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January 26, 2021

What do fitness instructors mean when they say 'engage your core?'

Understanding common gym lingo will improve your exercise form and help boost your fitness

Fitness Workouts
Gym lingo definitions Source/Image licensed from Ingram Image

When you’re holding a plank, you want your back flat and hips parallel to the ground. This is only possible if you engage your core.

Have you ever been in a workout class and your instructor screams out "engage your core" as you’re sitting into a squat? I know I have.

I provide similar instruction to clients at Drucker Fitness as well, and I often get this response: "If I knew what that meant I would certainly be doing it!"

They make a great point. Trainers have lingo to help cue clients and coach them through exercises. If you want in on this lingo to get the most out of your next workout, I've got you covered. Let's break this down!

It is important to engage your core for nearly every exercise. When you’re holding a plank (or push-ups for that matter), you don’t want your hips sagging to the floor and your back arched. Rather, you want your back flat and hips parallel to the ground. This is only possible if you engage your core.

Imagine you are holding a plank and your trainer takes her foot and lightly taps your stomach. Your immediate reaction would be to flex your stomach muscles to make your stomach as hard as possible. That right there is engaging your core. If someone were to come toward you and wind up their arm to punch you in the stomach, what would you do? You would brace and tighten your core as a defense mechanism. Once again, that is engaging your core.

So why is this important? When your core is not engaged, you're leaving yourself vulnerable to injury, specifically in the lower back. Let’s talk squats. When you brace and tighten your core, you are keeping your spine safe as well as ensuring that you are using your legs to perform the exercise instead of your lower back.

A second favorite trainer saying of mine is "activate your glutes." This is super simple, squeeze that butt!

When doing a glute bridge, lower your butt to the ground and then instead of just lifting your hips back up into the air while using your feet to push off the ground, clench your glutes together and use that strength from the clenching to bring the hips back up to the starting position. "Fire up your glutes" is another common phrase thrown around in a gym and it is interchangeable with activate.

You always want to be activating (or firing up) your glutes, because that is how you strengthen them. When your glutes are not activated, your muscles are relaxed and not working. Therefore, they will not be recruited to perform exercises. This goes for squats, deadlifts, lunges and so many other lower body exercises. The glutes are a huge muscle that should be playing an active role in all of these exercises.

A great cue used to help squat and deadlift is "put your weight in your heels." Once again, this is only helpful when you understand what that means.

A lot of people feel knee pain when they perform a squat and a big part of that pain comes from putting your weight in your toes and leaning forward as you squat. This is when you should hear from your instructor or trainer that your knees are too far forward and not tracking your ankles. 

The more important aspect to focus on though is that unless you have superb ankle and achilles mobility, your heels are most likely lifting off the ground, and you do not want to squat with your heels lifted. To fix this, before you lower your hips into the squat or hinge for the deadlift, you want to sit your hips back as if you were sitting into a chair and if necessary, could wiggle your toes off the ground. Once squatting, you want to evenly distribute your weight throughout your foot.

The most important thing to remember when working out, whether it be with a trainer, a group fitness class, or on your own, is to listen to your body. If you’re exercising and feeling pain, take a minute to reassess your positioning and think about why you might be feeling this pain.

We talked about a few key things to focus on that will help you avoid pain while exercising. Always protect your back by engaging your core, activate your glutes to make sure they are doing the work instead of your back and finally, when squatting or deadlifting, don’t lead with your knees but rather sit back into your heels.

Check out this Drucker Fitness workout with a ton of squats, planks and deadlifts to apply your new understanding of trainer lingo!

Gabby Drucker owns Drucker Fitness, a Philadelphia-based personal training studio and online training business. She is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and a Pre and Postnatal Certified Trainer. Follow her on Instagram at @druckerfitness or visit

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