Breathing: The "Core" Exercise You've Been Missing
Think six-packs and sit-ups when the "core" comes to mind? That core of yours was made for many tasks, the most important of which, and the one you've maybe been doing wrong your entire life: breathing.
Learn how to use an "umbrella" breath (or diaphragmatic breath) to strengthen and protect your core for pregnancy, postpartum and a lifetime of fitness.
Wait. Breathing? Surely you've been breathing correctly? You're alive, after all.
What You're Doing Wrong
When you were a kid, you moved. You squatted, rolled, crawled, ran, hung, jumped, and reached. Your spine was aligned as nature intended, and you breathed calmly and deeply. Except when your mom was trying to get somewhere in a hurry, then you had a meltdown and hyperventilated with your face on the cold floor because you wanted to wear your red pants.
Now, you've been sitting for 30 (40, 50...) years. You slouch over a computer, then hunch over a phone, you strain over a steering wheel and cradle and carry tiny people on the front of your exhausted body. Your spine is probably not aligned as nature intended. Your ribs and pelvis, which form the bony top and bottom of that hub which is your core, are not where they're supposed to be. As a result, the core muscles between the ribs and pelvis don't function as they should. We breathe shallowly, hold our breath, and use our superficial abdominal muscles instead of our deep core (breathing) muscles, and our core strength suffers as a result.
We think Julie Wiebe, PT does a stellar job of illustrating the role that breathing plays in balancing your core and preventing injury to the abdominals and pelvic floor.
Learn to breathe deeply and you can feel less stressed and more energetic, calm your nervous system, reduce postural pain, enjoy better lung capacity when exercising, and help prevent or heal a diastasis of the rectus abdominus or pelvic floor dysfunction in pregnancy and postpartum.
Check Yourself Out
Try this. Sit or stand in front of a mirror and place one hand on your chest, the other on your abdomen. Breathe in and out and notice what happens.
Do your shoulders rise?
Does your belly move?
Do you "swallow" the breath and hold your breath between inhale & exhale?
How low in your body do you feel the breath reaching?
What's the Big Deal?
When the diaphragm does its breathing job, it also stabilizes the core. The diaphragm moves downward into your abdominal cavity as you inhale, and your pelvic floor drops with it to make room for the air. As the diaphragm rises back up on the exhale, your pelvic floor and transversus abdominus "snap back" up and into place. Focusing on one component of the system -- doing hundreds of quick kegel exercises or abdominal contractions per day hoping to "fix" your core, for example -- is like removing a gear from the machine and spinning it around while it's disconnected from the others. It has no effect on how the machine, your core, functions.
The diaphragmatic breath is of utmost importance during pregnancy, when that lemon, no - grapefruit, no - cantaloupe, no - watermelon of a growing baby is already creating additional intra-abdominal pressure (even if you are breathing well). In the immediate postpartum, when the abdominal and pelvic floor muscles are stretched & weakened, the diaphragmatic breath helps heal and retrain the inner core without the wrong kind of pressure which might worsen postpartum conditions such as diastasis recti, incontinence or even -- eep! -- prolapse.
In fact, many proponents of diaphragmatic breathing believe learning to breathe should take precedence over kegel exercises... and might even make them obsolete. Ready for a kegel-free life?
Retrain Your Core
Lie on your back with one hand on your rib cage and one on your lower abs. Your knees should be bent, feet on the floor, and your lower back should be naturally arched -- not wildly arched, but not flattened to the ground.
Inhale through your nose. Feel your ribs expand into your hand and spread apart. Like an "umbrella" over your stomach, your lower ribs have the ability to "hinge" open and expand. Imagine filling them with air like an inner tube. At the same time, your abdominal and pelvic floor muscles are gently filling up and relaxing as well. Imagine your pubic bone and tailbone spreading apart, lengthwise, and the fibres between them unfolding like an accordion. Your belly is moving but not inflating like a balloon.
Exhale through your mouth. Blow all of the air out, slowly, as if you were blowing out through a straw. Feel your ribs draw down away from your hands. At the same time, your abdominal and pelvic floor muscles move inward and upward, forming a solid base to your core once again. Imagine the gentle upward movement of a jellyfish. Your spine does not tilt and your butt does not clench.
Continue for 10 breaths. Try it seated. Standing. Even in child's pose to feel your ribs expand outward through your back while enjoying a much needed stretch at the same time.
This exhaled position, with a stabilized spine and contracted core, is the best possible position for lifting weights, babies, and things around the house. It's also the position we work from doing our prenatal- and postnatal-safe core work in Belly Bootcamp.
The next time you lift a carseat or hoist your preschooler up, inhale and open your ribs like an umbrella, then exhale through your mouth and feel your core "lock" into position before you lift. With practice, you will breathe properly throughout the day and especially when challenging your core with a lift, jump, or balance exercise.