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  • Writer's pictureKely Kuhn PT

How Breathing Better Can Take Your Core to the Next Level

Updated: Feb 8, 2020

Now that we have looked at how the breathing system works as part of the core in Part 1, it's time to look at how to use breath during exercise to improve core function.

The first factor in an efficient breath is posture. In part one, we discussed how the diaphragm moves like a piston to create stability and how, in order for this to work correctly, the ribs need to be stacked over the pelvis. Often times we stand with our weight shifted back on our heels and the rib cage flared up, pointing more towards the ceiling.

Weight shifted back, Rib cage flared. Glutes tucked under. Plum line not through the center of the body

This disrupts the normal pressure dispersion of the breathing system. When standing like this we may also compensate by over clenching the glutes and tucking them under. This limits the ability of the glutes to fire and contributes to multiple muscles imbalances and movement dysfunctions.

Rib cage stacked over pelvis. Chest pointing straight. Glutes elongated. Plum line straight through the center of the joints.

To stack up the posture, shift forward so your weight is distributed evenly between the balls of the feet and the heels. Place one hand on the sternum and one hand on the pelvic bone. Bring the hand that is on the sternum forward and inline with the hand on the pelvic bone. When these two points are in line, our posture is stacked. The glutes should feel relaxed in this position. We do not have to have the perfect posture all the time, but setting up with a stacked posture before starting an exercise can help emphasize the core.

Once stacked up, we must start with a good inhale. If there is not a good inhale, the core cannot fire properly during the exhale. As you breathe in, the ribs should expand in the back and out to the sides and you should feel the breath all the way down into the pelvis. This prevents a bulging of pressure in the lower abs. To improve rib expansion you might need to start breathing while laying on the floor with your feet on the wall. First, place your hands on the sides of the ribs and try to push the ribs out into the hands.

Push the ribs out into the hands to get rib expansion.

Once you have mastered that, work on pushing the ribs into the floor during inhale. As the ribs expand better, you should feel the inhale all the way down into the pelvis and see less of a bulge below the belly button.

Poor rib back expansion, causing hinge point in back and bulge in the lower abdominals.

Good rib back expansion, no back hinge. Uniform inhalation no lower abdominal bulge.

During the exhale, you want to feel it from the bottom up. The lower abs should hollow out, not bulge, as the air comes out. If you are still seeing a bulge it may be a sign that you are drawing in the navel to create stability. If this is happening, work on relaxing the abs and hollowing out the core as you exhale. As you improve lying down you can progress to breathing training while both sitting and standing.

Drawing in during exhale, causing bulge in the lower abdominals.

Bottom up exhale, abdominals hollow out, no bulge.

Once you have mastered getting a good inhale and exhale, it's time to add it in to exercise. Start stacked up, get a good inhale down with rib expansion, and then exhale as you lift either your body or weight. No breath holding. For example, with a squat, breathe in on the way down and out on the way up. The most common dysfunctions are to breathe in before starting and then hold as lowering down, breath hold when lifting up, or to hold at the toughest part (or sticking point) of the exercise. If you catch yourself breath holding at any point in the exercise it may be time to regress the exercise slightly.

Another common dysfunction is to lose the stacked posture during exercise. Often times we use the cue "keep the chest up" which may encourage the ribs to flare up toward the ceiling, resulting in a loss of the piston mechanism. When this happens the core does not work as efficiently, causing other muscles to compensate which leads to pain and dysfunction. A better cue may be to "stay tall and lengthened through the neck." To do this, imagine someone is pulling your hair toward the ceiling. This may allow us to stay upright and keep the sternum stacked and in line with the pelvis throughout the exercise, allowing the core to stay engaged.

Lastly, for good core stability we may need some stiffness in the core. This is what we call a brace. When lifting or moving, our core muscles should stiffen to support the spine, but the amount of bracing should be equivalent to the activity. Too often we over-brace for simple things. Our core needs to be able to lightly stiffen for everyday activities and brace more for harder activities such as a plank. Over-bracing may overload the pressure system. You should never purposely create a really heavy contraction with an easier exercise and you may not always feel the core when it is working. Furthermore, to brace we should not be drawing in the navel - that is a compensation for weakness in other places. When bracing, imagine someone is about hit you in the stomach and you should feel the muscles contract out, not draw in. You should then be able to breath through that brace and feel it all the way down in the pelvis as discussed above. For some people, thinking about bracing may cause them to automatically draw in the abs and/or breath hold. In this case it might be a better cue to think about holding the spine still. This should automatically get the core to kick in just the appropriate amount for the task and allow you to focus on breathing. As you fine-tune breathing you can add a balloon to your workout to give some added resistance to the diaphragm. For the example of squatting, blow up the balloon on the way up. During the inhale on the way up you should be able to keep the balloon filled without touching it with your hands.

Focus on your breathing with all of your exercise activity and you may surprise yourself how much different your workout feels. Stay tuned for part 3: tips for breathing and runners.


This program, videos and content is not intended to diagnose or treat any illness or injury. It is for educational purposes only. If you chose to try any of the exercises presented here do so at your own risk. Please consult a physician before you start any new program.

Not every exercise is safe for everybody. Correct execution of all exercises is imperative to prevent injury. Please consult a healthcare professional if you have any questions about your exercise execution or if an exercise is right for you.

You are responsible for yourself and will not hold Kelly Kuhn or Kelly Kuhn Physical Therapy liable for any injury or illness.

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