Why Proper Breathing is Essential for Good Core Strength

When I’m working with clients, one of the most common things I see when someone is having trouble engaging their core is that they tend to hold their breath.

Why is this important?

Because breathing properly allows you to activate your deep core – and good activation of your deep core is essential if you want the rest of your core muscles to work properly and help you prevent things like back pain.

Let me explain…

Your “deep core” is made up of your diaphragm, pelvic floor, transversus abdominus (deepest layer of abdominals) and your multifidi (deepest layer of back muscles). These four muscle groups work together to make up your deep, inner core. If your deep core doesn’t function properly – your outer core muscles (abdominals, glutes, hip and back muscles) won’t have the support they need to work well. This can all lead to inefficient and compensatory movement patterns over time, and contribute to something like back or neck pain.

Your diaphragm controls how well and how deeply you breathe. When working properly, your deep core acts like a piston system, driven by your diaphragm. Upon inhalation, your diaphragm expands, causing your pelvic floor to lengthen and drop. When you exhale, your diaphragm contracts and your pelvic floor lifts like an elevator – all acting like a piston system moving down and up.

Additionally, the pressure created by this system also acts a bit like a balloon. Breathing in expands your pelvic floor and abdominal muscles out, stretching like a balloon would. Exhaling releases the air and allows your abdominals and pelvic floor muscles to contract, like the natural recoil that would occur if you let the air out of a balloon.

So, if this is a natural process, why do so many of us have problems activating our core properly?

It’s because as we age, and allow poor movement and posture habits to form, we “forget” how to breathe normally and most of the time aren’t even aware this is happening.

Here are some of the most common things I see with clients suffering from neck and back pain, and who aren’t activating their deep core properly:

1. Chest breathing

I see a lot of people breathing deeply but the only thing moving is their chest. Instead of their ribs expanding out and back, all you see is their upper chest moving out and up. This is very common, and it happens because your diaphragm isn’t expanding fully and thus, not pushing air down into your belly. Chest breathing often contributes to tight and elevated shoulders, back pain, and even tight hip flexors – because the deep abdominals can’t kick in properly, causing the rest of your body to compensate. Next time you want to take a deep breath, place one hand on your belly and make sure that it’s moving out and in along with your chest. That’s a first step to learning how to breathe properly so that your deep core can activate!

2. Your neck feels tight

Although back pain is often what’s associated with a “weak core”, people can also suffer from neck pain when they lack proper core activation. When people first start working with us for Pilates, a big complaint is they feel tightness in their necks when they are first learning how to activate their core and do a proper chest lift. The fascia (web like substance that holds and surrounds your muscles) of your deep core is connected to the deep fascia of your neck. If you’re not breathing properly and your deep core can’t activate, your neck may try and help out because it’s partly “connected”. We even see neck tightness like this in our experienced Pilates goers – and it’s a clear sign they’ve lost connection to their deep core or perhaps simply lost connection to their breath. Next time you’re doing abdominal work, check in with your neck and see if it feels tense. If so, it could be a sign you’re not fully activating your deep core. Improving how you breathe during abdominal work could help.

3. You hold your breath when you exercise

Did you know your diaphragm is a muscle? When you hold your breath, you’re contracting that muscle. For a muscle to work properly it needs to contract AND relax. If you hold your breath during exercise, it’s impossible for your diaphragm to expand (relax) and push air into your abdominals and activate that piston system we talked about earlier. In other words, your pelvic floor and deep abdominal stabilizers don’t have an opportunity to activate properly when you hold your breath. Without activation of your deep core, the rest of your body is going to have to compensate somehow. And this can set you up for unnecessary aches and pains, or worse, injury. I always say to my clients, “when in doubt, just keep breathing”. Because if you’re actively breathing, you at least have a shot at activating your deep core properly, even if you’re not 100% sure how to do it.

If you have trouble “feeling your abs” when you exercise, your neck and shoulders tense up when you work out, or your back and neck always hurt every time you work your core – it’s a sign you might not be activating your deep core very well.

Remember that good core strength starts with your breath!

Next time you work out, especially core-focused work, pay attention to the way you’re breathing. If you still have trouble, or you’re noticing back or neck pain, then reach out for a FREE Discovery Session or check out our Pilates offerings.

Why Strengthening Your Core Could Be Hurting Your Back

As you probably already know, we specialize in back pain and core strengthening via Pilates

So why on earth then – would we be writing about how strengthening your core could actually be hurting your back instead of helping?

One of the number one reasons people come to see us is because they want to strengthen their core – in hopes that it will put an end to their back pain.

But here’s the thing about core strengthening and back pain…

In most cases it will make you feel better and possibly even take away your pain. But there are many times when going to core strengthening first is not right for your back, and can actually make it worse.

