Typical core training programs designed to improve posture, protect our back, alleviate pain, create a six-pack, and enhance rotational power fail to address one of the most important muscles.
The diaphragm, a muscle that we pay little attention to, performs both a breathing and postural function. This dual function is essential for all movement and even more importantly during sports performance when the demands on our respiratory system and postural control increase. Disruption in one function could negatively affect the other. Additionally, dysfunction of the diaphragm has far reaching consequences for our health.
My previous blog, Five Simple Ways to Test Your Breathing Health, should have given you some insight into your breathing patterns and the function of your diaphragm. If you are a shallow, upper chest breather (Test #2), a mouth breather (Test #3), have poor posture with a forward head (Test #4) or have a low Control Pause (Test# 5), then more than likely you are not properly engaging the diaphragm when you breathe, subsequently impacting your core stability.
Looks like a Jelly Fish
Having a clear but simple picture of what the diaphragm looks like may help understand its functions. Imagine a jelly fish or a mushroom with the dome portion sitting up under the rib cage in the thoracic cavity. It attaches to the underside of the sternum and the lower portion of the rib cage. The sections that hang down attach to the lumbar spine and form tissue connections with the deep muscles of the abdomen, psoas and fascia of the trunk.
The Diaphragm and Our Health
The diaphragm anatomically separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity; however, its actions connect and integrate body functions. Being most active during inhalation, it acts like a piston descending downward into the abdominal region, making the belly expand outward, and then passively recoils on exhalation. The ribs open out laterally during inhalation and settle back down and in on exhalation.
Every time the diaphragm moves, which amounts to 20,000-25,000 breaths per day, it massages the organs above and below. A functioning diaphragm also plays a role in swallowing, coughing and clearing the airways, vomiting, vocalization, urination and defecation. Additionally, nasal breathing and the diaphragm go hand in hand, delivering more oxygen to the working muscles and regulating our blood chemistry.
Lack of diaphragm activity can have a negative impact on the health and optimal function of our heart, stomach, liver, gallbladder, gastrointestinal tract, lymph movement and immune system.
Posture and Respiration are Interdependent
Posture plays an important role in one’s ability to breathe and stabilize the spine. Optimal posture aligns the diaphragm and pelvic floor parallel to each other. During inhalation, the diaphragm descends and flattens working against the upward pressure from the pelvic floor in coordination with the abdominal wall and deep spinal muscles. This coordinated muscle activity, known as intra-abdominal pressure, stabilizes the spine and aids in postural control. Abnormal position of the chest and pelvis, poor breathing mechanics or poor coordination of the diaphragm may result in compromised stability of the spine and dysfunctional movement patterns setting us up for injury.
Diaphragm and Sports
The intensity of sports places increased demands on our bodies to breathe, stabilize and perform. The quality and efficiency of any dynamic movement, from something as simple as picking up something off the floor to a more complex movement such as swinging a racket, is dependent on optimal body position and proper stabilization.
From a survival perspective, the unconscious brain prioritizes stability over movement, preparing the body for what’s to come.
In the absence of diaphragmatic breathing and concomitant intra-abdominal pressure, postural stability degrades. When stability breaks down, athletic movements no longer look efficient, coordinated or fluid. This dysfunctional sequence of events can manifest itself in the form of pains and injuries, as varied as TMJ to sprained ankles. Often the symptoms appear far from the source.
He who treats the site of pain is lost.
Dr. Karel Lewit, Founder of the Prague School of Manual Medicine and Rehabilitation
Functionally, posture control and breathing are interdependent. We should not forget this when training our core for stability. Addressing diaphragmatic function is vital for those with cardiac or respiratory diseases, panic disorders and anxiety. Additionally, research has shown that restoring function to the diaphragm can alleviate symptoms of sacroiliac pain, low back pain, pelvic floor dysfunction, hip pain, reflux, neck pain, etc. Adaptations to injuries take place gradually, sometimes going unnoticed and sometimes being accepted as part of the physicality of aging, i.e. the stiff low back or the aching knee. Consider breathing. Most people are not aware of their own breathing habits. Making it conscious helps to ensure proper function and restore the loss of connection with the diaphragm. If you stick with me, the subsequent blog will provide a variety of exercises to target the diaphragm.