Focus on the diaphragm for improved abdominal strength and power.
The definition of core work varies from format to format and means different things to different people. My own perspective has evolved over 28 years of yoga, running, dancing, Pilates, shiatsu massage, cadaver dissection and opera singing. Of all the core muscles, the respiratory diaphragm seems to be the most underutilized. While the value of spinal muscles, abdominal layers and back muscles is acknowledged and incorporated into formats like Pilates, GYROTONIC® and even kettlebell training, deep diaphragmatic exercises are relegated to rare yoga techniques and progressive vocal training. This is a major oversight.
Your primary breathing muscle is a lead player in maintaining whole-body health from the inside out. The diaphragm is not just designed to help you breathe; it tethers into the psoas and quadratus lumborum; lines the lower six ribs; serves as a soft-tissue platform for the heart; and is seamed together in the same fascial layer as the transverse abdominals (Hedley 2005–2009). The respiratory diaphragm is a barometer for the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems; is the governing muscle of breath; and is a physiological key for the nervous system. Shallow diaphragmatic breathing excites the body; deep diaphragmatic breathing relaxes and sedates the body. The diaphragm (and the nervous system) needs to be able to do both for health, restoration and optimal performance.
If the diaphragm’s attachments to the ribs, psoas and quadratus lumborum aren’t regularly stretched and relaxed, it can knock the wind out of your performance. The exercises that follow unkink this innermost layer from the inside out. Your spine will feel more supported, and you’ll have a better chance to improve abdominal power.
Lie on back and place two rubber balls (tennis balls are okay) along side of spine in upper-back region. Breathe slowly into ribs, rock from side to side and allow balls to massage rib joints. Spend 1–2 minutes on left side of spine, switch sides, move balls into lower thoracic spine and ribs, and repeat.
This exercise frees up intercostal tension; mobilizes the rib joints and posterior diaphragm rib connections; and massages the deep back musculature.
Place soft, inflatable sponge ball directly underneath navel. Using diaphragmatic breathing, breathe directly into ball while relaxing entire body. For 3–5 minutes, slowly shift from side to side to massage multiple abdominal layers.
This exercise familiarizes you with abdominal muscle tension, aids in stretching scar tissue and encourages the tough rectus sheath fascia to stretch. It also promotes core elasticity rather than rigidity and can alleviate low-back pain by encouraging length in the transverse abdominals and obliques. Caution: People who have inguinal hernias should not try this exercise.
Step 1. Lie on back with feet about 18 inches apart, knees bent, toes pointing forward, palms flat on ground; inhale.
Step 2. Continue to inhale slowly as hips and spine float off floor. Arms synchronize with breath and slowly arc overhead to touch floor when lungs are completely full.
Step 3. Rapidly exhale through nose until there is no breath left. Do not breathe in! Soften gut area and allow it to cave inward and upward, “sticking” to bottom of lungs.
Step 4 (the vacuum). Without breathing in, lower spine slowly to ground and feel suction of dome-shaped diaphragm creating internal plunger-like action in guts. If you do this correctly, you’ll feel suction in your throat, too.
Step 5 (the reset). Once pelvis is back on floor, reset arms and repeat steps 1–5; do 10–15 rounds.
This exercise helps you differentiate the specific stretch of the respiratory diaphragm and feel its relationship to its bony and myofascial attachments. Over time the exercise progressively and deeply stretches the diaphragm so that it becomes more functionally accessible. Bridge lifts also help create traction in the lower back, lengthening the individual vertebrae away from one another and decompressing the disks and spine.
Take care of your diaphragm, and it will take care of you!