Most people have an idea of what it means to do “core training” since we now know how important core performance is for body performance, but many people never come to understand what “core strength” is and how that might be different from “core coordination.”
What most people think is that if they just do the right exercises, and do them enough, that they will develop all that is needed for an effective core.
While other muscles in the body may respond well to blunt-edged repetition and consistency, the core is a different kind of apparatus that must be linked effectively to a life-giving muscle: the diaphragm.
The (thoracic) diaphragm, also known as the “breathing muscle,” is a thin and parachute-shaped muscle that helps pull air into the lungs when we breath in. When the diaphragm is relaxed, it lengthens upwards toward a partially empty and now smaller set of lungs, and when the diaphragm contracts it draws the lungs down toward the pelvis, helping to expand the lungs and draw air inwards. Your abdominal contents, for the most part, go along for the ride undisturbed.
So then, what does the diaphragm have to do with the core? As it happens, quite a lot.
Our diaphragm works with our trunk and pelvic muscles to create stability for our spine and pelvis, taking the load off (quite literally) of our spinal joints, as well as reduce tension in spine- and hip-stability muscles by connecting tension with each other throughout the breathing cycle.
Breathing and bracing effectiveness is one of the first things I check for in both chronic and acute lower back pain (among other conditions) because if one does not have a coordinated breathing and bracing mechanism, spinal biomechanics quickly deteriorate, leading to compensation patterns and ultimately back pain.
Much like riding a bike, learning this method is prohibitively difficult to perform alone for even the most experienced and fit people, so I will not attempt to teach you here in this article, but I will share some tips that can get you started.
Step 1: Lay down with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Breathe in deeply and become aware of where in your trunk and chest the “air” seems to “go.” Does it feel like the air is going more into the chest, or into the belly? Check to see if there are muscles other than the diaphragm working to bring air in, such as the neck, shoulder and hip muscles. Can you breathe deeply without using these muscles?
Step 2: As you breathe in, can you manipulate where the “air” goes in your chest and trunk? With each breath in, try to “push” the air into different parts of your chest, trunk and spine — front and back, side to side, top and bottom.
While Step 1 is about mindfulness, Step 2 is about coordination and control of the muscles around your trunk and your diaphragm working together, and how well they can “push air” around. This step of “core coordination” is often missed before people set out to perform “core strengthening exercises,” so be sure to learn this step.
Step 3: Challenge yourself in a variety of positions and activities to perform step 1 and 2.
Caution: Be careful not to breathe too quickly as it can lead you to become light headed, no more than eight to 10 deep breaths per minute. Do not restrict yourself with this number, however; everyone has unique breathing needs.
Start slow and move from laying down on your back to sitting up in a chair, and then, if you feel comfortable, you can try the exercise while standing up, walking, etc.
Take this Step 3 exercise in one- to two-minute segments to start, and slow your breathing down so that you can focus on what you feel.
Step 4: Link your trunk muscles to your breathing muscle. This is where breathing becomes like learning how to ride a bike and where help is often needed. Just like how your diaphragm lengthens and shortens in a coordinated and tensioned fashion, so the muscles in your core should move in a coordinated and tensioned fashion right alongside and in “contact” with the diaphragm. Think of it like two ballroom dancers’ lead hands as they press together and stay together, with the diaphragm leading the movement.
If you are having trouble with this, do not worry, almost everyone struggles in the beginning and, as mentioned, this step likely will require a trained clinician’s guidance.
Following these steps and connecting your breathing to your core support is the most important thing you can learn how to do before going straight into a core-training program, or any training program for that matter.
It is also critical to learn if you suffer from chronic injuries because our bodies are so adept at compensating. What may appear to be a hip, shoulder or even an ankle problem may be sourced from an incompetent core.
These steps may be hard to follow, so if any further clarity or discussion is needed, please do write to let me know.
— Dr. Dan Michael is a chiropractic physician at NW Sports Rehab, 1929 43rd Ave. E., in Madison Park. Call 206-328-5466 for more information.