Core Engagement and Breathing: The Performance Tools You May Not Be Using Correctly

When you breathe in, or inhale, your diaphragm contracts (tightens) and moves downward. This increases the space in your chest cavity, into which your lungs expand. To equalize the pressure, air enters the lungs. When the diaphragm relaxes and moves back up when you exhale, the elasticity of the lungs and chest wall pushes air out of the lungs. Breathing, voila!

There is a close relationship between the diaphragm and your core which contributes to postural control in all of the lifts. The ideal core “engagement” as we coaches say, happens when the diaphragm pushes down into the abdominal cavity and expands the lower ribcage and the abdominal wall in all directions. This is why you feel tension from a belt in your lower back when you inhale and push through your abdomen.

Doing It Wrong All Along?

TRY THIS!

Get  on your back and “engage” your core to pressurize all the way down to the bottom of the abdomen while holding their breath. You should be able to feel the pressure against a hand placed at the lower abdomen (just above the pelvis). If not, then work on moving the pressure that’s most likely in your chest to this position.

Lastly, breathe all the way down to the lower abdomen and then maintain that pressure while going through normal breathing cycles. The diaphragm is now performing its breathing function at a lower position. This is real core stabilization.

Core stabilization has to come from the inside out. A fancy new weight belt is only a feedback device for most novice/intermediate athletes. I recommend anyone who is interested in improving their performance and preventing low back pain to spend some time to properly activate the core and/or seek more guidance from the coaches in doing so. I’ve seen many of our own athletes achieve new PR’s or completely fix their posture during lifts right after we have activated their core.

 

Breathing Tips 101

 

During Weight Lifting

If we were using the bench press as an example, inhale on the less strenuous part of the exercise like the lowering phase of the weight and exhale on the most strenuous phase of the exercise like the press. If you’re hitting heavy weights though (and not at high risk of cardiovascular problems) for movements like the clean, snatch, deadlift, overhead squat to name a few, then it’s recommended for most healthy athletes to use the Valsalva maneuver:

The Valsalva Maneuver

The Valsalva maneuver involves breathing out against a closed windpipe and a tight core (think of the “tssssst!” sound) while performing the most strenuous part of the lift. This allows you to lift more weight than you could with continuous breathing, and probably with a lower risk of injury.

 

Again, you inhale on the easy part of the lift like in the top of a squat, hold you breath for just a short second as you approach the hardest part of the exercise (commonly called the “sticking point” at the bottom of a squat), and once you’ve completed it, you exhale per usual as you stand up or lift the weight. The maneuver helps you tighten your core muscles and maintain proper form. As the lungs expand, they put pressure on the back, internal organs, and chest, and this helps your torso resist being bent or pushed out of position.

Remember, don’t hold your breath for more than one or two reps at a time, maybe three at most. Many powerlifters like to hold their breath for their first one or two reps, and then take a fresh breath for each subsequent set. Find what works for you, but make sure you’re breathing frequently enough that you aren’t getting lightheaded. You can still “engage” the core and breath simultaneously!

During Cardio

Try inhaling for three seconds and then exhaling for two. This means you INHALE on the LEFT, RIGHT, LEFT foot strikes while running and EXHALE fully on the RIGHT, LEFT foot strike. While it takes some practice at first, research shows that the greatest running impact occurs when your foot strike coincides with the beginning of your exhale. So by keeping a 3:2 breath tempo, you’ll be able to travel longer, more efficient distances without hyperventilating and minimizing your chance of injury.

During Plyometrics

Like I said earlier with Valsalva, briefly holding your breath helps stabilize your body, which comes in handy during explosive moves as well. Imagine doing a jump to a box. Hold your breath when you make contact with the floor so that your body is more rigid, which will help with the rebound. Or apply it on the jump from the floor onto the box, exhaling at the top of the box.

During Stretching

Slow and controlled breathing is key to releasing the tension you’re trying to relieve in that stretch, foam roll, or lacross ball work. Holding breath will symbolically hold the tenison/contract as well. By holding your breath while stretching, you are depriving your muscles of the oxygenated blood they need. In doing so you are building up more lactic acid.

During Recovery

In between sets of exercises, practice diaphragmatic breathing described at the start of this article. Diaphragmatic breathing allows you to get more oxygen into your lungs—and to your muscles—per breath so you can hit your next exercise harder.

Recent research evidence suggests that during heavy exercise, blood flow (and oxygen delivery) to the exercising legs is inversely related to how hard you’re breathing. The muscles used for inhalation are capable of stealing blood from the locomotor muscles (the legs in this case), and in so doing, they can impair performance.

Essentially, the easier you can breath the blood flow to the legs will go up. What is more, the extra blood delivered to the legs can be put to good use by increasing the maximum power output!

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