The biggest misconception I see when it comes to getting rid of back pain is that if the pain is gone – the problem is gone.

NOT TRUE!

And this is where people can get in trouble. If they try to strengthen their core too soon, back pain will come back with a vengeance.

Here are a few ways to tell if strengthening your core could be hurting your back instead of helping…

1. You feel stiffer after workouts.

As I mentioned previously, the absence of back pain does not mean you have addressed the root cause of your back problem. This is especially true if you’re prone to “throwing your back out” year after year.

One of the precursors to a full blown back pain episode is stiffness.

If you find that your spine feels more stiff after your core strengthening routine, it could be a sign that you are aggravating your back instead of helping it. It’s only a matter of time before you wake up one morning stuck in pain and unable to move.

In our office, whenever we transition our clients from back pain treatment to our Pilates program, we teach them how to self-assess and check their spines.

This allows them to know if the core strengthening being done in Pilates is starting to aggravate them for some reason. If their self assessment reveals a stiffening back, they know how to correct this before it turns into pain, allowing them to quickly get back to strengthening without skipping a beat.

2. Your neck hurts

I’ve spoken about this before, but increased neck pain or tension during or after core workouts is typically a sign that you’re not activating your core properly.

If you’re trying to work your core to recover from back pain, this could be a big problem for you. It’s only a matter of time before your back pain returns.

When you don’t know how to activate your core properly, you aren’t able to properly control pressure and tension in your abdomen. And you likely have difficulty controlling and coordinating your breath. When this happens, you can end up with unwanted pressure in your lower back every time you work those abdominals, which will eventually result in back pain.

This is one of those cases where core strengthening could be the right thing for your back, but you just aren’t doing it at a level that is appropriate for you.

Learning how to activate and build your core strength the right way is important all of the time – but it’s critical when you’re recovering from back pain.

3. Your hamstrings are sore and achy

A good core strengthening program targets more than just your abs. You should be strengthening your hips, glutes, and hamstrings as well.

While it’s normal to have some soreness after a good workout, when it comes to back pain, it’s important that you know the difference between muscle soreness and pain caused by nerve irritation.

Where you feel your pain and how it behaves is one of your best clues.

Let’s say that after a good Pilates session you notice soreness in both of your thighs and hamstrings the next day. This is typically considered “good” soreness. It’s symmetrical, feels better when you stretch, and likely subsides in 2-3 days. The more you work out, the less this soreness seems to occur.

But let’s say you feel an ache or a pull down only one of your hamstrings after a Pilates class. You stretch and it doesn’t help. It possibly even aggravates your leg. You rest, the pain goes away, but then comes right back after your next workout.

This could be a sign that your core strengthening routine is causing irritation to a nerve in your spine.

If you don’t address the irritation, your leg won’t feel any better and your back will start to hurt as well.

Plus, if you feel pain or soreness anywhere in your body after a workout, it’s important that you learn to recognize the difference between good and bad pain, so that you can correct problems before they happen.

If any of this is sounding familiar, and you’re not sure if strengthening your core right now is good for your back…

Join us for our next Back pain and Sciatica Class happening on Tuesday March 16th from 6-7p.

RESERVE YOUR SEAT HERE

It will be live via Zoom so you don’t have to leave your home, and it’s FREE to join.

Can’t make it live? No problem. Reserve your seat anyway and we’ll send you a complimentary replay of the class 🙂

Here are just a few things we’ll be going over…

  • Why so many people suffer from back pain
  • When you should and shouldn’t strengthen your core
  • Why MRI’s and x-rays are unreliable for diagnosing back problems
  • How to get control of your back pain without pills, procedures, injections, or surgery.

Reserve your seat HERE for our Free Online Back Pain & Sciatica Class – Tuesday March 16th from 6-7p – from the comfort of your own home via Zoom.

Hope to see you in the class!

exercise

Can you get rid of Back Pain with Exercise?

With small group fitness, Pilates studios such as our own, and many gyms reopening again on June 1st, people are itching to get back into their exercise routines. In our last post, we talked about tips and considerations on things you can do to ensure your body is ready to go back, especially after weeks of quarantine.

But many folks I speak with have had back pain for years, long before quarantine. So many people have tried weekly massage, daily stretching and foam rolling, and every exercise under the sun — only to find that their back pain ALWAYS comes back.

Research has confirmed many times over that exercise is the best “treatment” for back pain.

While prescription medication, steroid injections, and even surgery may be more successful at getting your back pain gone quickly — a proper exercise routine beats these things out every time. Outcomes are either the same, or better, when you choose exercise over those procedures. It’s why in our business, we focus on empowering you through movement — instead of pills or procedures! If a long-term solution is what you’re looking for, and you want to end the merry-go-round of your back pain always returning, then proper exercise is the best route hands down.

