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.

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