This isn’t going to be some sort of yoga-esque coverage on the importance of breathing and meditation. While that certainly can have its place and usefulness, this is going to deal with breathing as a muscular contraction of the diaphragm, the primary muscle used in respiration.
As has been covered before here, lower back pain can stem from a number of issues, imbalances, or movement dysfunctions. The classic and most common culprit that many fitness professionals point to is a weak core. Next step is simple, right? Prescribe a series of effective core exercises including plank variations, hollow holds, deadbugs, and farmer carries, and that will remedy the lower back pain.
While that is a very logical, and in some cases, appropriate solution, you may be skipping a step here. Has someone ever told you to “brace your core” but you weren’t really sure what they meant? You’re holding a plank on the elbows in a class and the instructor says “brace your core” so you pull your stomach in maybe.
While that may have you appearing as if you have a slimmer waist, there’s a step that’s missing here. Breathing. Learning how to breathe effectively is an often overlooked fundamental aspect of understanding what it means to brace your core.
The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle located in the trunk and is the primary muscle active in inspiration (breathing in). When you inhale, the diaphragm contracts down, and the chest wall and rib cage expand, allowing air to flow in. When you exhale, the diaphragm relaxes and the chest cavity contracts.
So what does this have to do with lower back pain? Simply put, your abs surround your trunk and protect it, if there is no tension there (no bracing), then your abs aren’t able to do their job properly. You learn to brace it by learning how to breathe properly.
Perform this test real quick. Fold your arms and raise them so your upper arm is parallel to the ground. Take a big breath in through the nose and exhale through the mouth. Repeat this a few times. What rose first? Was it your chest/arms, or was it your belly? If it was your belly, then congrats!! You probably already do a pretty good job of breathing in through the nose. If your chest/arms rose first then you are probably primarily inhaling through your mouth, which is less than optimal.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Your diaphragm contracts better when breathing in through your nose, so it’s time to learn and practice how to. Lay on your back, bend your knees and have your feet flat, then place your hands on your sides as shown in the picture below. Keeping your lower back flush against the floor with no space between it and the floor, breathe in deeply and smoothly through your nose for a few seconds, then exhale through your mouth. Don’t over exaggerate the exhale, just nice and smooth both ways. After you do about 3 or 4 breaths, notice if you feel any pressure against your hands when you inhale.
If you do, that’s great! If you don’t, then focus on it on the next few breaths. Keep your hands on your sides and as you inhale, focus on expanding your belly not only upwards, but outwards against your hands (like a balloon filling up with air). As you exhale, it should feel like the balloon is being deflated. The key is we want the air to fill up the belly first, then the chest should follow.
Perform 10 breaths per set, 2 or 3 sets per day and you should be able to feel and “brace” your core much better the next time you do any ab exercise!