So let’s talk core muscles. I think the fastest way to explain this is to give you a visual presentation of what exactly I’m talking about. Let’s look at Mr. Muscle guy here. The top most layer of the core musculature is the external oblique muscle, around the waist area.
Peel off a layer and you have the internal oblique muscle, as shown below.
Peel off the internal oblique and in your deepest layer of core muscles lies the transverse abdominus, the target of this discussion, shown below.
Two other core muscles that are will be included in this discussion are the multifidus and the pelvic floor.
Multifidus runs up the inside of the back of the spine,and pelvic floor stabilizes the bottom of the hips.
In essence, these three muscles work together to stabilize the top of the hips, the back of the hips, and the bottom of the hips.
Why is this important? Well, if you want your core muscles to actually look good and be strong, you had better get the core of the core working, if you will.
Let’s have a quick biomechanics lesson. Different joints in the body are designed and primarily good at either being stable or being mobile. Let’s start from the top: the neck is supposed to be mobile, shoulder blade stable, thoracic spine or middle of the back mobile, low back stable, and hips mobile. Notice they alternate as there’s a specific design in the alternation of stability and mobility. Something literally has to hold still so something can move or work off of it. In the case of the core, the low back is supposed to be stable therefore allowing the hips to be mobile and move around in the many directions. That’s why various professionals will say do crunches to get low back pain to release… but there’s way more to the story than that.
So how do you get the core to engage at the core of the core?
Well, let me tell you a story. I tagged along on an interesting sounding physical therapy appointment in April of last year. My client was having S I joint pain and went to see a physical therapist entirely devoted to breathing. Quite honestly I’d never heard of such a thing, so I had to see what this gentleman had to say.
His assertion was that the three core muscles that I’ve named above do not fire unless you breathe diaphragmatically. I once attended a seminar where the seminar leader was an unbelievable diaphragmatic breather and he could actually pop out his rib cage visually one side at a time. The diaphragm is a muscle and has a divider down the center called the septum. He was able to use one side of his diaphragm more, therefore creating the ribcage movement. It was amazing to behold and I thought an unbelievable party trick. 🙂 More than that it illustrates how powerful that diaphragm is and what potential you have in breathing this way!
Opera singers do not need to be told any of this. They already know how powerful diaphragmatic breathing is. There are three levels of breathing: mouth and nose being the first, lungs being the second, and diaphragmatic being the third. Diaphragmatic breathing is the most oxygenating, deepest level of breathing and what we want you to focus on here.
To make a long story short, the physical therapist had my client do some homework: he wanted her to walk 30 minutes. Of the first 10 minutes of the walk he wanted her to very specifically work on her breathing. It was all done through the nose and he gave her a very specific number assignment for inhale and exhale. Let’s stay she stepped on the right foot. She was to inhale for a count of three and then exhale for a count of four. Notice one number is even and one number is odd. You don’t have to choose three and four; you can do five and six or seven and eight. He even offered to have her hold for a count of two in the middle between the three and the four breaths. That proved to be too much, so we just stuck with what I now call 3/4 breathing. Choosing an even and an odd number allows you to both inhale and exhale on the right and left foot alternating sides. If you did 4/4 breathing you would always inhale on the right foot and always exhale on the left, and that isn’t useful.
I often offer to count out loud for my clients as they are learning this technique because everyone is shocked by the quantity of concentration it requires to breathe in this fashion. There is no chitchat or talking; it requires your full concentration. The other big thing to watch out for is to not breathe with your shoulders. Sometimes before I tell a client what we’re about to do, I will put my hands casually on their shoulders and I say, “Take a deep breath.” If my hands go up and down because they are inhaling using their shoulders, then I know we have a lot of work to do.
What are the benefits?
So all that sounds fine and good, but what benefits have I noticed from breathing in this fashion for the last year? First, I noticed that my shoulders and neck are considerably looser because I’m no longer using my shoulders and trapezius muscles to breathe. I don’t even know I was doing that! That means when I come home from a double-digit run my shoulders aren’t tight and sore, which always mystified me in years past.
Second, I now wake up with my mouth closed breathing through my nose and very much rested from sleeping. I don’t wake up with my mouth open, the back of my mouth or nose dry, or snoring. I have never had any trouble sleeping, but now I can’t believe how much more rested I feel because I’m getting so much more oxygen with every breath.
Third, when I spend 10 minutes walking with 3/4 breathing for the beginning of my warm-up I can actually feel my glutes engaged, because now they’re working off of a truly stable core. Normally I have to walk sideways or use Kettlebells to really definitively get my glutes to work. I still do both of those but it’s remarkable to me that I can just walk and breathe properly and it works just as well. By the way: After ten minutes, just work out, but check in with your breathing and see how it is that you’re actually getting oxygen into your body. Are you using just your lungs? Are you using your diaphragm?
Finally, and really the biggest burning question of the day, do I notice a difference in my core? Yes, absolutely, I feel like my rib cage has been sucked in tighter, and my former lack of a waist actually has some curves to it now as well as some definition that never existed before.
Why do kids have so much energy?
In conclusion, I now make sure that every single client I work with has this breathing technique in their arsenal to keep their body in the highest function possible. Watch a baby sleeping. That’s their little belly going up-and-down. Now watch an adult sleeping. That’s the chest rising and falling. Why do kids have so much energy? I will guess it has a lot to do with how much oxygen they get all day, every day!