm may even be a result of another musculoskeletal problem. I would suggest that you see a physiotherapist trained in treatment of pelvic issues, particulalry sacroliliac and pubic symphysis dysfunction.
      Best of luck, interested to hear how you go

  11. I have been trying to FIND my core muscles. Can only find the pelvic floor ones. I don’t feel the gentle tension created when your core muscles are correctly activated. I don’t feel any tension. I watch your video put my fingers where you do and still feel no tension. Very frustrating. Do other women have this problem?

    • Michelle Kenway says:

      Yes! Absolutely this is such a common problem, and yes very frustrating indeed – try abdominal activation lying on your side, let your lower abdomen or belly relax completely and bulge forward, feel the position to palpate or feel your deep abdominal muscles shown on this video just inside your pelvic bones and then gently draw in the lower abdomen. Let me know how you go …
      Good luck

  12. This is all so interesting! Not sure if my inquiry is best posted here or with the Pilates post….my concern is OVER BRACING the lower abs. I have done years of regular Pilates training (mainly on the equipment). I thought I was in great shape until my hysterectomy 4 months ago (although since the birth of my child 18 years ago I have wondered how great the actual PF muscles were since nothing down there ever felt the same). I was hesitant to use estrogen after the surgery (due to migraines) and the Dr. has now said I have a very weak vaginal tissue along with weak PF muscles which he never mentioned before the surgery). I am pretty good at isolating the PFs, but wonder now if they totally give out when working with the pilates machine as I brace pretty solid for most exercises. How would you recommend proceeding with my pilates without over bracing? Is it possible to change this pattern now that it is ingrained in me? My first thought is lighter springs and maybe not doing tabletop legs with supine arm work? I am very confused. I know I over brace because I went paddle boarding a couple weeks ago and thought all was well until I got home and felt a bulge for the first time whilst showering (which Dr. confirmed a day later that the bladder was indeed sitting lower that before and insisted I start the estrogen which I have). Sorry so long in the tooth here…and thank you in advance for any advise (as no one else I have consulted has a clue other than more kegels) xx

    • Michelle Kenway says:

      Hi Melly

      Thank you for your comments!

      You are correct in suspecting that the overbracing with your Pilates has potential to overload your pelvic floor muscles, especially if you are maintaining strong core abdominal contraction throughout your entire Pilates session. It is hughly likely that if your pelvic floor is weak, it is unable to withstand this pressure. You are also correct in suggesting the use of lighter springs and avoiding tabletop with supine arm work as ways of reducing pressure on your pelvic floor. It is possible to change the pattern of overbracing and I have seen this pattern change with many women with correct training. To relax the abdominal involves correcting posture, diaphragmatic breathing and relaxing the lower abdominal wall (let it bulge). When you have learnt to relax these muscles, then comes the process of learning correct gentle abdominal muscle activation. Correct core activation is shown in this core activation video.

      This Physiotherapy article on Pilates and pelvic floor should help you modify your reformer work.

      Hope this gives you somewhere to start while you strengthen your pelvic floor.

  13. Hi Michelle

    I have diastasis recti from 6 finger separation to now 3 fingers. I gave birth 6 months ago via c section 2nd child). I have been doing tva activation via kegels (I imagine I am trying to hold in gas) upon exhale. I do this 3x a day 20x each for the past month. Should I be doing more than this? What else can I do? I would like to do weight training-do I need to do the kegels (tva activation) with weight training as well?

    Also I still notice an indent around my belly button area when I lie on my side or sit down in the bathroom. Will that ever go away or it will be there always even if gap closes?

    • Michelle Kenway Physiotherapist says:

      Hi Zelda

      Yes there’s a lot more that you can do in terms of exercise to restore your deep abdominal muscle control. You might like to start with this recent series I have posted on rectus diastasis exercises you can watch the video series here.

      Zelda I am unable to predict whether your existing gap will heal or not.

      All the best