5 Exercises To Improve Breathing and Core Stability

July 14, 2021

What comes to mind when asked about “core” training? ABS, ABS, ABS! We’ve been taught that strengthening the core, specifically the abdominals along with pelvic tilts and hip bridges, will support the low back and prevent injuries.

However, strength training and rehab programs often overlook the importance and integration of functional breathing.  The diaphragm has the dual function as both a respiratory and postural muscle.  Better breathing is essential for every purposeful movement in life.

Functional breathing is functional strength.

Thinking beyond your 6-pack, your deep core functions in an integrated fashion and should be regarded as a 3D unit. What is your deep core? Picture a box with the diaphragm on top, abdominal wall in the front, spinal muscles at the back, the pelvic floor and hip muscles at the bottom. When the diaphragm is functioning properly, it is used to fill the lungs from the bottom to the top. During the inhalation, the downward movement of the diaphragm exerts a force on the 3D box regulating intra-abdominal pressure (IAP). IAP is essential for core stability, freedom of movement and injury prevention.

The diaphragm is the primary core stabilizer.

It is not easy to feel the diaphragm move. For that reason, the following exercises will focus on different parts of the 3D box as well as the rib cage to provide feedback and guide you in better movement of the diaphragm during the breath cycle. Before you get started waking up the diaphragm, here are a few tips:

  • Do not wear tight pants or a belt. Unbuckle them!
  • Perform these on an empty stomach!
  • Sit tall to create space for the diaphragm to move.
  • Relax your abdominals.
  • Breathing should be light and quiet.

#1: The Nose Knows How to Breathe

Research has shown that mouth breathing with the tongue lying on the floor of the mouth prevents the diaphragm from doing its job as a deep stabilizer and has a negative impact on sports performance. So the first exercise addresses breathing through the nose with the tongue in its proper position! At first this may feel unnatural; however, it is essential to your health and core stability.

  • Say the letter “N” or swallow. Feel 2/3 of the tongue up against the roof of the mouth, sitting just behind the upper front teeth. Close the mouth with lips together and very light contact if any between the teeth. You have now found the correct resting position for the tongue.
  • Now bring your attention to the nose, the entry site of the breath. As you inhale, feel the coolness of the air in the nostrils and throat. This requires deliberately slowing down and softening the inhale, as if you are smelling a fine wine. Savour your breath!
  • Practice breathing through the nose with the tongue in resting position for 3 – 5 minutes. Hint, hint…This is something you should be doing all day and while you sleep.

#2: Shoulder Free Breathing

Your neck and upper trap muscles should not be involved during restful inhalation. If your chest and shoulders are rising during the inhale, your breath is shallow and the diaphragm is not working.  Here’s one way to correct this:

  • Sit toward the front of a chair resting your forearms on the armrests.
  • To disengage the neck and upper traps, press the forearms down while lengthening up through the spine. Posture is key!
  • Relax the belly.
  • With the mouth closed and tongue in resting position, breathe in gently and slowly through the nose as practiced in Exercise #1.
  • For a several breaths focus on the cool air entering the nose. Next shift your attention to the belly or rib cage, the 3-D box. You should feel either, or both, moving outward on the inhale.

#3: Belly Breathing (Two Parts)

Remember poor posture can interfere with diaphragmatic breathing. Lying down, which places the head, chest, spine and pelvis in a neutral position, can make it easier to activate the diaphragm. Lie on your back with the legs bent and calves supported on a couch or ottoman. If you have a tendency to overextend the neck, place a small pillow under the head. Tuck your chin down to lengthen the back of the neck. 

Part 1: Hands just over the navel

  • Take a slow, gentle breath in through the nose for about 5 seconds and feel your hands rise with the breath. 
  • Slowly exhale through the nose for 5 seconds and feel your hands sink back down.
  • Practice 5- 10 breaths.

Part 2: Hands just above the groin

  • Shift your hands to the lower portion of the belly just above the groin.
  • Use the same inhale and exhale pattern as above.
  • Feel the hands on lower abdomen rise and fall with the breath. Practice 5 – 10 breaths.
  • Now shift your attention to the pelvic floor. Feel the movement of the pelvic floor mirror the movement of the diaphragm. As the diaphragm moves downward during the inhale, so should the pelvic floor. As the diaphragm moves upward on the exhale, so should the pelvic floor. Practice 5 -10 breaths.

#4: Better Breathing to the Back

Rigidity of the rib cage and spine can prevent the expansion of the 3D box. There are two options to choose from: child’s pose with your knees together or lying face down on the floor. In either position, the thighs or the floor will provide resistance to the forward motion of the belly. This will aid in expanding the breath to the back and help to mobilize the spine and ribs.

