Winter Mom Camp started this past week, and core strength is a big focus in my Gentle Class. While critical for everyone, core strength is especially important for pregnant and postpartum women since pregnancy and delivery wreak havoc on these muscles. Many of the moms in my Gentle Class recently delivered, and I started class with a discussion of core strength that I’m sharing with you today, along with a breathing exercise that’s foundational to a tone core.
Those looking to strengthen their core muscles often turn to exercises that target the rectus abdominis (the “six pack”), like crunches. But TRUE core strength comes from an entirely different set of muscles, including the diaphragm, transversus abdominis (TVA), pelvic floor, and multifidus. We might call this group of muscles the “inner core” or “inner unit.” You can think of it as a rectangular-shaped cylinder that sits in your abdominal cavity with the diaphragm on top, the TVA in the front, the pelvic floor at the bottom, and the multifidus in the back.
Arguably the most important of these muscles is also the most overlooked: the diaphragm. It’s a parachute-shaped muscle that attaches to the bottom of the lunges. When we breathe with our diaphragm, the muscle contracts and descends into the abdominal cavity. This creates pressure in the abdomen because the pelvic floor, multifidus, and TVA eccentrically contract as the diaphragm descends. I find the image of a french press useful here. The diaphragm is like the plunger on the top. When you breathe in with this muscle, it’s like pushing the plunger down.
Core strength comes from this pressure created in the abdomen, pressure that the diaphragm sets in motion when you inhale. The pressure stabilizes the spine and provides support in your everyday activities, whether you be walking, climbing stairs, carrying children or groceries, or lifting weights in the gym. Moreover, every time you breathe with your diaphragm, you’re also strengthening the other three inner core muscles because they eccentrically contract in response to the movement of the diaphragm. That’s why the diaphragm is foundational for core strength.
Sounds simple, right? Just breathe your way to a strong core. Well, yes and no. The problem is most people DON’T breathe this way. I often have clients practice this type of breathing, and many lack access to the diaphragm, at least at first. Instead they are among the many “chest breathers” out there: they breathe in and out, but the breath gets stuck in the chest, rather than traveling all the way down to the pit of the belly as it should. If the diaphragm doesn’t descend fully into the chamber, it doesn’t properly pressurize, increasing your risk of lower back pain.
To gauge access to your diaphragm, try this exercise. Assume savasana pose, lying on your back with your arms and legs extended. Then place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Soften through your abdomen and take a deep breath in. Imagine that your abdomen is like a vase, and the air is like water. As you draw your air (the water) in, allow it to fill the pit of your belly (the bottom of the vase) first before rising up to the top. You’re doing it right if you feel the hand on your belly rise first and the hand on your chest rise last.
Practice that every day for the next week, aiming for fuller and deeper breaths each day. This will set your foundation. In my next post I will describe other ways to further strengthen the muscles of your inner unit.
And by the way, there’s still ONE spot left in Mom Camp’s Gentle Class. It’s perfect for pre- and postnatal moms, those with exercise limitations, and those who are new to exercise. Would love to have you there!