SMARTer bodies

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How am I supposed to be breathing?!?!

lungs

In our last blog “‘Core’ training…are you doing it wrong???” we talked about intra-abdominal pressure as being necessary to “engage” your “core.” We also discussed the diaphragms two functions, breathing and posture, which are interrelated. In most cases, if you have good posture, your breath will come easily and if you have shitty posture, your breathing will suffer.  This applies to the reverse as well; difficulty breathing will affect the shape of the torso. Try slouching (if you aren’t already), take a deep breath. Now, sit up straight and take a deep breath. Astounding, right?  It should be no surprise then, that the quality with which we breathe will impact the ability to execute activities with good form. So then proper breathing under physical stress (from exercising for instance) should be of the utmost importance. Right? Right.

So… what the heck is proper breathing?  You may have heard many yoga or fitness people talk about “diaphragmatic breathing,” or “belly breathing,” as being the end all, be all magical cure for all of your breathing needs and that you should be breathing that way at all times. I’ve even heard people teach their students to take the deepest breath possible at all times. This would be appropriate if you were preparing to go deep sea diving, perhaps, but certainly not all the time. Your breathing rate and volume should vary to adapt to your activity. For instance, you don’t need to breathe like you are running a marathon when you are watching TV. OK, then… how the heck am I supposed to breathe?!

Well, you are doing it now! That’s right, every single time that you take a breath, you are using your diaphragm! There is NO SUCH THING as non-diaphragmatic breathing (with the exception of certain medical conditions). Ever. It’s just science. Not to be confused with “belly breathing,” a method of breathing in which you allow the abdomen to protrude on the inhale. In yoga, this is often thought to be the best way to breathe, because babies and animals do it, so it MUST be good. Right? Not quite. Not to say it is bad, but it is not appropriate ALL the time. Animals have a different diaphragm function, because of thorax position (think about it.. they are horizontal) and babies have no choice but to breathe into their abdomens because their rib cage has yet to ossify to allow the intercostal muscles to contract. Again, nothing wrong with this kind of breathing, but this is perhaps not the best way to breathe if you were to try to lift something really heavy over your head, run really fast or remain in a bound twist in yoga.

You will better understand if you know how breathing ACTUALLY works. Your lungs are passive structures, which do not do work, but work is done onto them. They are in a direct relationship with the inside of the rib cage because of a fluid, called pleural fluid. This fluid creates a vacuum between the lungs and the rib cage and allows the lungs to slide freely within it. When you inhale, the diaphragm contracts and moves downwards and the external intercostals (on an active inhale) move the rib cage up and out to the sides. The volume of the lungs increases to the point that there is less air pressure in the lungs than in the atmosphere and in order to balance this equilibrium (think back to high school science) fresh air comes into the lungs to balance the pressure. The air pressure inside the lungs (after the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide) soon becomes greater than the atmosphere and another exchange happens, starting the exhale part of the breath cycle. On a passive exhale, all of these muscles relax, which brings the rib cage back down to its resting position. During an active exhale, other muscles, such as the internal intercostals and abdominal wall contract and the air is pushed out. Ok. Got that? Well, even if you didn’t, the point is that the SHAPE (form, posture, whatever) that your torso takes at any given time is inseparable from the breath! Consequently, if you do not make room for your diaphragm, you will not breathe! Try this: Sit down and squeeze your abdominal wall, lift your pelvic floor and tighten your rib cage as hard as you can and hold it. Now, try to breathe without increasing any part of the volume of your torso. If you were able to, you cheated, because it’s not possible.

Ok fine, so breathing and posture are inseparable. Now what do I do with this information? In our next blog, we will discuss a technique to help you integrate all of this information.

“Core” training… are you doing it wrong???

“Core” is one of those yoga and fitness buzz words that has become highly popularized as a fitness marketing trend (feel free to count all of the ads you see in one day that include the word core), spawning all types of studio names, fusion classes and fitness fads.  There was even a time when “working on the core” became the ubiquitous answer for all physical ailments.

Got back problems? Strengthen your core!
Not so good with balance?  Train your core!
Got shoulder pain?  Learn to move from your core!
Want to look good in that bikini? More core! Core! CORE!

Ok, you get the point. We are not saying that this information is useless (well… I might be saying that), but…. what the heck does all this mean???

The funny part is, the studies that have been done on the effectiveness of “core training” for reducing back pain have either shown no significant outcome or have been inconclusive. (1 and 2) Why? One reason may be that there is no universally accepted definition of what the “Core” actually is. Wikipedia tells us that the anatomical term means simply anything but our limbs (great, that was helpful). Most other fitness or physiotherapy related sources attempt a definition consisting of muscles surrounding the trunk: Transversus abdominus, External Obliques, Internal Obliques, Multifidus, pelvic floor… and sometimes other ones including: rectus abdominis, erector spinae, quadratus lumborum, psoas major, gluteus maximus, respiratory diaphragm…. blah blah blah. That’s somewhat helpful, but… doesn’t core generally mean center? Are we not more than hollow tubes? What are those things that fill the tube? Must be something in there… OH RIGHT, abdominal organs! But… what could organs POSSIBLY have to do with movement and “core” stability???

