Author: Dr. John Blenio
Chiropractor in San Mateo @ High Amplitude Health

Here are other titles to this blog post that I considered…

Do you know how to activate your core muscles?
It doesn’t matter if you have a strong core if you don’t use it.
Do you know when you are supposed to contract your core?

As a chiropractor and sports injury specialist, I see plenty of patients in my office who regularly workout. They do their crunches when they go to the gym; they hold their planks at their weekly boot camp. You would think these people have a strong core, and many do. But having a strong core, and activating the core are two different things.

What I’ve realized throughout the years I have been practicing, is that many people don’t activate their core (abdominal muscles) when they should. They spend plenty of time in the gym strengthening their core, but when it comes time to use it when they are supposed to, they don’t.

I have a few questions for you:

  • Do you contract your core you are bending over to pick up your child?
  • Do you contract it when you are in the gym doing biceps curls, or even the bench press?
  • How about when you bend over to tie your shoes?
  • What about when you get inside or outside of your car?
  • How about if you are walking into a bank, and you have to open that heavy door?

If you aren’t sure if you contract your core doing any of these things above, there is a good chance you are not, and if that’s the case, that means your low back is doing way more work than it should.

Contracting the core — for the most part — should be reflexive.

Here is another important question you need to answer:

  • Do you KNOW how to contract your core?

When I have a patient in my office with lower back pain, I ask them if they know how to contract their core. Believe it or not, many people say they are not sure. So, I test them. While they lay flat on their back on my treatment table, I moderately grip their core with my hands around the each side of their lower rib cage, and place both thumbs on each side of their belly button, then I ask them to contract it.

Many patients either do not know how to contract their abdominal muscles, and have significant trouble figuring out how to do it, while others do know how to contract their muscles rather well, but they are not sure if they do it when bending over, or lifting something (refer back to my questions above).

If you are overweight and have a lot of abdominal fat,
you still have muscles under that fat that need to be activated.

The reality is, you need to be using (activating/contracting) your core muscles often.

Core Contraction Rules

Here is how I explain it to my patients:

  • If you are standing upright, not lifting anything — just standing there — your core should be (and I’m estimating) about 3-5% (lightly) contracted always. Don’t *ever* stand there letting your belly hang out. When your belly is 100% relaxed, it lets the weight of your abdominal tissue and organs project forward, which means your lower back muscles need to work just a little harder to counter balance and keep you erect. That extra work can eventually lead to lower back muscle tightness, subsequent fatigue, then pain. To reduce the incidence of lower back pain problems, you have to tighten your abdominal muscles just a little bit. This creates mild constant tension within those muscles, pulls the belly back toward your spine, and provides stabilization to your lower back in the normal standing erect posture.
  • If you are going to bend down and tie your shoes, that’s going to require your lower back to work a little harder than standing erect, so to protect your lower back you must contract your abdominal muscles between roughly 10-20%. This extra bit of contraction protects your lumbar spinal muscles by providing extra support — even if you are on one knee while tying your shoes.
  • Now, let’s saying you are picking up your 3 year old child. They might weigh 30 or 40 pounds. This is now going to require you to contract your core even more to protect your lower back. For 30 to 40 lbs, I estimate you need to contract your core at least 50%, and maybe more depending upon how well you actually know how to activate your abdominal muscles. If you don’t workout much, and actually have a rather weak core, I would bump that percentage up to 70% if you are picking up that kind of weight.
  • We’ll go one step further. If you are bending over to pick up a box filled with a bunch of books, and that box weighs 50 to 75 pounds, I’m going to say it’s necessary to contract your core 90+%

These are general core contraction rules and vary relative to your fitness level, how much you exercise your core, and how well you actually know how to contract your core.

A Conscious Effort

For people who contract their core and use it properly to stabilize their body, this is mostly a reflexive effort. But for those who are not aware they need to contract their core when bending, or lifting, or getting out of their car, this effort starts off as a conscious one. Yes, you actually need to think about it.

“I’m getting ready to pick up my 3 year old son, Dr. Blenio said I better contract
my core at least 50% to protect and stabilize my lower back, here we go…contract…”

It may seem difficult to have to consciously THINK about contracting your core, but the more you practice *consciously* thinking about contracting your core, the easier it gets. You will eventually convert that conscious effort it into a subconscious one without the need to think about it. You will just do it automatically.

How Contracting Your Core Protects You From Lower Back Pain

If you have lower back pain, and you typically do not lift things with your core contracted, or you bend over without your core contracted, then NOT contracting your core is probably part of the reason you have your lower back pain in the first place.

Far too many people tend to reach for a heavy box or their child, bend forward, then use only their low back muscles to lift. Some people do it a little better than others by squatting down and using their legs and glutes to help lift.

Using your glutes and legs is also an important thing to do when bending to lift something, because your legs and glutes are quite powerful.

The legs help, and you should always use them when lifting something, but if you are not contracting your core at the same time, you are missing the part of your body that provides the most stability to not only your spine, but to your arms and legs (extremities) too.

The core stabilizes your extremities. Virtually every movement your body is capable of doing begins in the core. It is this central stabilizer that makes lifting anything much easier, and with less chance of injury.

So, the next time you are getting into your car, or lifting a box of books, or reaching up into your cabinet just to grab a dinner plate, make sure to use your core. Contract it. Activate it. A little bit with some movements. A lot with others.

You will create more stability, and you will reduce the chances of injuring your lower back.

Check out this video about how to contract/activate your core: