If you’ve ever been shown a ‘core exercise’ you’ve probably heard at least one of the following cues: Hollow, tense, tighten, suck in, pull in, zip up, engage, brace or squeeze. But which one is right? And could you be doing more harm than good?
There’s an issue with all of this. It ignores the most basic principle of core training. Being able to breathe the right way while using the core.
I’ll explain more about why the right breathing is essential to a strong core in a moment. But I have met many people who have had personal trainers, performed loads of core exercises or have done yoga and Pilates who thought they were using their core right but weren’t.
In fact their breathing was so dysfunctional they couldn’t stabilise their core at all without holding the breath.
There’s a huge problem within the fitness industry
Actually there are two. Certain fitness methods don’t push the body enough. Or don’t challenge the body to deal with real world scenarios. Lying on your back the entire time you train your ‘core’ will not get you real world strong. But then certain fitness trends are simply pushing people too far too soon. Sure the exercises look cool, so some people want to do the advanced versions straight away without learning the basics first. And the fitness instructors duly oblige. But this means people are doing advanced movements their bodies simply can’t cope with.
And I’m not talking about just being fit or strong enough. The body is a wondrous things and will adapt to any given challenge.
If you join a TRX class you’ll certainly feel like you’re getting better at it as you do it. It will start to feel easier and you’ll feel stronger. Same with Crossfit, Pilates, running, lifting weights and so on. Plus you’ll want to ‘keep up’ with everyone else. Or least not be seen to be shying away from pushing yourself.
But the question is are you getting better?
What’s the point in training if you just feel tired, tightness, aches and/or pain when you’re not. The training session should not be the focus or the goal. Going beast mode, killing yourself or punishing your body in training is just dumb.
The goal should be to feel, move and look better outside of the gym.
And sure, I come from a biased background. Being a physical therapist who has had to do some major rehab on his own body means I always look for weaknesses along the chain.
Warning: Major cliche coming up…
You are only as strong as your weakest link
Now if you feel great, have no joint or muscle issues and are measurably getting stronger and fitter then you’re one of the lucky ones.
But most of my members aren’t so lucky.
And sometimes they don’t even realise it. One of the first questions I ask them during their assessment is do you have any injuries, aches or pains.
Most answer no. And then 10 mins later they start telling me about the neck pain they get. Or the stiff lower back. Or the sore knee. And so on.
They’ve kinda just accepted it as part and parcel of life or training.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
And it all starts with the breath
Certain coaches hate the word core. I used to too. Because of what it has come to stand for. You’ll hear anything from 15 minute ab workouts to develop a ‘strong core’. An entire Pilates class focused on ‘core training’. TRX training will give you a rock solid ‘core’.
Problem is the definition of a strong core is misunderstood.
Maybe we should use the term Functional core. But now I’ve used the F word and will be shunned by some of my peers.
No matter what term you use, understanding the purpose and function of the core is imperative to training it correctly.
And it ain’t ab training like so many believe.
It’s about providing stability through movement. Your body loves a bit of stability. So much so that if it’s lacking in one area it will create it in another.
If your core isn’t functioning properly and you do over head movements (whether it’s exercise or just reaching for something overhead) you can be sure of getting tight shoulders, a sore neck or you’ll start to ‘feel’ it in your lower back. And that’s for the lucky ones. A lot of people end up going under the knife. And these aren’t just people who’ve been injured from lifting heavy stuff. I’ve met many people who never touched a dumbbell yet ended up with debilitating pain.
The reason this happens, in most cases anyway, is because they couldn’t provide stability through the movement. And the most basic movement is the breath.
So the million dollar question is are you breathing optimally?
Here’s a quick test…
Can you do the plank and have a relaxed breathing pattern while doing it?
Can you do a dead bug correctly and inhale without the chest, ribcage or lower back rising much, while staying ‘tight’ through the midsection?
If you’re not sure what I mean check out these videos.
