There you are, about to perform some sort of movement that is kind of difficult and you think to yourself, “Ok, engage my core. Check.”
Maybe you’re about to invert on a trapeze or into a handstand, or maybe you are about to do some push-ups, a plank or even a squat with some weights that are heavy. You start the movement and suddenly one of three things happen:
- you forget to keep your core engaged, OR
- your core does stay engaged, but you forget to breathe and finish the movement pattern seeing stars (a sure sign that you weren’t breathing), OR worse yet,
- you lose your core engagement AND you hold your breath.
Do any of these describe you while performing an exercise movement while training? If you feel like when you’re training you have to choose between keeping your core engaged or breathing (because maybe breathing while your core is engaged feels like it might be impossible), you are not alone.
If you said, yes, Yes, YES in your head to any or all of these scenarios, then good news: this post will be highly beneficial for you.
I am sure I don’t need to say that holding your breath while you perform a challenging movement is not a safe way to train; your coach or trainer has probably told you already, but just in case, I’ll say it anyway, in case this is news to you.
If you are not breathing with your core is engaged while you are performing a skill/exercise you are not effectively using your core.
Because if you are holding your breath while doing a challenging movement, you are only training yourself to stabilize your spine–the reason you activate your core–without your breath. Then, when you do breathe, your core engagement vanishes and so does your stabilized spine.
“Fit motor systems appear to meet the simultaneous breathing and spine support challenge; unfit ones may not. All of these deficient motor control mechanisms heighten biomechanics susceptibility to injury or reinjury.” (McGill, 2016)
Where to begin
First let’s start with examining your breathing. Place a hand on your belly and a hand on your chest and take a few moments and focus on your breathing and observe what happens–just regular breaths.
On the inhale, did your chest rise and you feel a little taller or did your belly and lower ribcage expand?
If the latter happened then wonderful, you’re breathing in a manner to support your core. (see further below for core training exercises to integrate into your fitness regimen). If the former happened than you are a chest-breather and this, unfortunately is dysfunctional breathing, but try not too feel bad, many, many people breathe this way. (see video further in this post for working on resetting your breathing)
Chest-breathing is an indicator that your diaphragm isn’t working properly–expanding down into the thoracic cavity. We are born as belly-breathers, but many people experience a change to chest breathing due to stress, trying to appear thinner (so you hold your stomach in), poor posture or all of the above.
Now that you have identified how you are breathing and if it’s dysfunctional, you can take the steps towards correcting it. Why is adjusting your breathing and getting the diaphragm functioning properly important? Because your diaphragm is the top of your core and if your diaphragm isn’t working properly than neither is any of your core musculature, including your pelvic floor, the bottom of your core. The diaphragm along with the external obliques is what helps pull the ribcage down and into place for a nice, braced core.
I highly recommend watching this video for a quick and informative look at how core muscles all work together and if there is any dysfunction anywhere it messes with the function of the others. (Julie Wiebe is Physical Therapist specializing in recovery after pregnancy and returning to high levels of fitness. This video is talking mostly of female anatomy, although the core anatomy is the same in all humans)
Your core is a cylinder of muscles supporting your spine and internal organs, where the diaphragm is the top, the transverse abdominals (TA) and multifidus are the front and back sides and the pelvic floor is the bottom. As you breathe, the diaphragm and pelvic floor muscles move up and down and your TA moves out (as described in the above video).
Proper breathing is the key to core stabilization, because of the role of the diaphragm. This is why whether I am teaching a group aerial class, group fitness class or a private training session, I am always cueing when to breathe. This is also why checking to see if you are a chest-breather is a good place to start if you find keeping your core activated while training or doing some other physically challenging movement is hard for you.
If you are a chest-breather, then you will want to spend some time every day, even just 3-5 minutes, and definitely at the start of your training session, focused on breathing with your diaphragm and allowing the deep core system to work as intended to stabilize your core. This will help you activate your core with your breath during training and in the long run help you to prevent injury. (see video below on diaphragmatic breathing)
Headaches, Neck and Shoulder Pain…and Erectile Dysfunction
Aside from not being able to properly activate your core, when you are a chest-breather, you are constantly stimulating your sympathetic nervous system, or your fight or flight mode, and this causes stress levels to rise. Chest-breathing can also cause headaches, poor posture, neck and shoulder pain due to the fact that those muscles–your upper traps, scalenes, sternocloidomastoids, levator scapulae and pec minor, which are all secondary (assistance) breathing muscles–have become the prime movers for breathing instead of the actual prime movers: diaphragm and intercostal muscles. Additionally because the diaphragm isn’t working properly it means the pelvic floor isn’t either and this can cause a host of problems from low back pain, incontinence, prolapse, pain with sex/erectile dysfunction, hemorrhoids and more.
Start with these two exercises
First practice resetting your breath. I wrote a previous post on Optimal Breathing Techniques for Training if you want a more in-depth look at how proper breathing technique can really enhance your training.
But if you would rather just have some quick info on a breathing exercise that you can do to practice diaphragmatic breathing or belly breathing, here’s a video.
Second try this core exercise, the Kolar Wall Bug, to really lock in good positioning of the ribcage, spine and pelvis all while maintaining a good core contraction and breathing.
Now dysfunctional breathing may not be exactly why you can’t breathe and do core work, but there is a high probability this is really what’s going on. But if you discovered while doing the breathing test from above that you are not a chest-breather then something else is making it challenging to brace through your core and breathe while performing an exercise or other skill requiring core engagement.
After your breathing is reset (which will take more than one time of practicing diaphragmatic breathing), we now can integrate this breathing with your skills and exercises. If you are finding that when you begin doing a skill or exercise–be it holding plank, doing a push-up or inverting on to an aerial apparatus–that you are losing your core engagement or that you suddenly hold your breath, then this movement pattern is too difficult for your current core strength and you will need to regress the movement.
If regressing the movement is not really a possibility, say it’s inverting into a handstand or onto your apparatus in your circus class, then you need to spend a lot of time working on strengthening your core in harmony with your breath, outside of your class or training time. Otherwise you risk injury or overuse of muscles that shouldn’t be doing the work, like using your hip flexors to invert instead of your core. In the end this could lead to injury or a stagnation in your training or stagnation in increasing strength and the ability to do more complicated and physically demanding movements. This stagnation could lead you to giving up on your goals in fitness or circus and nobody wants that to happen.
Here’s a great exercise to start with, Pilates Toe Taps. This exercises helps to integrate the ribcage down, braced core, breathing and movement, first with just the legs and then adding in the arms.
Once Toe Taps with arms lifted becomes easy to perform with your core braced and breathing you can progress to the dead bug exercise.
Once the Dead Bug feels like it’s under your control you can start to work this technique into other core building exercises like plank or a hollow body hold. Of course try to bring the controlled core with you into all of your trainings, while lifting weights or working your circus skills. Do your best to breathe through your movements while you are training, even while building your core strength up through these exercises shown above.
As always if you have any questions about the exercises or any other particulars please leave a comment or email and I am happy to help you on your journey to get stronger. If you want more guidance I am also available for private training (online or in person).
Resources for this post
Low Back Disorders (2016), by Stuart McGill