Proper Core Engagement and Breathing While Exercising


Guys, guess what?! Breathing while exercising is the MAIN thing you should be focused on. Holding your breath during exercise is the WRONG way of doing things. Just like…

“Pull your belly button to your spine”, No.

“Suck your belly in”, No.

“Bear down like someone is punching you”, No.

“Breathe into your belly”, No.

These are all things people in the fitness industry (or not) tend to tell people to get them to cue their core contraction.

And while core contraction is key for most exercises – more times than not you are actually doing more damage then helping.

I still struggle with the proper way to breath, engage, and control pressure when exercising..but hey, we are all a work in progress, right?

I want to share with you what exactly diaphragmatic breathing is (which is how we should all b breathing), how to regulate intra abdominal pressure so you are helping yourself and not hurting yourself, and when/how to breath during exercise.

This is more than just “breath in and breath out” so really prepare yourself for it. Breathing while exercising is actually crucial for getting stronger and reaching goals!

What is Intra Abdominal Pressure?

Intra abdominal pressure is simply the pressure within your abdominal cavity. If you are breathing, then there is pressure within the cavity.

The issue with exercise and this pressure is that it can sometimes become unregulated, causing more damage than benefits to certain connective tissue.

For instance, jumping rope spikes the pressure of the abdominal cavity – and if you don’t know how to regulate it properly, you could cause damage to the pelvic floor.

Ever heard of someone talking about peeing while jumping? That is because of unregulated intra abdominal pressure – and YES it can be fixed after kids.

It’s common, but not normal to pee when jumping after giving birth (or ever). While pregnant, the abdominal muscles naturally separate to make room for baby. And after baby is born, those muscles are supposed to go back together – but if and only if you work at it.

Knowing how to properly engage your core and control the pressure will allow you to close the gap and jump around without peeing.

This is simply a matter of few women going to see a pelvic floor specialist after pregnancy, and assume that since their doctor dismissed them to exercise that they are good to go.

Learning to control intra abdominal pressure while exercising is actually the key to proper breathing and core control – which leads to strengthening! So let’s dive into the proper way to engage your core!

What Is Diaphragmatic Breathing?

Diaphragmatic breathing is using your diaphragm (dome shaped muscle at the base of the lungs) to breathe – which is the most effective and efficient way of breathing.

Without thinking most people tend to breathe into their chest or into their stomach.

Breathing into the chest causes you to be unable to “catch your breath” because of the restriction of the rib cage. And breathing into your belly can cause damage to connective tissues such as your linea alba (fibrous structure that runs down the center of the abdomen) or your pelvic floor.

Diaphragmatic breathing strengthens the diaphragm, decreases breathing, decreases oxygen demand and takes less effort. Which means – when exercising you definitely want to be using your diaphragm! Here is how to do it…

• Lay flat on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor.

• Place your hands on either side of your ribs (just below your boobs).

• Breath in through your nose and expand your ribcage – you should feel your hands move out. Then slowly breath out through your mouth.

When we breath we are changing the intra abdominal pressure within our core.

As we inhale the transverse abdominis (deep core muscles that act like a corset) and pelvic floor lengthen.

This means the “air bubble” within you is shifting down into the pelvic floor. As you exhale the pelvic floor rebounds to it’s neutral state and the transverse abdominis contracts.

This is how breathing and core contraction is supposed to work.

Proper Diaphragmatic Breathing [Video Breakdown]

Proper Core Engagement

Proper core engagement comes from learning how to do proper diaphragmatic breathing but also keeping control of the intra abdominal pressure. If you lose that pressure and “bear down”, “squeeze hard” or “suck in” then you can cause damage.

In order to properly engage your core – you want to think of it as a small, subtle engagement.

I think a lot of people tend to think that quick or hard contraction is best, but it is not. The slower and more controlled it is, the better!

If you start laying on your back and doing your diaphragmatic breathing…

• Breathe into the ribcage and expand, and then breathe out and engage.

• You want to think about pulling the core together like a corset. So as you breath out start with the top of the hips and try to pull them together, as you breath out you want to slowly work your way up to the bottom of the ribs.

• This allows that air bubble to make it’s way back up with the core “closing” behind it. If you don’t regulate that pressure or bubble though, air can get trapped in the linea alba (connective tissue between the core muscles) and cause bulging.

If at ANY time during a core exercise you see a bulge down the center of your stomach – that means you have lost the pressure and air escaped.

So slow down.

Think about pressing the low back to the floor, pulling the core in from the sides and pulling up at the pelvic floor. Again, all movements are very slow, controlled and subtle!

Breathing while Exercising

So now that we know how to breathe correctly, we need to know when to breathe!

Whenever you are doing a lifting exercise (with weights or bodyweight) you want to inhale when you are lowering and exhale when you are lifting. This means…

Squatting – inhale when you squat down, exhale as you stand.

Shoulder Press – inhale as you lower the weights, exhale as you press the weights up.

Bicep curl – inhale as you straighten the arms, exhale as you bend the arms.

Push up – inhale as you lower to the floor, exhale as you press up.

This means that you have to control the pressure in the core, and still engage the core as if you are lacing up a corset – from the bottom to the top!

Beginner Exercises for Proper Breathing & Core Engagement

Pelvic tilt

Form: Start lying on back with feet flat on floor (knees bent). Breathe into diaphragm (as shown in video) tilt hips to press low back into the floor as you expel all air out of the diaphragm and engage the core around it. Hold for a few seconds in the engaged position, and then relax. it is important to note here that you are also engaging through the pelvic floor (as shown in the video) while pressing the low back to the floor.

Heel slides

Form: Start lying on back with feet flat on floor (knees bent). Perform pelvic tilt, slide one heel out to straighten leg, then breathe out and engage abdominals as you pull the leg back into the starting position. Alternate sides. This will teach you how to keep contraction in the core while also moving through a movement. It is the next step up in advancement of the pelvic tilt.

Quadruped breathing

Form: Start on all 4’s with wrists stacked under shoulders and knees stacked under the hips. Perform the same act of a pelvic tilt, you are just on all 4’s instead of being on your back now. So tilt hips so back flattens out, breath into the diaphragm and then breath out as you engage the core and pelvic floor as the air leaves. Hold for a few seconds and then relax and repeat.

Abdominal marches

Form: Start lying on back with legs in a table top position. This means shins vertical to the ceiling and knees/hips at 90 degree angles. Perform a pelvic tilt to lock in the core/intra abdominal pressure. One at a time, drop one heel to the floor and then breathe air out and engage core deeper as you bring the leg back up to starting position. You can progress this by reaching the leg further away from you and back up, or you can even drop both legs down at the same time.

These are a few exercises you can start with when building up your core and learning proper breathing.

Breathing correctly during exercise can be tricky!

When just laying on the floor or doing slow core workouts you can really think about the proper engagement, but when you are jumping or lifting heavy weights it can be hard to concentrate.

If that is the case, slow down and scale back. You want to be able to keep control through the entire movement, if you cannot you are likely doing more bad than good! So take your time and concentrate on breathing while exercising.

Learning how to engage your core and breathe properly is not going to happen overnight.

It takes a lot of practice, a lot of patience and a lot of time.

But it is the key to having a strong core, and therefore a strong/functional body!

If you really want to learn more and dive into pre/post partum care as well – Hannah Bower has an amazing core guide. She spent a YEAR creating the program, and it is constantly being added to and adjusted! So head over to her website and snag that guide if you really want to dive in deep and learn more (especially mommas to be or mommas post partum)!

Haley Rowe October 4, 2019