Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Ab Exercise You're Doing Incorrectly

You work these muscles 23,000 times a day, on average, but chances are, you're using them incorrectly. In our sleep-deprived, high stress lifestyles, many of us are breathing incorrectly several thousand times a day, everyday over the course of our lives.

The core musculature like the rectus abdominis, diaphragm, internal and external obliques also allow for efficient breathing. If you're not breathing correctly, the sequencing and integrity of all of these muscles will be compromised. Your hours of "ab circuits" will all be for naught.

In my opinion, emphasis on proper breathing while training (or just normal daily function) is paramount. Here's why:
  • Improved intra-abdominal pressure (core stability)
  • Prevents facilitation (overuse) of trapezius, scalenes, and sternocleidomastoid muscles
  • Teaches proper diaphragmatic activation
  • Proper core sequencing for all activities
  • Improves ability to return to parasympathetic nervous system (reduce stress)
  • Better recovery and reduced risk of injury
Intra Abdominal Pressure

In any big lift like a squat, bench, or deadlift, creating sufficient intra-abdominal pressure is mandatory for safety. To quote Dr. Yuri Verkohansky, "Without breath-holding, far greater pressure  is exerted on vulnerable structures of the lumbar spine, in particular the intervertebral disks and ligaments." Basically, if you're not breathing correctly, you risk herniating a disk or placing additional shear forces on your vertabrae. I see far too many lifters getting under (or over, in a deadlift) a loaded barbell without sufficient abdominal bracing.

Shoulder Stability

If you breathe through the neck and chest, as many people I interact with do, your shoulders are going to remain in a shrugged or elevated position. This means the shoulders are unstable and you will have an increased risk for rotator cuff tears, dislocations, pectoralis major/minor tears, or labral tears. If the muscles normally used to stabilize your shoulder, like the serratus anterior, are forced to help you breathe instead of performing their primary roles, your shoulders are in danger.

Hip Stability

Similarly, the stability of the hips will also be compromised without proper breathing. Muscles like the quadratus lumborum may become overactive if the rectus abdominis or external obliques aren't firing correctly.


If you're training your aerobic energy system, which requires oxygen to function, and you're not getting sufficient oxygen into your lungs, guess what? You're not going to be able to run/bike/swim as hard or quickly as you would otherwise. Shallow, chest breathing is not optimal for oxygen uptake. Rather, deep breaths through the diaphragm are ideal.


Chest and neck breathing is the result of the sympathetic,"fight or flight" nervous system taking over, while diaphragmatic breathing brings the body back to the parasympathetic "rest and recover" nervous system. Remaining in the sympathetic nervous system = increased recovery time. If you're trying to train hard and improve performance, you need adequate recovery.

Have I convinced you just how important your breath is to all facets of training and general health yet?

Now, take a moment to monitor your own breaths. Are you breathing through your mouth? Does your chest expand as you inhale? Do your traps constantly feel tight?

The ideal way to breathe is through the nose, with the tongue on the roof of the mouth (which will encourage diaphragmatic expansion) and expand the belly and the ribcage with each breath. Your ribcage should expand 360 degrees with each inhalation. We want lateral expansion of the ribs at the same time as it expands forward and backwards.

Now, I'm going to give you some tips on how to improve your breathing habits. Here are three of my favorite "core" and breathing exercises:

  • Crocodile Breathing

    • Lay down on your belly with your hands crossed in front of your head
    • Take a big breath in through the nose with the tongue on the roof of the mouth
    • Focus on expanding the stomach and the lower back as you inhale
    • Exhale slowly and completely through the mouth

  • Manual Resisted Breathing

    • Lay on your back and have a partner sit next to you.
    • The partner should place his/her hands on your stomach
    • As you inhale through the nose, keep the tongue on the roof of the mouth
    • Partner provides gentle resistance to your diaphragm during inhalation
    • Hold your breath for 1-2 seconds at the top
    • Exhale slowly and completely through the mouth

  • Kettlebell Breathing Drill

    • Place feet hips distance at a right angle against the wall
    • Hold a light dumbbell or kettlebell on the belly (10-15 lbs)
    • As you inhale, focus on pressing your stomach up against the weight and expanding the rib cage
    • Count to ten as you inhale, pause at the top, and count to ten as you exhale through the mouth

These are three fantastic exercises to bring your body back to the parasympathetic nervous system and find some peace from your chaotic day. If you take these simple steps to improve your breathing, I can guarantee you that the results will be profound. You will improve your mechanics, become more stable and mobile, and, most importantly, inch towards a more stress-free lifestyle.

Just breathe!

Works Cited:

  1. Anderson, Tim, and Geoff Neupert. Original Strength: Regaining the Body You Were Meant to Have. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print
  2. Dooley, Kathy. "The Professional Website for Dr. Kathy Dooley" | Dr. Dooley Noted." The Professional Website for Dr. Kathy Dooley" | Dr. Dooley Noted. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.
  3. Myers, Thomas W. Anatomy Trains: Myofascial Meridians for Manual and Movement Therapists. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone, 2001. Print.
  4. Oliver, Jocelyn. "Breathing Archives - NeuroMuscular Reprogramming." NeuroMuscular Reprogramming. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Apr. 2015.
  5. Swift, A. "Oronasal Obstruction, Lung Volumes, And Arterial Oxygenation." The Lancet 331.8577 (1988): 73-75. Web.
  6. Tsatsouline, Pavel. Kettlebell: Simple & Sinister. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.


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