Engage your core! We hear this phrase being tossed around all the time, but a lot of people may not necessarily understand how to engage it. A functionally active core is essential to improving your posture, preventing low back pain, improving your balance, and so much more. However, there are many dysfunctions that can occur within our core. It is often necessary to revert to breathing and foundational core exercises to rebuild a stronger, more efficient base for our body to work from.
The first objective is to learn how to breathe from the diaphragm and not from the chest. This is called diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breath. The diaphragm is a large, dome shaped muscle that is located at the base of the lungs. When the diaphragm contracts, this increases the thoracic cavity drawing air into your lungs. This technique helps to ensure you are using the diaphragm correctly while you breathe as well as strengthen the diaphragm and will allow for better efficiency when breathing (less effort and energy to breathe). Listed below is a step by step process to practice this technique. For some people, it is difficult to breathe from the belly, but keep practicing and you’ll be able to do it!
The next step will take place on your back on the floor. Now that you’ve been able to fully inflate and deflate your stomach, try to find the “midpoint” between the opposite ends of the spectrum. Next, place both of your hands on your hips, just above your hip bones and push your hands out by flexing the stomach. At this point, your stomach should be firm. The goal is to maintain the firmness in your stomach while you breath normally. This is how we turn on the core.
We’re getting close to performing our bird-dog exercise, but we have one more prerequisite, learning how to maintain a neutral spine when our back isn’t on the floor, so that we keep the spinal column protected. How do we do know if you have a neutral spine? One way we like to do this is performing “cat and cow.” In a nutshell, we are taking the spine into extreme flexion (rounded back) and extension (arched back). Cat and cow is performed from a quadruped position, hands below shoulders and knees below hips. Go through both ends of the spectrum of flexion and extension of the spine and then try to find the “midpoint”. This is how to achieve a neutral spine. Use a mirror to double check if your spine is flat.
Finally, in combination with diaphragmatic breathing and awareness of a neutral spine, we can turn on your core and perform the bird-dog exercise. This exercise will be in a quadruped position, and will involve extension of the hip and shoulder. The main goal for this exercise is to prevent the hips from rotating while the extremities are extending; hip bones should be facing the floor the whole time. Turn on your core (which we know how to do now) while getting the spine into a neutral position before extending the extremities.
Extend only one leg at a time.
Extend only one arm at a time.
Extend one leg and opposite arm, simultaneously.
Common problems people run into with this exercise is arching of the low back when extending the limbs. You want to try to avoid this because it will sometimes cause unwanted tension in the low back area. You should feel the sensation in your stomach, shoulders, and glutes. You can progress the bird-dog exercise into a more difficult position to challenge your core with the high plank with shoulder tap.
The main goal is to again prevent the hips from rotating side to side. If you’re having a difficult time maintaining the hip bones facing towards the floor, bring the legs further apart. Take your time with this movement. Don’t rush through it, quality over quantity is key! The goal is to maintain stability when performing both the bird-dog and high plank with shoulder tap.