The Importance of the Deep Core: Spotlight on the Diaphragm

Everyone talks about the importance of the core muscles, but few people seem to understand exactly what muscles they are talking about, how to strengthen them or what all the hoopla is actually about.

The “inner core” musculature is made up of the diaphragm at the top, the pelvic floor at the bottom, the transversus abdominis at the front (wrapping around the sides and attaching into the fascia at the back) and the multifidi, which run up and down the back of the spine.  Together, when contracted, these muscles create intra-abdominal pressure and work together to stabilize your spine. These amazing muscles function like a whisper.  They contract softly, they do not actually move anything, but stabilize.  They must be strong enough to remain on all day long, all workout long, because, if working correctly, these muscles fire on just in anticipation of movement, milliseconds before actual movement occurs. 

Have you ever seen a person wearing a lumbar support belt at the gym, noisily hoisting weights that are actually too heavy for them?  They are wearing a belt because their inner core muscles are not strong enough to lift the weight.  Support must come from the inside, otherwise we are vulnerable to injury.

Although the pelvic floor and transversus are talked about often enough, breathing is sometimes glazed over.  Breathing is often considered a rudimentary task and many people balk at the idea of spending time working on relearning and retraining how to breath.   In fact, I am guilty of not always realizing how important it is to spend time with clients—and myself–on breathing appropriately.

For people with back, neck, or shoulder pain, it is important to realize that other movement patterns cannot be normalized until breathing is addressed (Idea Fitness Journal, March 2012).  This does not mean that someone with, say, thoracic outlet syndrome or a bulging disk does not have other movement impairments.  Certainly, they do.  But corrective exercises must be done along with relearning and retraining breathing techniques and relearning how to fire on the entire core.

Most people breathe with their chest muscles.  These muscles were never meant to be used so heavily for the task.  The scalenes often become short due to the increased stress placed upon them and this can lead to nerve entrapment.  Thoracic outlet syndrome, paresthesia, etc. are related nerve issues.

So now that you have been scared into wanting to breathe properly, how does one actually do it? 

In Pilates, we cue breathing 3-dimensionally through the rib cage.  We talk about drawing the breath down into the lower lobes of the lungs, where oxygenation best occurs. Most people, if they breathe through their ribs, breathe pretty well through the front of their ribs, but not so well through the sides and especially back if their ribs.

One tactile cue I like to use for myself and my clients is to wrap an exercise band around the rib cage (just below the bra line), cross it in front, and breath.  I imagine my ribs opening like an umbrella, and I feel the theraband stretching, letting me know where I am expanding and where I am not.  I especially like to do this laying down so that I have the most feedback, then I move to sitting up where I have less feedback as to where my body is in space.

When breathing through the ribs, it is important to keep the shoulders and chest relaxed.  If you feel like you are tensing your shoulders, raising them up to your ears and hunching them forward, you are not breathing through your ribs, but your chest!

Once you try this exercise, you will see why breathing, all by itself, is actually an exercise!

If you feel like your ribs are “stuck” and you just can’t get proper movement, you may like my favorite breathing exercise.  I use this all the time to help open the sides and especially back of my ribs.

CAUTION: This exercise contains spinal flexion, lateral flextion and extenstion.  In fact, it contains flextion and rotation together.  So, if you have back problems, this may not be safe.  Please ask your doctor, PT, or local STOTT Pilates instructor to be sure.  This exercise is contraindicated for bulging or herniated disks, osteoporosis, etc. 

Sit to one side of a BOSU, arc barrel or spine corrector, in mermaid position, feet and shins opposite side of body that BOSU is on (one leg tailor style—as if you were cross legged, and the other, W-sitting style).  Sit tall on your sit bones in a neutral spine.  You can always grab a pillow to sit on if you are tight and have trouble finding neutral. Then, sidebend over the BOSU, bottom arm long under head, top arm long over head.  Take a couple big breaths.  Then rotate and flex your spine on an exhale so that your chest is facing the BOSU, hands holding the sides of the BOSU, helping you rotate. Breathe here, really concentrating on expanding through the backs of the ribs.  Abdominals stay on, you are not draped over BOSU, you are actively flexing and rotating. On an exhale, move back to the sidebend, then take a careful rotation away from the BOSU along with extension by placing hand furthest from BOSU behind head, hand closest to BOSU in front of the BOSU to help you rotate, and rotate away from the bosu and extend back, breathing a couple breaths before finding the sidebend again.  On an exhale, use your obliques to bring you back up to sitting and repeat on the other side.

I highly suggest practicing proper diaphragmic breathing prior to whatever exercise you are doing.  Then, during the exercise, work hard to remind yourself of the same breathing.  When I run, I constantly cue myself to relax my shoulders, breathe deeply through my ribs, and really feel the backs of my ribs expand into the band of my sportsbra, as I have most trouble with that. 

Remember,the diaphragm is one of the four components of the inner core, so be sure to practice proper diaphragmic breathing and breathe appropriately throughout your day and your exercise session in order to reap the most benefit.  The inner core muscles are the base of support and without them working properly, no matter how strong the rest of your muscles, you are still at risk of pain and dysfunction.

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