The One Thing That Changed Everything For Me.
How to breathe.
That’s right, learning how to breathe changed everything for me. Over 10 years ago, I wasn’t what you’d call an athlete. More like an aimless gym-goer checking the boxes, going through the motions. As a kid and through college, I rode horses competitively. Once I no longer had access to my passion, I had no purpose and [I thought] no real athletic potential.
For years, I thought I was working my core through sit ups, crunches, etc but I was just going through the motions, quite literally.
I decided to try a mat pilates class at my gym and in walked a pint sized, tough-as-nails former Ironman triathlete who transformed the way I felt the body I was living in. I finally felt what my core was, and how to make it fire. This new found confidence and mind-body connection made me realize that I did have athletic potential.
Sounds dramatic, eh? Well, it was. A light bulb went off when she cued a few small things that made a huge difference, the biggest one being how to breathe.
I never realized there was a way to breathe. You just do it, without thinking, in your sleep.
Normal, every day breathing involves an expansion of the abdominal cavity as you inhale. If we are trying to strengthen these muscles, we need to hold a steady contraction. And when movement becomes more dynamic (think: moving arms and legs in order to challenge the core) that steady contraction is critical to stabilizing our core.
Often times, people don’t feel their core activating because they are not activating it, and it all starts with the breath.
Here is the difference.
‘Normal’ everyday breathing aka diaphragmatic breathing.
Without thinking too much about it, place your hands on the front of the body, right around the belly button. Observe how when you inhale, the abdominals expand outward, the belly button pushes forward toward the hands, and when you exhale, it retracts. This happens as a result of your diaphragm, a dome shaped muscle that sits underneath the ribcage, lowering to allow the lungs to inflate with air. This is normal breathing.
‘Pilates breathing’ in order to work our core muscles aka posterior-lateral breathing.
Now we want to find and keep a contraction in the abdominals while we breathe. With the hands on the belly button, as you inhale, draw the belly button away from the hands. As you exhale, try to keep it away from the hands. This is how you activate and contract the transverse abdominis, one of the deepest, and most important core muscles. Think of it as a wide belt that runs across your body from your ribcage to your pelvis, and holds your guts in. In relaxed, diaphragmatic breathing, this muscle freely expands and contracts.
Since the air isn’t forcing the abdominal wall to expand and contract, where is it going? The ribcage.
As you continue this breathing pattern, now place the hands on the sides of the ribcage. As you inhale, try to expand the ribcage laterally, and as you exhale, feel the ribcage narrow, all while keeping the bellybutton from going forward and backward (or rising and falling if you are lying down).
If you’re having trouble feeling the transverse abdominis activate, try the exhale. Bring the hands to the sides of the waist, take an inhale, and exhale a few short breaths, as if you are blowing out birthday candles. You should feel that with each breath out, the sides of the waist draw in, or narrow toward the spine.
A couple of pointers:
- Make sure the neck is relaxed, and you’re not breathing into your chest.
- Often times trainers will use the cue to “brace” your core. And while this might yield core activation, it often leads to shallow breath, holding tension in the neck. It also doesn’t foster the same mind-body connection as when you connect activation to breath.
Try to move back and forth between these two breathing patterns so you can feel the difference. It shouldn’t take a lot of effort, meaning you won’t feel a lot of work in the body. It’s more about activation, and this first step is KEY to core strength.
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