  • Inhale slowly through the nose and feel the belly expand against your thighs (or floor).
  • Shift your attention to your lower back and feel the a gentle expansion on the inhale.
  • Practice 5 to 10 breaths.
  • Avoid this position if you are pregnant or you find it uncomfortable.

#5: Now Exhale

The diaphragm muscle is typically passive on the exhale and recoils to it resting position. This exercise actively engages upward movement, creating more of a stretch. As you count during the exhale, you should feel your rib cage dropping down and in.

  • Sit tall with the chin parallel to the floor.
  • Place your hands on the sides of the lower rib cage.
  • Take a slow, gentle breath in through the nose.
  • As you exhale, count aloud from one to ten.
  • As you reach the natural conclusion of the exhale, keep counting to empty your lungs.  Your voice will sound like a whisper.
  • Practice for 5 – 10 breaths.

Improvements in strength, sports performance and core stabilization start with your breath. There are many types of breathing techniques including Pranayama, Buteyko, Tummo, Wim Hof, Coherent Breathing, Holotropic Breathwork, etc., that are meant to restore and retain balance in the body. The above exercises are just a sampling to help develop a healthy diaphragm, targeting the front, sides and back of the 3D box. They can be practiced at any time, integrated into your workouts either as part of the warm-up or the cool-down, in bed to help you sleep, and during moments of stress to calm the mind. If you are struggling to find your breath and stability, I am here to help. If you are curious to learn more, check out the books below.

  1. Anatomy of Breathing by Blandine Calais-Germain
  2. Breath: the New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor 
  3. Close Your Mouth: Buteyko Breathing Clinic self help manual by Patrick McKeown
  4. The Oxygen Advantage by Patrick McKeown

One Core Muscle You Should Not Forget To Train

April 27, 2021

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.


Five Simple Ways to Test Your Breathing Health

March 19, 2021

Breathing is susceptible to daily stressors, and it can easily become dysfunctional without realizing.  Those big breaths we think are good for us, ironically deliver less oxygen to the body. Here are five simple self-tests to help you gain insight into your own breathing habits.

Test #1: Observe Your Breathing Pattern at Rest

Find a quiet spot and sit calmly in a chair with your feet planted on the ground. Close your eyes and follow the movements of your own breathing for a few minutes. What are you able to recognize?

  • Size: big or small
  • Sound: loud or quiet
  • Speed: rapid or slow
  • Effort required:  more or less
  • After the exhale:  quick breath in or a pause for 1 – 3 seconds

If your breathing is noticeable and requires effort, it is likely that you are breathing too much air for your body’s needs at rest.  Healthy breathing is small, quiet, slow, effortless and has a natural pause after each exhale. 

Test #2:  High-Low Breathing

Continue sitting in the chair. Place one hand on the upper chest (top hand) and the other on the belly (bottom hand). Close your eyes again.  Inhale and exhale “normally” 5 times, paying attention to the motion of your hands.  What did you notice during the inhale portion of the breath?

  • Did the top hand move first? 
  • Did the top hand move upward toward the chin?
  • Did the top hand move significantly more than the bottom hand?
  • Did the bottom hand move in during the inhalation and out during the exhalation?

If you answered YES to any of the above, this indicates a dysfunctional breathing pattern.  With healthy breathing at rest, the top hand should remain quiet during the inhale. The bottom hand is where the movement should happen, OUT during the inhale and IN during the exhale. 

Test #3: Mouth vs Nasal Breathing

Where is your tongue sitting right now? Is it resting behind your bottom teeth? If yes, then you are likely a mouth breather.

Are you a mouth breather at night? You’ll know because your spouse or significant other has probably woken you up to tell you to stop snoring!  Other signs include waking up with a dry mouth, bad breath or a blocked nose.

As a general rule, both the inhale and exhale at rest are done through the nose, lips gently closed, and with the tongue resting against the upper 2/3 of the soft palate.

Test #4: Postural Check-Up

Which one do you look like? Good posture – tall, lengthened spine with relaxed shoulders – enables the use of diaphragm which promotes healthy breathing.

Poor posture – slouching, rounded shoulders and forward head – is commonly associated with mouth breathing; shallow, upper chest breathing.

This leads to overuse of the accessory breathing muscles causing headaches, shoulder pain, neck stiffness and jaw tension.

Test #5:  Control Pause

Time to check your breath hold and sensitivity to carbon dioxide. Do NOT perform this if you have severe asthma, uncontrolled diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, panic attacks, migraines or are pregnant (first trimester).  Grab your iPhone or a watch to measure your breath hold time. Sit quietly for a few minutes before starting the test.

  1. Take a normal breath IN and OUT through the nose. (Tip: avoid over-exhaling and leave some air in your lungs.)
  2. Pinch your nose with your fingers and hold your breath. 
  3. Time the number of seconds until you feel the first definite desire to breathe. (Tip: stop when you feel twitching in the throat or an involuntary jerk in your diaphragm.) 
  4. Release your nose and breathe in calmly through the nose.