Short answer: ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING!

What actually creates trunk stability (or core stability) is Intra-abdominal pressure, or IAP. Most of your abdominal organs (you know, the stomach, small intestine, large intestine, liver, gallbladder, pancreas, etc.. with the exception of the kidneys and in some people half of the spleen) are encased in this fluid filled membrane called the peritoneum. Because the volume of the peritoneum hardly varies (of course if you just ate a gigantic meal, it will vary according to said meal), you can think of it like a big water balloon (with organs in it). When you inhale, your diaphragm moves downwards into this water balloon, pushing it down and out to the sides. If your pelvic floor is well integrated (if not… you should probably fix that, like NOW), then this balloon will also be stopped by moving downward into the pelvic bowl by the pelvic floor. If you further compress your abdominal muscles (the ones we spoke about above) we create IAP (think of compressing the sides of a water balloon). IAP is actually what stabilizes our spine and allows us to maintain posture during movement. This is one of the main reasons that we can walk on 2 legs for sustained periods as compared to other animals, who cannot create IAP. This compression of our bag of organs is actually what gives us core stability, and because it is linked to involuntary processes (breathing), IAP is automatically created before the limbs are moved into a challenging position (if you don’t believe me, ask a very pregnant woman to open a jar of pickles and ask her if she felt her tummy move first). It is incongruent to exclude the organs in a definition of the “core” when organ movement is an intrinsic part of  “core stability.”

Let’s go to some more studies. It seems that people who have greater diaphragm function (relative muscular strength and range of motion) are better able to create IAP (think about the water balloon) (3). It should not be surprising, then,  to find that professional athletes have greater diaphragm function. You might notice Olympic power lifers wearing belts around their abdomens, this is to assist them in creating IAP and aid proper breath and posture (again, it is all related because of this concept). This means the diaphragm has 2 functions, which are NOT mutually exclusive: Posture and breathing. So… does this mean that we can work on our breathing to increase “core” stability and function and we don’t have to do 100 crunches a day? YES! In fact, working on creating IAP will help you do your crunches, if that is what you chose to do instead of real exercise (tee hee).

So go and play with that information and in our next post, we will talk about… you guessed it, BREATHING!

~Kim

Bad Yoga Tip # 5 – Boat Pose Works Your Abs?

You heard time and again the classic yoga pose, Paripurna Navasana (Boat Pose), described as the perfect ab toning move.  But is it really?  Well, that all depends on how it is taught.  For example, some teachers will describe the asana as a pose that one performs while balancing on the “sitting bones” (ischial tuberosities).   So it is natural to give a cue like, “roll forward towards your sitting bones to find the point of balance.”  But if you follow this cue you will only use your abdominal muscles to stabilize your torso (or your back extensors, depending on the shape of your lumbar spine and the distance between your back and the floor and the relative length at which your muscles most like to work).  Rolling forward also shifts most of the work into your Psoas (hip flexor). Once you’re there if you are attempting to “open your chest” and you don’t have the awareness or articulation to extend your thoracic spine versus your lumbar, you may be placing your rectus abdominus into an elongated shape. Since muscles don’t like working on very long or very short lengths (for most of us, at least, unless we have been practicing otherwise) this actually hinders that muscle’s ability to do work.

For an example of what this looks like, check out the Yoga Journal model’s demo and their instructions.  There is no denying that her strength is obvious and the abs will work to keep her stabilized. But the majority of the work is in her hip flexors and not her abdominals proper.

Now check out this teacher’s demonstration.  He is in a more obviously rounded shape than the previous one.  Here he is rolled back, so that his weight is moving off his “sitting bones” and moving onto his sacrum.  His lower back is flexed, which makes him look “rounded.”  This shape actually puts the work in the  rectus abdominus and internal and external obliques.  He looks like he is just performing an extra hard “crunch;” the front of the ribs and the pubic bones are moving towards one another.  His abs are contracting and he’ll “feel the burn” in them much more as he has to work harder to hold this position with the added weight of his legs attempting to pull him out of the rounded crunch shape. In this “boat” you are still using your hip flexors to lift the legs, but now the abdominals have work to harder. For some people it may be harder to extend through the thoracic spine, but this is truly the ab defining move.

 

One is not necessarily better than the other, but people who have tight hips will only get tighter hips by practicing the first boat as opposed to strengthening the abs if they practice the second.  So beware of the cues given by less discriminating teachers