Whether you’re a CrossFit aficionado or spend most of your sweat sessions on top of a yoga mat, you’ve likely heard plenty of fitness instructors telling you to “engage your core.” It’s one of those phrases that transcends modalities, because it’s an important element of every type of workout, and critical to maintaining proper form in most moves. So what’s the best way to do it, according to trainers? By relying on breathing exercises for core strength.
“Breathing is important when working the core, because our primary breathing muscle—the diaphragm—is part of your intrinsic, ‘deep core’ system,” says New York City-based Pilates pro Helen Phelan. “Which means that breathwork can impact the functional strength of your core by either enhancing or weakening it.”
She explains that when you’re taking shallow breaths, you’re not getting a full release in your core and pelvic floor, which adds pressure to the muscles and weakens them instead of strengthening them (exactly the opposite of what you’re trying to do in any sort of workout). “This type of breathing limits us in our exercise routines—and in our daily lives—because we are not fully maximizing the real estate in our abdomens to take deeper and larger breath,” says Le Sweat TV founder Charlee Atkins. “More breath means more oxygen to your muscles, which equals longer, sustained energy.”
Additionally, if you’re relying on your “accessory breathing muscles” in your neck—which is what happens when you take short, shallow breaths—you’re not allowing your diaphragm to properly expand. ‘This can cause unnecessary neck, shoulder, back and hip pain and even keep your nervous system in a state of fight or flight,” says Phelan.
In order to keep your core fully engaged, you’ll want to inhale into your entire diaphragm every time you breathe in. “Imagine your abdominal canister is an umbrella,” says Phelan. “As you inhale and ‘open the umbrella,’ you’ll flare wide with the ribs, fill the belly, and expand your back ribs, which will help equally distribute tension throughout your core and relieve any tension in your upper back.”
To make sure that the core stays engaged when you exhale, too, Atkins has got two easy ways to do it. She’s a fan of “library breathing,” in which you make a shush-ing sound every time you breathe out, and “birthday breathing,” where you blow with each exhalation, the same way you’d blow out candles on a cake. “Breath like that is going to help you keep the core engaged,” she says.
What’s great about these breathing exercises for core strength is that they can be put into practice during any type of workout, from the lowest impact to the highest intensity. For a demo that will light your core (and the rest of your body) on fire, follow along with the video below:
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