Breathing Breakdown

One of the components of stabilizing our spine is through breath. We have previously talked about the alignment of the spine being the first step towards stabilization. Now, we are going to breakdown diaphragmatic breathing and help you understand how breath creates stability during movement.

When your spine is in a neutral alignment, your local stabilization system is best set up to provide stability and support as you move. Your local stabilization system consists of your diaphragm, transverse abdominis, multifidus, and pelvic floor. These four muscles work together to provide postural support and support each segment of your spinal column.

How these muscles stabilize your spine is through breath. Breathing is a pressure management strategy, and utilizing high versus low pressure systems in order to inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide.

Below is a video that demonstrates diaphragmatic breathing. I’m not perfect, but now that I am over a year postpartum, things are starting to feel more natural again.

During an inhale, the diaphragm moves directly downwards towards the pelvic floor. There is an increase in pressure in the abdominal cavity, as the abdomen, back, and pelvic floor expand and energetically take on the load. As demonstrated in the video, during an inhale, there is a 360 degree expansion of my rib cage, my abdomen expands in both my belly and sides, and my back pushes into the ground. It’s not visible in the video, but my pelvic floor is also lowering in response to the increased pressure. Inhales use the increased pressure to stabilize the spine.

During an exhale, the pelvic floor, transverse abdominis, and multifidus gently contract to push the diaphragm upwards, as all the muscles return to their original locations. Exhales use muscular force to stabilize the spine.

The force of the inhale and exhale will depend on the demand. If you are standing or sitting in a relaxed setting, the inhales and exhales should reflect that demand. If you are trying to lift a heavy, external load, the inhales and exhales may be more forceful and should meet the demand.

However, due to our lifestyles, most of us tend to be chest breathers. When our sympathetic nervous system (think flight-fight-freeze response) is activated, our respiratory system responses by quickening our breathing pattern to bring in more oxygen, and this results in chest breathing. When we stay in this breathing pattern, sometimes due to anxiousness or stress, issues may arise.

As seen in the video, during an inhale, my chest and shoulders lift up towards my neck and ears. This results in almost no expansion of my abdominal cavity (thus not much increase in pressure in my abdominal cavity to stabilize the spine), and my belly even appears to cave inwards. When breath with our chest (and shoulders and neck), we tend to use accessory muscles to accomplish the movement; aka muscles that are meant to support our primary breathing muscles, but not necessarily be the main player.

Since during the inhale our diaphragm is lifting upwards, the response during an exhale is to push downwards back to it’s original location. This results in the rest of the system to also push downwards in response to the increase in pressure. So instead of your pelvic floor, abdominals, and back moving inwards and using muscular force to stabilize your spine, they are moving outwards.

Essentially, breathing is ineffective in stabilizing your torso and spine with chest breathing.

So what can you do about it? If you are having difficultly feeling a 360 expansion there are some options.

  1. You can lay on the floor, so that you can feel your back press into the ground during an inhale. Additionally, you can place your hands on the sides of your ribs to feel them move outwards during an inhale.

  2. You can utilize some tactile cues to help you feel your inhales and exhales. In the video above, I demonstrate using a resistance band and then the Core 360 belt. Each provides an tactile cue that allows me to “push” into during an inhale.

  3. During an exhale, first focus on the lift of the pelvic floor (up and in), then think about the activation upwards and inwards of your transverse abdominals (place hands on lower abdomen and cough or laugh, the muscles that turn on are your TA), and then your back may also contract inwards. Remember, these muscles are all returning to their original location, not moving in further than they started. So the exhale should not be a “sucking in” or “navel to spine” type of movement.

Still not sure? Come visit us, and we can break down breathing more during our strength and conditioning classes or schedule a one-on-one session with us.

Mamaste. The mama in me honors the mama in you.

-Gina Conley