How to pass…
For both of these you’re looking for constant tension through the midsection especially on the inhale. You DO NOT need to “pull your belly button”. Your lower back should remain flat (and on the ground for the dead bug) and your ribs need to stay down. In other words your chest shouldn’t rise and fall as you breathe.
And if you can’t maintain a relatively relaxed and controlled breathing pattern your core needs some serious work.
Now there are some exercises where holding the breath is beneficial. Especially when lifting maximal weight. But even the most seasoned powerlifters only do this for a tiny fraction of their day. The rest of the time they need to breathe and provide stability at the same time just like the rest of us. If they drop a pen on the floor they aren’t going to pause. Take a gulp of air in. Brace the abs and then pick it up.
But it’s times like this is when a lot of injuries occur. Picking up something light. Getting in and out of car. Reaching for something over head or behind you. Turning in bed. Getting up too fast in the morning.
If you can’t do the tests what do you think will happen when you add more movement? Whether it’s exercises from running to lifting, or basic everyday movement something is gonna give way. Could be your knees, back, shoulders, feet or anything in between. It may not be a sudden injury, it rarely is. But over time you’ll notice tightness in your joints.
This tightness is compensating for the lack of tightness from the core.
The fix: Learning to breathe again
Stop what you’re doing right now and take a deep breath in and then fully exhale.
Did you exhale fully?
Try again, take a deep breath in. Now start exhaling through your mouth. Keep going and going. Force every last drop of air out and then when you think you can’t get anymore out really push till the very last drop comes out.
Do this a few times and you should notice a tightening or tensing around your bottom ribs. You’ll also become aware of them getting pulled down. Congratulations you’ve just found your external obliques. These are pretty important.
Ideally you should be able to create this tension without having to forcefully exhale but it’s a good start. If that doesn’t do it for you try forcing out a cough. You should feel a similar tightness.
This is a very important part of stabilising your spine. Without this stability you’ll tend to over extend your upper or lower back during many movements. Squatting, deadlifting or swinging a kettle bell. And remember this doesn’t just happen during exercise. It will happen during your day as you move about.
It’s the repetition of this faulty movement that will end up causing problems.
The next part is to inhale without the chest rising too much. Ideally your lower rib cage should move up, out to the sides and back. This is called 3 dimensional breathing or diaphragmatic breathing. Although it’s the way we’re meant to breathe. So in theory it should just be called breathing.
Place your hands on your sides so that your index fingers are at your lower ribs and thumbs around the sides to the back. If you were standing you’d look like Beyonce when she’s pissed at Jay Z for leaving the toilet seat up. Take a breath in and notice any movement you feel. Ideally you should feel the lower ribs fill out into the index fingers and thumbs in all 3 directions. Front. Side. Back.
Seems simple enough but many people struggle with this. They just don’t use their diaphragm to breathe anymore. It’s all upper chest, neck and shoulders.
Doing this will help re-educate your breathing pattern so you use your main breathing muscles and not just the assisting ones. Overuse of the wrong muscles just ends up in getting stiff and sore in all the wrong places. Those stiff and achey shoulders or neck may be because you ain’t breathing right.
When you’ve mastered basic breathing it’s time to add in some core specific work. Always keep in mind the function of the core is to provide stability through movement. So breathing has to be a major focus of doing any core exercise.
Now, to fully demonstrate how to do any core exercise properly would require an entire blog post each. So instead, I’ve put together a workshop for you.
In this workshop you’ll discover
The great thing about this is once you know what to do and how to do it you can apply the same principles to any exercise you do.
To get all the details just click the red button…
John O'Connell is the owner of SF Fitness & Health Centre. He started working in the fitness industry in 2002 after suffering a back injury. He has worked with many professional organisations including Leinster Rugby, An Garda Siochana, New Zealand Rugby, Dublin GAA, Spar and CBRE. He has also appeared muliple times on both RTE & TV3 as a health & fitness expert. John is the co-author of 2 international best selling books - Total Body Breakthroughs and The Fit Formula.