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Is Your Core Actually Functional?

By Cierra Bloom, ATC, LAT, MS, CES

We all know by now how important core strength and control is in fitness and in life. What many of us fail to recognize, is that the core does not only consist of our “ab” muscles, but also our breathing, pelvic stabilizers, and postural muscles. Core muscles are not only important for strength and looking fit (ie. a six pack), but the most important functions are stabilizing the pelvis, protecting the spine, proper breathing and posture, and force transfer. These muscles have a particular recruitment pattern in order to perform these tasks optimally. However, through our daily lives, we tend to get into bad postural and movement habits, which alter the optimal length, motion, and recruitment of all of the muscles involved, thus leading to suboptimal muscle firing.

All too often, these imbalances lead to improper breathing patterns such as chest breathing (only breathing into chest), belly breathing (only breathing into belly), or inverse breathing (essentially the opposite of normal breathing). These abnormal patterns lead to a decreased control of intra-abdominal pressure, which decreases the stability and protection of the spine. It also may lead to an increased sympathetic (fight or flight) state, that heightens stress and anxiety, fatigue, and possibly impacts digestive and circulatory systems. When this alteration in muscle recruitment happens in the pelvic floor, the results may lead to constipation, incontinence, pelvic pain, back pain, or other unexplained issues.

So how do we know if we are improperly activating our breathing, pelvic floor, and core muscles? The biggest sign of this is uncontrolled intra-abdominal pressure, which you can see best during exercises while lying on your back. When you brace yourself to perform the exercise, look at your stomach, and if you see a bulge or line up the middle of your abdomen, this is called a “diastasis” or “coning” and is a sign you are not regulating intra-abdominal pressure properly.Though there are options to perform pelvic floor exams on yourself (women AND MEN) or see a pelvic floor specialist - diaphragmatic breathing is the most practical first step to balancing out your core muscles and regulating your intra-abdominal pressure. But until then, here is an exercise to work on your diaphragmatic breathing pattern.

How to breathe through your diaphragm:

  1. Lie on back, quiet & relaxed, hands on side & top of ribcage

  2. Breathe through nose, notice how you’re breathing

  3. Visualize air filling into sides of ribcage laterally, then to your back as air rises into hand on top of stomach

  4. Exhale with “sss” or “pfff” & feel your TVA naturally wrap in

  5. Gently exhale & immediately breathe again

  6. As you exhale, think about trying to hold in gas or a bowel movement to feel the pelvic floor

  7. Repeat 5-10 minutes daily: Lying, sitting, all fours, walking, running, ADLs, and exercise

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