Activating Core vs. Squeezing Your Stomach

What is activating your core? How do you do it? What’s the difference between activating your core and squeezing your stomach? In this article, you’ll learn the what and how. You’ll also find out what muscles are a part of the core, how they impact fitness, and the surprising ways a tight chest can improve your life. Let’s go!

Tighten Your Core!

Maybe you’ve been there: you’re at the gym. You get under the bar for a bench press. You jam your shoulders tight, lift the bar, bring it down to your chest, shove it upward, and . . . nothing. The bar wobbles unsteadily. Your forearms cavitate. Your spotter helps you rack the bar. 

You failed.

To your left, someone far skinnier than you, narrower in the arms, benches at least twenty-five more pounds than you do. Easily. No sweat.

What’s wrong? Engage your core, your coach says. That’s what they say when your snatch is off, your knees hurt after back squats, your right hook is weak. Engage your core. Why? The bench press is about your chest; snatch is traps and delts; back squat’s about your glutes. What do your abdominal muscles have to do with it? Everything, you hear. 

Okay, sure, everything. 

So you try it. You take a deep breath, suck in your stomach, and NO NO NO NO NO NO YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG.


Engaging Your Core vs. Sucking in Your Stomach

In functional fitness, core muscles are everything. They’re quite literally the center that turns your body into a rock. If your abs are activated, your posture is correct, blood flow and oxygenation are maximized, muscles are stacked and moving efficiently. You lift better, walk better, sit better, live better.  

How is an engaged core different from drawing your stomach in? 

Let’s start with this question: why do we inhale our tummy? To look skinnier. Why do we engage our core? For power and stability during workouts and in our daily lives.

How to Activate Your Core

To activate your core, start by pretending someone’s about to punch you in the gut. Instinctively, you tighten your chest, transforming it into a shield of muscle that protects your innards. Shoulders tighten, move back and down. Your ribcage presses down and in. Your feet are flat to provide balance if there’s an impact against your body. That’s engaging your core.  

Sucking in your abdomen doesn’t provide that stability. You don’t want to be like those inflatable balloon men you see in front of car dealerships–get stacked.

Are There Benefits to Sucking Your Stomach In?

It’s hilarious to watch fitness fads come and go. Back in 2015, the Internet lit up with this bit of wonder: Flatten Your Abs by Sucking Your Belly In. Here’s how some of the armchair experts overpromised: by holding your breath and sucking your stomach in for a few seconds at a time, you can flatten and tone your abs to the exclusion of, you know, dieting and exercise. The process, some extremists pledged, would melt away belly fat and provide a beach body for the ages.



While there are some nominal benefits to the practice, engaging your core is superior in every way, in every context. It’s better for your body. 

Your Core Muscles

Remember all those “today was leg day” memes? They’re funny, but they also indicate a gym practice that, when taken too far, is counterproductive: we compartmentalize muscle groups in our workouts. Compartmentalizing can work for sure. It works great, though, when it’s holistic, remembering that the human body is designed to work in harmony. The key to that harmony? Our core–those muscles support all the others.  

A quick breakdown of core muscles:

  • Transverse Abdominis – Also called the “corset muscle,” the TVA is wrapped along the front edges of the rib cage. Sorry for the Wikipedia quote, but this description can’t be improved on: “it is the body’s natural weight-lifting belt, stabilizing the spine and pelvis during lifting movements.
  • Multifidus – A long, thin stretch of muscle along the spine. This group of muscles helps stabilize the spine.
  • Internal and External Obliques – Obliques run below the rib cage and wrap around the side of your body, providing protection and helping you rotate your trunk.
  • Erector Spinae – A thin line of muscles stretching up and down the back.
  • Diaphragm – Used for breathing. The health of your diaphragm is often the best indicator of overall core health. Bad posture and poor attention to core exercises result in a weak diaphragm. The good news is when you take care of it, and your diaphragm is super healthy, your voice, oxygenation, and blood flow are fantastic.
  • Pelvic Floor Muscles – These muscles control most of what goes on below the belt: going to the bathroom, sexual function, and giving birth.
  • Rectus Abdominis – Your abs.

The key to remember here: activating the core optimizes all of the above muscles. And because your body’s systems function together, there are enormous benefits to keeping your abdomen engaged. 

Tightening Your Core— A Shockingly Long List of Benefits

Gordon Whitehead had something to prove. He waltzed into the Princess Theater at McGill University on October 26th, 1926 with a big head and a massive case of mental blindness. He saw that night’s performer, the legendary illusionist Harry Houdini, lounging on a couch.

I heard you can take any punch. Is that true?” 

Before Houdini could react, Whitehead punched him in the gut—two, three, four, five times. The magician plainly hurt but gritty by nature, went on stage and performed his magic act anyways.

That night, Houdini went to the hospital with appendicitis. By Halloween, he was dead. At the time, doctors opined that the blows had ruptured his appendix. While most modern medical practitioners would disagree–it’s tough for an external blow to puncture an appendix like that–the prevailing opinion at the time was that Whitehead killed Houdini. Why? Because the escape artist had no time to protect himself as he usually would have by tightening his core muscles.

That’s a pretty extreme (and unfair, to be honest) example of why you should keep a tight core. However, doing so has absolutely enormous benefits. We’re not just talking about better gym performance–we’re talking about breathing, back health, digestion, sexual health, and more. Here’s a short, by no means all-inclusive list of reasons to keep those ab muscles engaged.

While Working Out

A tight core improves every fitness movement. For cardio, your stability, oxygenation, and endurance will improve. In lifting, it means you’re stacked: all your musculature is working together, allowing you to lift more. In kickboxing, you’ll have more power, greater speed, and improved balance.

While Going About Your Day

Core controls posture. Good posture means a clearer head, fewer aches and pains, more productivity, and greater happiness. It’s incredible how much physicality can affect the quality of life.

At the Doctor’s Office

Giving attention to your core impacts every other aspect of your bodily health: your lungs, digestion, nervous system, everything. We can’t repeat this enough: your body works in harmony. To say that it all starts with core health is not an overstatement.

Keep It Tight

Now you know how to tighten your core, why it’s better than sucking your tummy in, the muscles involved, and the near-unlimited benefits of keeping it together gut-wise. Not only will it help you at the gym, but it’s also a shockingly simple way to add significantly to your quality of life. 

The best way to become an expert on your body is to surround yourself with people who can teach you. If you want to transform your body and life, give a ring to the experts at HOT FIT. Kickboxing, boxing, MMA, yoga, even general weight loss, and fitness—talk to one of our coaches today and learn more.

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