I hear it all the time: “I can’t engage my core without holding my breath.”
Well friends, I assure you that you can indeed breathe and engage your core at the same time. Put your thinking caps on y’all, cuz I’m about to drop some knowledge on ya.
When we think of the core, we often envision the six-pack muscle that runs right down the center of our bellies (rectus abdominis) or the obliques that form the sides of our waists. But the core is so much more than just those muscles. Your core is a community of muscles that wrap all the way around your torso. Each of these muscles have the ability to contract to flex, extend, rotate, and side bend your spine, plus they can fire together to vigorously “suck it in” — but they also have the ability to contract in more subtle ways in order to offer support as you sit or stand upright.
So when some people hear “engage your core,” they often think that means to create a vigorous crunching type of contraction to powerfully engage their rectus abdominis. Or they may think it means “suck it in” — a vigorous contraction of all the core muscles. But neither is correct.
What It Really Means to Engage Your Core
“Engage your core” is really just a fancy way of saying stabilize your spine — make your torso stiff, don’t let it buckle, twist, sag, or bend. I like to think of it like this: imagine that someone was about to hit you in the stomach and you wanted to stand up tall and just take it. You’d create tone equally in all your core muscles to stiffen up the space between your ribs and pelvis, but not enough to move your torso. It’s not a vigorous contraction of your core muscles; it’s more subtle than that.
We know that the muscles of your core are what cause your spine to bend and twist, but they are also the muscles that STOP your spine from bending and twisting. So by subtly engaging each of the core muscles on both sides of your body simultaneously, you can hold your spine steady so that the individual vertebrae that make up your spine don’t move relative to each other (which can place pressure on the discs).
Now, put that info in your back pocket as we take a look at the mechanics of your breathing.
What to Know About Breathing
Your primary breathing muscle is your diaphragm, which sits up inside your ribs like an umbrella. When you take a big breath in, your diaphragm moves downward toward your abdominal cavity to create a suction effect that draws breath into your nose or mouth and down into your lungs (aka your inhale). As the diaphragm relaxes, it rises back up into your chest cavity and presses the air in your lungs back out your nose or mouth (aka your exhale).
During the inhalation phase of deep breath, the shape of your belly is distorted as the diaphragm presses down and pressurizes the contents of your abdomen. So understandably, your core has to be relatively relaxed for you to take a big breath in. Therefore, deep belly breathing is not a helpful way to breathe when you’re standing or sitting upright, walking running, or working out. (NOTE: deep belly breathing is an amazingly relaxing practice, but it should be done lying on your back since your spine doesn’t need core support at that time.)
So what’s an FBG to do? Not breathe in plank? Hold her breath and hope to not pass out? Goodness, no.
When your core is engaged lightly (not vigorously), your diaphragm has just enough space to move downward into your abdomen a bit, and from there it has the ability to fan and spread outward into your lower ribs.
So, it’s important that we free up our ribs and learn to breathe laterally into them to create space. This breathing exercise will help you get the hang of it.
Core Breathing Exercise
If you can’t see the video below, click here.
- Wrap a belt or yoga strap around your lower ribs, cross the ends of the strap in front of you and take up the slack.
- Gently cinch in around the waist to gently draw the contents of your abdomen toward your spine.
- Take a breath in and rather than directing your breath down into your belly in a way that the shape is distorted, think about pressing your lower ribs outward into the strap.
- As you exhale, feel the ribs draw inward. Repeat for a few breaths.
What exercise(s) do you struggle the most with when it comes to core engagement and breathing? Try this and see if it helps. —Alison