Core strength is essential for all of your movements—it is your center, after all—and it has the big task of holding you upright. And while you could choose to knock out some crunches or sweat through an ab-quaking plank series to work the muscle group, you could also do some breathing exercises for core strength, which involve practically zero movement at all.
The key? Engaging in belly-based, diaphragmatic breaths. "Unlike shallow breathing, when only your chest and shoulders move with each inhale, with deep, diaphragmatic breathing, your torso and ribcage expand forward, back, and to the sides, you eccentrically lengthen the transverse abdominis muscles and obliques every time you get the air in," says Daria Einhorn, a Pilates instructor and corrective exercise specialist. She explains that these deep breaths lengthen the muscles in your transverse abdonimis and your obliques, which means you're strengthening your deep and side-core muscles every time you inhale.
Unlike your usually breathing patterns, "we need to focus on deep, full, and complete breaths in and out," says Einhorn. Instead of inhaling only to your chest and neck (which is what happens when most of us breathe regularly), your rib cage, abdomen, and diaphragm should be working together to move air in and out of the lungs. This, in turn, tones your abs.
"Deep abdominal muscles are your diaphragm's partners, so first they lengthen on the inhale, then contract on the exhale as the diaphragm relaxes," she says. "If you get the correct expansion of your entire abdominal wall, you will be able to maintain some core tension through an exercise while breathing for both the inhale and exhale." It will also help to protect your spine, pelvic floor, and lower back.
According to Einhorn, the ideal is to do diaphragmatic breathing as much as possible. Besides strengthening your core, research has found that this kind of deep breathing relaxes your mind, body, and lowers stress levels, which is all the more reason to do it regularly.
Breathing exercises for core strength
Einhorn says that there are two ways to engage in this type of ab-strengthening breathing:
1. Lie down on your back with your legs bent and your feet flat on the floor. Place both hands on the outside of your ribcage, where your bottom bra line is. Breathe in slowly through the nose, feeling your ribs expand underneath your hands as you press your back ribs into the floor. Notice if your shoulders lift up towards the ears—they shouldn't—or if only your belly or chest rose up. Then, exhale through your mouth like you're blowing up a balloon or exhaling through a straw, feeling how the abdominal muscles gently tighten and pull in. Complete five breath cycles like this.
2. Sit comfortably on a bolster or blanket so that your hips are higher than your knees. Wrap a yoga strap or scarf around your ribs. Inhale through the nose, and let the strap become tight all around. Exhale through your mouth like you are blowing up a balloon or exhaling through a straw, and feel the strap become loose around your ribs with the goal to lose it completely. Feel your abs tightening gently and your navel pulling towards the spine. Complete five breath cycles.
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