Breath Work, Movement, Sports Performance, Yoga
Functional Core and the Relationship With the Breath
“Stability is gained from highly coordinated muscle activation patterns involving many muscles and that the recruitment patterns must continually change depending on the task.” Stuart M McGill
- Have you ever been told to “brace” your core 20% of the time?I have.
- Have you been told that core stability is the cure-all to all back pain and postural alignment?While this may not be for everyone, this may be helpful in some people.
- Have you been told that sit-ups and planks are the key to building a better core?I haven’t (thankfully!) and to be honest, I was never a fan of either. Now that I have more knowledge, it makes sense that I felt intuitively that way.
I often find myself saying to clients when they say they “have a weak core”, that they can’t have otherwise they’d be a heap on the floor 😀. Something is working – maybe not as efficiently as it could, but if you’re standing up, the chances are your abdominal musculature is doing something.
The thing is, we’re animals that are designed to move. Movement takes coordination and that coordination happens with every step we take and every movement we make. It’s a whole brain, body action. Resolving back pain is a bit more complex than simply strengthening the core. It may result in back pain recovery or prevent back injury and for some people this may be true. The truth is there are many factors that can cause back pain: postural issues, too much sitting and not enough movement, poor breathing mechanics, or biopsychosocial issues, to name a few.
What is important?
- The coordination of the abdominal musculature in movement,
- joint mobility,
- the ability to provide stability to an inherently unstable structure (the spine) when lifting,
- moving more,
- breathing well, and
- managing our overall health and wellbeing
If we become too rigid in the abdominal region, then movement coordination will no longer be available to us in an efficient manner. It is the coordination of these muscles when you walk that allow us to move our bodies with fluidity and connect from the feet to the head and back down again. It is not about having a six-pack or an abdomen that cannot move. In fact, one of my teachers said “never trust a six pack that doesn’t go away on an inhalation”!
Breath work is the action that underpins everything we do. It is the first thing we do when we’re born and the last thing we do before we die. As babies develop, they learn the key skills to build hip and shoulder stability, the ability to load the spine through the breath. They start touching their toes when lying on their backs, they roll, they do tummy time, building the coordination to start crawling and eventually walking. Babies do not do sit-ups or planks to build strength; they build that strength and coordination with the breath, and time, of course!
Why the breath matters
The thoracic diaphragm and the pelvic diaphragm work together with the trunk muscles to assist with the coordination of full body movement. It is with the breath, along with muscle activation exercises, that we re-establish these patterns to support that coordination making us more efficient overall. The breath also plays a pivotal role in our overall health and wellbeing (more on that in another article).
What changed our breathing patterns?
Modern lifestyles promote chronic stress which can have lots of knock on effects including affecting our breathing patterns . Whlst acute stress can be of benefit, the problem with too much stress or bracing our “core” is that it’s our brain’s hardwiring ensures that we ultimately stay alive. This is a perpetuating cycle which is unhelpful when we are at rest and really only important if we’re running for our lives. Poor breathing mechanics can result in a diaphragm that doesn’t move particularly well and the recruitment of our accessory breathing muscles around the neck and shoulder region, which in turn can have a knock-on effect in those areas as well as a lack of pelvic and spinal mobility and so on.
What does it mean to have a functional core?
One client, a professional footballer, reported a personal best in their sprint training and remained uninjured over two football seasons; another client also ran a personal best in a 10km race; other clients have reported improved shoulder and hip function and recovery from injury; other clients have found improved spinal mobility; improved gait (how they walk); improved overall strength; calmer minds and improved digestion.
CORE STRENGTHENING EXERCISES FOR SPORT
Runners, sports people, athletes, gym enthusiasts, footballers and movers, ask my advice on the best exercises for core strength for their chosen sport. My experience with professional sports teams gives me a keen sense of how to improve their performance and protect them from injury. I find exercises to enhance their stability and support their nervous system. To develop a functional core, you need to unlearn patterns your nervous system has unconsciously adopted to compensate. This can reduce your risk of injury and improve your performance.
BUILDING A BETTER FUNCTIONAL CORE
The first place to start with most clients is the assessment of the breath. I look for the quality, placement, direction and coordination of the breath and then assess the breath in movement. I look at what movement patterns cause the pain or discomfort and from that place I am able to establish which patterns of movement and breath need to be reintroduced back into the body. I use a combination of soft tissue massage to release tight muscles; work on joint mobilisation and build on core coordination and function. I see the process as collaborative and exploratory and work with clients individually to meet their needs on that day. Breath work is the fundamental basic principal of all movement and working with the breath can have profound effects on the body and mind.