……And Breeeeeeathe!!

Different Pilates teachers put different amounts of focus on the breath  & whilst it can add to the seemingly endless checklist of things you are trying to get right in an exercise. For me, it is key to the success of any core restoration & here’s why.

Once you understand the body’s breathing apparatus & functionality it becomes quite clear that we get an intrinsic core contraction (tensioning) with each exhale & an intrinsic expansion (or opening) with each inhale so only by harnessing this inherent bodily function will we truly get the core working optimally. Working against this pattern will help facilitate back pain, exacerbate a diastasis recti & generally leave you vulnerable to injury.

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But as well as providing an intrinsic support system for the body, breathing correctly also helps reduce stress – controlled breathing can cause beneficial physiological changes that include:

  • lowered blood pressure & heart rate
  • reduced levels of stress hormones in the blood
  • reduced lactic acid build-up in muscle tissue
  • balanced levels of oxygen & carbon dioxide in the blood
  • improved immune system functioning
  • increased physical energy
  • increased feelings of calm & wellbeing.

Conversely when a person is under stress, their breathing pattern changes. Typically, an anxious person takes small, shallow breaths, using their shoulders rather than their diaphragm to move air in & out of their lungs. This style of breathing disrupts the balance of gases in the body. Shallow over-breathing, or hyperventilation, can prolong feelings of anxiety by making the physical symptoms of stress worse as well as facilitate adaptively shortened muscles along the neck & shoulders.

Try practising the breathing exercise described above whilst lying on your back in a quiet area – then begin to introduce some gentle core exercises as you do so & see how well incorporating the breath helps engage the whole core system.

5 Core Exercises To Practice

Regular conditioning of your core with proper muscle activation is key to maintaining good alignment & preventing back, neck & shoulder pain. This post will be a reminder for some of the exercises I teach in the classes as well as add a bit of variety for home practice.

post2First make sure you create space & time to focus on your technique – you will need to use your brain to find the right muscles (!) – predominately the co-contraction between transversus abdominis (TVA), pelvic floor & multifidus AS YOU EXHALE!

Try this technique to engage with your TVA:

Lie on your back with your spine in a neutral posture (slight curve in lower back). Take a breath in & as you exhale think about lifting your lower tummy up (not sucking in) & *gently* drawing your tummy button toward your spine – you should not feel any movement of your hips, pelvis or spine & you can feel the TVA activate by placing your fingers on the inside of your hip bones. It should feel like a deep tension not so much that it pushes your fingers away.

Try holding this contraction for 3-5 seconds & then release – breathe throughout this exercise! Repeat & hold for 3 sets of 10 repetitions 3-4 x a day.

Once you’ve mastered this you can apply it to all movements/exercises that involve any level of effort. Just remember to go with the breath pattern always exhaling on exertion to benefit from the intrinsic TVA contraction, tensioning your abdominals & lower back muscles.

So here are 5 exercises to practice whilst integrating TVA & pelvic floor activation through different planes of movement:

1. Single leg extensions: Lying with your spine in neutral (slight curve in lower back) ‘bolt’ your tailbone down as you lift knees up to 90 degree. Moving with the breath exhale as you drop one toe to the floor. Repeat, alternating legs for 10-20 x as along as you have good control with no bulging/doming abs.

2. Ball roll outs: From kneeling with shoulder ‘set’ roll forward until you feel the hips open at the front. Make sure you engage your core (as above) to keep the spine in neutral. Repeat 10-20 reps as along as you have good control with no bulging/doming abs.

3. Squats: Inhale as you go down & exhale to go up, move with the breath. Try to keep your spine neutral by untucking your pelvis an& make sure your knees don’t extend over your toes. Repeat…all day long!!

4. Knee lifts: From all 4’s with shoulder set exhale as you engage core & hover the knees. Repeat 10-20 x

5. Side Lift: Assume the position in last pic, inhale & prep core then exhale to lift the top hip up. Try to keep the supporting elbow under your shoulder (mine’s sliiiiiiiightly forward!) Repeat 10-20 x both sides.

Remember you don’t need to do specific ‘ab’ exercises – rather learn to & actually use your core muscles throughout your daily activities. Crunches will merely retard the body’s correct muscle balance.

 

Pelvic Floor Exercise Progressions

You may need to strengthen your pelvic floor as part of some injury rehab, as part of your post partum recovery or for continence problems – one of the best ways to begin the road to recovery & full core restoration is by doing Kegels but how do we progress from there?

First let’s look at why the pelvic floor plays such an important role in our core restoration. Strengthening your pelvic floor will underpin any fitness goals you have, be they running, fat loss or just daily life. It’s worth noting that 48% of primiparous women & 85% of multiparous women experience some degree of incontinence also worth noting is that incontinence is the second most common reason after dementia for admission into assisted living. So pelvic floor exercise is crucial!

Initially & in fact after any injury the first place to start rehabbing a muscle is by being able to isolate the area in the first place. If your brain can’t access the neural pathway then moving on to a more complex movement will retard healing. So this is where a traditional Kegel (think, stopping flow of urine) is very helpful, a basic switching on & switching off of the muscle. Doing this will also help promote blood flow to the healing tissues & therefore aid the restoration process. If you find you can’t feel anything or you’re at all concerned get a proper exam by a women’s health physio who will be able to tell what’s going on.

This protocol will work well for that initial 6 week period post partum – you should feel the muscles getting stronger & easier to contract. Make sure you fully relax the pelvic floor between contractions as having a hypertonic or too tight muscle isn’t helpful either! Use your breath & visualisations to help you maximise the connection – so as you exhale, squeeze, as you inhale, relax. You can see from the diagram above how the pelvic floor muscles lie across the bottom of the pelvic cavities & this should give you an idea of what you are trying to access & also how important it is to have some muscle tension supporting the bladder, vagina & bowel.

Progress it by using pelvic floor activation as you lift & move, this is a key part of your on-going restoration. If you can protect the pelvic organs using the pelvic floor muscles as you add load (baby, laundry, you, buggies etc) you will prevent that added intra-abdominal pressure causing further stress on the pelvic floor leaving yourself vulnerable to pelvic organ prolapse or stress incontinence. This in turn will further strengthen the muscle’s function.

Note: Whilst I’m fully aware that men have pelvic floors too (!) this article is geared more toward women – hence the references to wombs & vaginas etc!