SMARTer bodies

Tag Archives: abs

Better Breathing for a Better 6-pack

magic mikeMost of us can agree that as long as you are doing any kind of physical activity, you need to breathe.  We have learned that breathing and abdominal function are inseparable (link to our last post), this means that the volume of your abdomen should change as the volume of your lungs changes (assuming there is no change in pelvic floor tone). The instruction that you may have heard to suck in, or draw your navel towards your spine does not necessarily make you contract your abdominal wall (as with most general instructions, not everyone will do what it is that the teacher means for them to do). Most people when given that instruction will  just manipulate their diaphragm to adjust abdominal volume (in other words, limit the movement/volume of the breath). Abdominal wall engagement will look different for different people (some people will actually push outward when they engage). So, then how does one engage this wall and create intra-abdominal pressure (IAP)? Below is a sure fire method that is widely taught in many different schools of thought.

1) Be clear that you are breathing three dimensionally. Lay down on the floor with your knees bent and feet on the floor or legs resting on a support. If you take a deep breath, you should be able to get your torso to move in all 3 planes. Make sure your torso moves towards the ceiling and your back can expand towards the floor on an inhale; this is “front to back” movement. To find “up and down” breathe and try to track the movement of your inhale all way to the depths of your pelvic floor. You should be able to feel movement a few inches below the navel. Find “side to side” when you breathe in see if you can feel your rib cage expand laterally. Until you are able to breathe 3-dimensionally, the following practices will be difficult. So stop here and keep trying if you weren’t able to do it.

2) While still lying on the floor:  As you exhale, your abdomen should release towards the floor. At the end of the exhale, use your hand (or have someone else do it) to gently press downwards on your belly and resist the downward movement of your hand, while still breathing. You might feel pressure in your abdominal cavity. GOOD, that means you are experiencing IAP!

3) See how quickly you can create this pressure, reactively. Pretend that someone is about to punch you in the stomach and brace. It should feel the same as step 2. You should be able to stay braced, and still breathe. The volume in your abdominal cavity will and should change, because you are still breathing, but you should be able to keep the muscle tone. And Voila… you have created intra-abdominal pressure!

To be clear, I am not saying that all you have to do to get a 6-pack is to sit on the floor and breathe a certain way. If this is something that you really wish to achieve, it would require a diet change and a consistent exercise regimen. It is, however, worth mentioning that proper breathing is required for proper form, which is required for efficient movement.  Without this from it would be a lot harder to get the aesthetic of the 6-pack.

“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???


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!


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