The idea of relaxing and breathing before engaging the core may seem counter-intuitive. After all, we think of doing core work as exerting maximum effort, feeling a burn, and sweating. We often tense up and get ready to attack our core like a gladiator, convinced our six-pack will reveal itself with such efforts. However, the reality is a strong core, a really strong core cannot be achieved unless there is correct breathing, and correct breathing cannot be achieved unless we are relaxed.
The first step in developing a strong core is to relax. Breathe and just let your body relax. This allows the body to breathe without raising the shoulders up near the ears. Relaxed breathing allows air to move into the lungs widening the ribs laterally creating larger lung capacity. As the ribs widen on the inhale it pushes down the diaphragm creating IAP (intra-abdominal pressure) in the abdominal cavity. This pressurization protects the spine from the inside out. Then tightening the abdominal muscles protects the spine from the outside in. An optimally strong back is established by protecting the spine both from the inside and outside. An excellent article by Mike Reinold goes into detail on this topic.
Now you may think, well I already breathe. From my 20 years of experience in fitness and rehab, most students take shallow breaths. The response in our bodies to stress with its many day-to-day pressures is often shallow breathing. This type of breathing tends to use the upper lobes of the lungs while tightening the upper trapezius muscles often creating pain in the neck. In order to breathe correctly, the body must first be able to relax and breathe engaging the lower part of the lungs.
Taking the time to learn to breathe this way will become automatic. Be patient as it takes time to create a new habit. Keeping in mind a relaxed body and breath, core activation can now be added.
These simple exercises are the foundation of a powerful core; a relaxed body, correct breathing, and abdominal contraction.
The key to making core engagement part of your daily life is by doing it every day. Tightening the core even a little bit every day will strengthen you more and more. It is not necessary to do abdominal exercises for one hour drenched with sweat to work your core. You can practice in the car if you have a few minutes at your desk or holding a baby. The opportunities are endless. Small consistent efforts add up and build strength. Consistency is the key. Take small doable steps, and do them often. Figure out the best time to incorporate these exercises into your daily life and start to apply core strength to your daily activities; lifting groceries, taking a walk, lifting a baby, etc.
The most useful, powerful core is one that you have incorporated into your daily life. A habit of tightening your core will become so deeply rooted it will be reflexive, you will hardly have to think about it. Your everyday activities will become the source and driving force of maintaining your core strength.
“I’m a busy mother of three, who also goes to school and works. Paula came highly recommended and I soon learned why. An anatomy expert in her own right, she personalizes every session so I can use what she teaches me in everyday life. Through her lessons, I’ve gained confidence both physically and mentally, all the while staying healthy and active. Furthermore, she helped me through my sciatica episodes and my back pain has subsided tremendously through her therapeutic sessions. Her help has made a world of difference in my life; she is truly heaven sent!”
When I first met Maria she was a stressed mother of three young children who worked and also went to school. Physically, she had become weak and struggled with sciatica. Knowing how busy she was, I knew it was unlikely she would add an exercise class to her already busy schedule. There was so much already on her plate. So I told her from now on all her daily life activities; lifting her kids, carrying groceries, sitting in front of the computer, bending down to reach and lift, etc. would become her exercise. I encouraged her to view her daily life as her exercise and to really make those movements strong.
Using this method, she built extraordinary strength. She lifted her growing children and did her daily activities with no problem. She even helped her husband push a car which surprised him! She didn’t lose weight but better yet, became more slender due to muscle gain and fat loss. As a result, she had to get new clothes. She was ecstatic at her newfound body, and the strength she had acquired from doing movements she was already doing in her daily life.
Don’t underestimate the power you can acquire from your everyday activities. Repeatedly moving from your core, even a little bit on a daily basis builds strength. So relax, breathe, and engage your core every day. It will put you in charge, protect your back and empower you to be fit for life!
Paula Morizono has over 20 years of teaching in the fitness industry. She has taught in Pilates studios, physical therapy, clinics, chiropractic clinics, schools, corporate settings and gyms. As an LAUSD teacher, she taught physical and mental fitness in the largest older adult program in the state. She is also a Latin dancer teacher and choreographer. Paula teaches pilates with an emphasis on functional movement. She learned through all her years of teaching that functional strength is the key to staying fit for life.