Train your core with Breathing!
The word core is defined as a central and often foundational part usually distinct from the enveloping part by a difference in nature (Meriam-Webster). Words such as basic and essential were also used to describe it. In anatomical terms, our core is formed by a complex group of muscles that provide strength and stability for the body to not only bend and twistbut perform all sorts of functional movement.
Our core not only includes the abdominals, or more commonly known as our abs. Having six to eight packs does not guarantee you a strong core or healthy cardiovascular system. Bergmark and Richardson described the core as having both local and global units. Local units involved deeper muscles that attach to the spine such as the transversus abdominis(TrA), diaphragm, multifidi and pelvic floor group. Superficial global units include the rectus abdominis and erector spinae that move the trunk.
In this article, we will be discussing more in depth about the deeper muscles, specifically the diaphragm muscle. With two major roles to play, both in respiration (breathing) and postural stabilization, Lewit’s study suggests that individuals that did not demonstrate proper breathing patterns tend to lack in good movement control and postural stability. Though early research by Hodges emphasized the TrA’s major role in core stabilization, his more recent studies suggest that this requires dynamic integration of all deeper muscles. The transversus abdominis acts as the cylindrical wall covering the lumbar cavity while the diaphragm and pelvic floor muscles both act as the top and bottom lids. When all these muscles contract together during inhalation, high pressure is formed in the core cavity. As the diaphragm attaches to both the spine and ribcage, under-activation or overactivation affects one’s posture and hence core stability.
We tend to associate toning the core with abdominal crunches or sit ups. Unfortunately, it was found that when comparing crunches to a yoga breathing exercise, the total workload performed by all muscles during crunches was 166 and an astounding 803 for yoga breathing! Another interesting finding was the fact that despite supposedly activating more rectus abdominis during crunches, not only the rectus abdominis but the obliques as well had higher activation during breathing exercises as opposed to crunches.
Breathing involves movement of the muscles just like any other movements performed by the body. If loading your muscle strengthens it, using air as a ‘resistance’ in breathing can strengthen your core muscles as well. To engage the right muscles during breathing, here are some basic breathing tips to help set the foundation before combining it with more advance core training (refer to the video for clearer instructions):
1. Pursed Lip Breathing
- Breathing out via a small aperture of the mouth aids in slow exhalation which involves eccentric contraction of the diaphragm, allowing more control and re-toning of the muscle.
2. Reduce thoracic elevation
- Focusing on this allows inhaled air to be directed into the lower lungs and belly area. As a result, more muscles are engaged even by breathing.
3. Abdominal bracing
- Research has shown that general abdominal bracing is more effective than hollowing (bringing the belly button close to the spinal as if sucking in your belly) which was initially found to create TrA activation. Abdominal bracing is performed by a mild voluntary isometric contraction of the core in a 360˚ way, just as how an unopen can’s internal pressure would be. This stiffens the spine and protects our back when carrying something heavy or when moving our arms and legs.
4. Balloon blowing
- Similar to pursed lip breathing, blowing a balloon involves eccentric contraction of the diaphragm. One needs to maintain intra-abdominal pressure in order to effectively expand the balloon.
After getting a hang of the above breathing basics, add them to your workout programme or even your daily routine of working at the desk!
Bergmark A. Stability of the lumbar spine: A study in mechanical engineering. Acta OrthopScand Soppl 230(Supp): 20–24, 1989.
Lewit K. Relation of faulty respiration to posture with clinical implications. J Am Osteopath Assoc 79: 525–529, 1980.
Petrofsky J., Cuneo M., Dial R., Morris A., Muscle Activity during Yoga Breathing Exercise compared to Abdominal Crunches. The Journal of Applied Research: Vol. 5, No. 3, 2005
Richardson C, Jull G, Hodges P, Hides J. Therapeutic Exercise for Spinal Segmental Stabilization in Low Back Pain Scientific Basis and Clinical Approach. Edinburgh, NY: Churchill Livingstone, 1999.