If you’ve taken exercise classes, you’ve probably heard of the “core,” which is system of muscles that consists of the diaphragm just under our rib cage, the pelvic floor at the bottom in the pelvis, the deep spinal muscles (multifidi) at the back and the transverse abdominus (TA) across the front and sides. These muscles expand and contract during breathing as they manage pressure in the core system.
Just like the various sections of an orchestra playing together to produce a symphony, the interplay between the muscles of the core system facilitates breathing and supports various bodily functions.
Your Core is Like a Hot Air Balloon
Picture a hot air balloon before it’s inflated. As the balloon fills with air, it expands. Similarly, when we inhale, the lungs expand which causes the diaphragm to contract and move down while the pelvic floor descends and lengthens. The multifidi work as stabilizers while the TA elongates in expansion.
Next, picture the air slowly moving out of the balloon as we exhale. The diaphragm moves back up and lengthens while the pelvic floor gently contracts and moves up towards the belly. Meanwhile the multifidi continue to stabilize and the TA contracts.
The process of breathing with the diaphragm and the core team is like a hot air balloon slowly inflating and deflating. Since this process happens during every breath we take, you can imagine the importance of utilizing good breathing techniques to activate and coordinate the entire core system.
Full Range of Motion for Optimal Strength
If we want to improve strength and endurance in any muscle, especially the core and pelvic floor, it must be allowed to move through its full range of motion. For example, for optimal strengthening of the bicep, you need to be able to take your arm from its fully lengthened position to its contracted position in a bicep curl. The same is true for the abdominals and pelvic floor muscles.
For optimal strength and function, these muscles need to fully extend during inhale so that they can fully contract on exhale. If that doesn’t happen, the pelvic floor muscles can become weak, which leads to dysfunction.
Addressing the whole system makes it easier to gain strength and endurance in our pelvic floor.
The Core and Breath Work Together
What happens if the walls of that hot air balloon don’t fully expand? It cannot lift off the ground. In the case of the core system, when the diaphragm, ribs, and abdominal walls are not allowed to expand during inhalation, the pressure goes down to the pelvic floor.
The pelvic floor is then forced to manage the intra-abdominal pressure, which may result in excessive tightening of the muscles. The impact of dysfunctional breathing patterns on the pelvic floor may present as incontinence, urgency and frequency, pelvic pain, and pelvic organ prolapse.
It’s All Connected!
Remember, just as the core and breathing work together synergistically, so does the whole body. A simple (yet powerful!) way to begin addressing the core system and dysfunctional breathing patterns is to gently work the whole body: all the muscles, joints, and connective tissue in their various ranges of motion.
This will help unlock the ribs and core muscles so that when we inhale the diaphragm can descend and the rib cage can expand as the lungs fill with oxygen. The abdominals and pelvic floor are then free to go through their full range of motion as well.
Essentrics already checks all those boxes! As a pelvic floor therapist, I love to see the benefits my patients receive from practicing Essentrics, not only for their pelvic floor but for their whole body and their overall wellbeing.
Breathing and Rebalancing
In summary, the core system consists of the diaphragm at the top, the pelvic floor at the bottom, and the deep abdominals across the front and sides with the deep spinal muscles in the back. This team of muscles works like a well-conducted orchestra when utilizing diaphragmatic breathing.
The relationship between the core system and breathing is an important aspect of pelvic health. If we go straight to “core” or “pelvic floor” without understanding they are part of a system that works together, we miss out on rebalancing all the muscles and connective tissue associated with that system. Addressing the whole system makes it easier to gain strength and endurance in our pelvic floor.
Kathi Bushway, COTA/L is Level 4 Essentrics Trainer and Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant who specializes in pelvic health for women and men of all ages. She continues to learn by taking courses through Lindsay Vestal: The Functional Pelvis, Herman & Wallace Pelvic Rehabilitation Institute, and Essentrics Academy for instructors.