“Engage your core” is a common cue during tons of exercises and workouts. Doing so improves stabilization and balance, helping you move more efficiently and reduce the risk of injury.
But engaging your core isn’t about sucking your belly button to your spine. It’s also not only about your six-pack. Your core is your diaphragm, pelvic floor, transverse abdominis, and multifidus (which go along the spine) muscles, says Joanie Johnson, an NCCPT personal trainer. So when you train your core, you want to train all these parts.
The issue is, many people overlook the diaphragm, which can result in a weak or dysfunctional core. Keep your entire midsection strong by learning why the diaphragm matters and how to properly engage it.
What is the diaphragm?
This dome-shaped muscle at the base of our lungs is “arguably the most important muscle in our body because it’s our main breathing muscle,” Johnson says. When we inhale, the diaphragm contracts, flattening as it draws air into the deepest part of our lungs. When we exhale, it relaxes, pushing air out of our lungs.
People often overlook the diaphragm we think about the core because of a lack of education. Most personal trainers aren’t taught the importance of the diaphragm in their courses and certifications. Therefore, the information doesn’t get passed down.
Why should I care about my diaphragm?
However, everyone can benefit from using this muscle. For one, it may help alleviate pain. If you aren’t using your diaphragm as your main breathing muscle, it means you are a ‘chest breather’ and your body is using a lot of inefficient patterns in order to get air into the lungs, This is often the cause of trapezius, neck, and shoulder pain and weakness in the core.
Secondly, it may boost your workout, no matter if you do HIIT, cardio, strength training, or any other modality. Exercise is stress, and our diaphragm activates our vagus nerve, which triggers our parasympathetic nervous system (the “rest and digest” mode). This lowers your body’s stress response. Utilizing the diaphragm as much as possible—and especially during periods of recovery—will improve your ability to tolerate more intense workouts. It will also increase your endurance, decrease your chance of injury, and lead to a stronger, more stable core and better posture, all of which can make your workouts more effective.
Outside of the gym, diaphragmatic breathing‘s effect on the parasympathetic nervous system lowers blood pressure and heart rate, encouraging healing and recovery. That makes it great to practice on rest days. It also works as a massage for our internal organs, increases lymph flow, and promotes proper digestion.
How do I engage my diaphragm?
To learn how to activate your diaphragm, start by lying faceup on the floor. “Our bodies naturally fall into this breath pattern when we are sleeping, so lying down is a familiar place for us to connect to it,” Johnson explains:
- Place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly.
- Inhale a slow, deep breath through your nose and focus on sending the air into your lower ribs and belly. As you do so, your belly should slightly rise while your chest stays fairly still, if it moves at all.
- Exhale with a “shhh” sound and try to hug in and tighten your abdominals. You’ll feel your belly fall.
Practice this on your back, on your side, on all fours, kneeling, and then in a standing upright position, Johnson recommends. “You may find that your chest breathing tries to take over as you work your way up through these levels,” she says. “But our bodies want to breathe in the most efficient way possible. Once you master this breath, you won’t likely return to chest breathing.”
How do I do this while working out?
To be sure you’re engaging your diaphragm during exercise, Johnson recommends five minutes of diaphragmatic breathing before and after a workout. “As you become more comfortable with it, add in a few other places within the workout to focus on your breath,” she says. For example, inhale and relax the diaphragm as you lower into a squat, then engage your diaphragm as you inhale and rise to stand. Or inhale as you tip forward for a straight-leg deadlift and exhale as you return to an upright position.
Play around with inhales and exhales to see what feels best to you. You may even find that correcting your breath will remove inefficient movement patterns and eliminate the pain during exercises that used to cause discomfort.