Sounds simple, right? Why then, do four out of five people continue to suffer from debilitating back pain?

It’s because not all back pain is created equal, and neither is exercise. The tricky part is that for most back pain, any kind of movement is going to make you feel better. Our bodies are designed to move and not sit still. It’s why you wake up feeling stiff and painful, and better after you’ve moved around for about an hour. Movement brings blood flow to our muscles and joints, and exercise spreads pain-reducing endorphins throughout our body. But more often than not, the pain comes back the next day, or in come cases, feels worse two or three days later. And the frustrating part is that you never know exactly what you did — so you just rinse and repeat — hoping the next day it finally “works”.

Exercise DOES work to help your back pain, just like the research says, but it needs to be specific.

Skill and coordination also matter. One exercise can act like a miracle for one person’s back pain, while it aggravates another’s. I see this all the time in my office. The nuances come down to cues, tiny little tweaks, or sometimes you need a different exercise all together for your particular body.

Back pain is not cookie-cutter, and your exercise prescription shouldn’t be either. You don’t want to go on for years just managing your back pain when you could actually get rid of it entirely with the right movement strategy.

As you enter back into the world of fitness, take note of how your body and especially your back is feeling. The correct exercise routine is going to make you feel better, and STAY better. You’ll notice continued progress, and you won’t have to foam roll and stretch every single day to manage your back pain. The wrong exercise routine will make you feel worse, often several days or months later, and the worst part is you won’t be sure where it came from.

If this sounds familiar, or you find this back pain cycle starts happening to you when you return to the gym, feel free to give us a call. You can talk to a specialist for free and find out if your exercise routine is sufficient for your type of back pain. We’ll also be going over all of this (and more) in our FREE back pain and sciatica workshop on Tuesday June 16th! It’s all online via Zoom, and you can sign up right here.

5 Reasons People over 40 should do Pilates

Pilates is good for anyone and everyone… but especially for middle aged and older adults. Here are just some of the reasons to take Pilates classes if you’re in your 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond!

1. Relieve -and prevent- back pain

Many people who come to us with back pain think that their pain would prevent them from participating in an exercise program like Pilates – but the truth is, it’s the opposite! Guided, individualized Pilates combined with a physical therapy regimen is actually one of the best things you could do for your back. We even have an entire program – Pilates 101: Get [Your] Back to Health – designed specifically for people with back problems. Pilates strengthens your entire body, starting from your core, which naturally prevents future back issues stemming from muscular weakness or imbalance. Furthermore, Pilates (combined with PT) teaches correct movement – which is the number one way to relieve any current pain!

2. Increase balance

Since Pilates is all about core strength, it makes sense that continued practice can improve your balance by leaps and bounds! This is an especially important benefit for the older adults who do Pilates with us. As we age, our balance unfortunately deteriorates. However, those changes are not irreversible! Pilates retrains the balance and strength that makes falls less likely.

3. Improve flexibility

You don’t have to be flexible to start Pilates, but you will see your range of motion improve drastically after consistent practice! Improving flexibility is especially important as we age. The founder of the Pilates system himself, Joseph Pilates, once said,

 “if your spine is inflexibly stiff at 30, you are old; if it is completely flexible at 60, you are young.”

The years you’ve spent on earth is just a number… but it’s the condition of your body that dictates your age – not the other way around! And flexibility is the cornerstone to musculoskeletal health and resilience.

4. Reduce stress

We know that exercise in general is a great stress reliever, but Pilates is especially beneficial because it focuses on literally releasing that stress from your body through guided, intentional movement. Plus, having a regular Pilates class to attend can be a consistent fixture in your life that can serve as an outlet for all your day to day stresses!

5. Improve physique

“In 10 sessions you’ll feel the difference, in 20 sessions you’ll see a difference, and in 30 sessions you’ll have a whole new body.”

That’s another great quote from Joseph Pilates! Pilates is one of the best full body workouts out there, and it’s super effective for improving muscle tone overall and shedding excess body fat. If you practice Pilates regularly, you’ll continue to gain strength overall, which will improve your ability and performance in any other physical activity you enjoy!

Are you over the age of 40 and wondering if Pilates is a good fit for you?

Check out our new Pilates intro special. You can try three of our specialized small group Pilates training classes for HALF-OFF! Just follow this link to submit your info and see if it’s a good fit for you.

Not ready to commit to three classes? No worries. You can try Pilates with us for FREE by signing up for a Pilates Taster session right here. You’ll meet with one of our Pilates experts, get your core strength assessed, and we’ll help you figure out the best place in our Pilates program to get started!