Did you take several big breaths to recover? If YES, then you held your breath for too long and the measurement will be inaccurate.  Sit quietly and try again.  Your breathing should recover to a normal rate within one breath.

A breath hold of less than 10 seconds is suboptimal. You are likely experiencing many symptoms of dysfunctional breathing such as coughing, wheezing, nasal congestion, snoring, yawning, poor control of asthma, anxiety, fatigue, and poor concentration. If it is less than 20, symptoms will be significantly reduced but still not optimal.  Over 40 is considered normal, functional breathing. 

How did things go? If you want to learn how to improve your breathing, check in with me!

Remember it’s always easier to create new habits than break old ones.


Better Eyes, Better Body

June 17, 2014

cartoon_eyes

A client recently shared an article with me.  This particular one got me thinking – Vision Training to Boost Sports Performance (click to read).  In spite of the title, this really isn’t just for professional athletes — it’s for everyone!

So, why isn’t the general public catching on to such a simple, extremely effective and inexpensive training tool?  Let’s start with WHY vision training is so important and then I’ll provide some practical suggestions on where to start.

Why Vision Training Matters

Professional athletes always want to move better. This sounds kind of funny since we already assume they are moving well. In order to optimize their movements on the court or field, coaches and athletes are utilizing research on the brain’s ability to adapt with training, called neural plasticity. Research shows that we can improve vision without changing the structure of the eye. The training targets the processing centers of the brain. In other words, better eyes means better brain function, which translates to a better body to do the job. eyechart

Typically what comes to mind when we think of our eyes is 20/20 vision. This probably conjures up a vision (sorry, no pun intended!) of sitting in a chair, reading letters on a chart off in the distance. Yes, it is important to see clearly, but the problem with this is that we’re not moving and neither is the chart.

Vision is more complex. When we only think of vision in terms of our eyesight, we are limiting the true nature of how the visual system and brain work together. The eye-brain connection has a huge influence on the function of our body, impacting on posture, strength, movement skills, pain levels, and in some cases how much anxiety we feel.

How we Actually See

Did you know that we don’t actually see with our eyes?  It’s a coordinated effort of the eyes and brain. The eyes pick up 10,000,000 million bits of information per second from our environment and sends it to the brain. The brain interprets it, makes a decision and orchestrates the muscular precision (or lack of precision) of the body. It all happens at lightening speed!  So when I see someone moving poorly, I wonder what’s going on in the brain? What information does the brain need to produce better movement?

A good wacomputereyes2y to think about the eyes-brain-body connection is the eyes lead the body. Have you ever tried to stand up tall when looking down? How about throwing a ball to someone while not looking at your target?  Moving our eyes in the intended direction of the task helps to activate and coordinate the appropriate muscles. Things actually feel much easier this way!

Good vision begins with both eyes working together as a team from a muscular standpoint. When we sit for prolonged periods, we feel the stiffness our of muscles. Like the body, it’s use it or lose it with our eyes. When we limit eye movements within the frames of our glasses, stare at a computer screen, and constantly look down at our handheld devices, our eye muscles also get short and tight.

A Simple Place to Start

If ybinocularvisionou’re not moving your eyes in all ranges of motion on a regular basis, your body is paying the price in subtle ways you may not be aware of.  So, a great place to start is with an eye drill that gets the muscles moving in all eight directions.  Think of this as curls, presses, planks, and lunges for the eyes! To see the drill in action, click here.  It looks simple, but it’s not as easy as you think.

A Coordinated Effort

This next step is about the brain. Once you get the eye muscles moving, you want to make sure they are working together as a team to produce good binocular vision. To learn how the brain turns what you see into vision, click here.  Simply put, each eye acts like a separate camera seeing its own image.  If the two images are similar in shape, size, color and clarity, the brain merges them to form one image. This allows us to accurately judge distances so that we don’t injure ourselves.  Having depth perception enable us to pick up a cup of coffee, go up and down stairs, avoid car accidents, parallel park, catch or hit a ball, etc. It’s about getting the body to move more efficiently. brock_string_cummings

Most people assume their eyes and brain are doing their job correctly. It is important to know this does not show up on a routine eye exam. A simple test using a Brock String will help determine if the eyes are brain are coordinating their efforts. Click here to see how this can be used as an exercise device.

Signs You Could Use Vision Training

The following may be signs the eye-brain-body connection is not functioning well – you may feel clumsy or walk into things, can’t catch or kick a ball, prefer machine-based exercises, have balance problems, anxiety about driving, pain and muscular issues, fatigue or headaches while reading, or excessive muscular tension or lack of flexibility.

Better eyes, better brain, better body!  Vision can be improved with practice. Athletes are doing it.  Why not you, too?

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