The Real "Core" Muscle

Dad jokes abound.

Dad jokes abound.

The more I listen to The Police, the more I realize they were just before their time. Yes, they sold 75 million records, were wildly successful, yadda, yadda, yadda. But most people don’t appreciate or fully comprehend the lyrics of “Every Breath You Take.”

Because every breath you take IS every move you make.

I know. Total Dad joke.

But I use my terrible sense of humor to highlight a critical point: most musculoskeletal issues arise from faulty breathing patterns. And for most people, a proper exhale will realign your pelvis and thorax by reestablishing the shape of your most important core muscle: the diaphragm.

I know, a lot of nerdy mumbo jumbo. But whether you're looking to get out of pain or you're just trying to build a bigger deadlift (and really, who isn't?), focusing on your thorax and your diaphragm will help. Let me explain.

The Science

The best explanation I’ve heard of the diaphragm comes from elite physical therapist, James Anderson. Ideally, our diaphragm has a domed shape resembling a parachute. This shape keeps our ribs aligned, naturally opposes our pelvic floor, and allows us to move with minimal compensations.

Parachutes and Pancakes - that sounds like a great title for a children's book!

Parachutes and Pancakes - that sounds like a great title for a children's book!

Too often, however, our diaphragm looks flat like a pancake. This shape restricts our ability to breathe, forcing us to use our backs and necks to inhale and exhale. How can you tell when someone has a pancaked diaphragm? When someone has a super straight upper back and very upright posture, or when you can see someone’s ribs flaring out of their chest, that’s a pretty good tell.

We should have a normal, slight round in our upper back. When we lose that shape, and have an upright or “military posture,” it impacts our ability to move air and manage pressure. This changes how we move and function.

For example, when someone has tight hamstrings and can’t touch their toes, it's not the hamstrings that are the problem. Instead, it's usually a pancake-like diaphragm that leads a cascade of events. Our pelvis tips forward, our ribs rotate outward, we see more tone in our backs and less tone in our abs, and our hip flexors and hamstrings appear tight.

This is why just stretching your hamstrings doesn't lead to any lasting changes. You're chasing the wrong body part. The hamstrings may be the object of your frustration, but in 99% of cases, it’s not the source.

The more effective approach is to focus on restoring the position of your diaphragm and pelvis. This will take care of someone's “tight” hamstrings when they can't touch their toes, because it’s working on the root cause - reestablishing your diaphragm into a parachute-like shape.

But we’re not just limited to hamstrings. I could make the same argument for chronic back pain, plantar fasciitis, and since there’s an asymmetrical component to breathing, it can also be applied to knee, hip, and shoulder pain.

And the best part? When you reestablish your diaphragm as a parachute, you'll instantly be stronger - because your prime movers (quads, hamstrings, glutes) can act independently, rather than being co-opted to help you breathe.

Your Next Steps

If I haven’t made it clear so far, I’ll say it explicitly: if you’re not thinking or incorporating your diaphragm into your “core” training, you’re missing the boat. After all, the diaphragm is the core of your core!

And contrary to what you might have heard in grade school chorus, breathing into your stomach is not “using your diaphragm.” Because much like our modern day politicians, we’re already full of hot air. We need to focus on getting a full exhale and turning that pancake of a diaphragm into a parachute.

One of the easiest ways to work toward that parachute-shaped diaphragm is by getting full exhales before your direct core work. As I detailed here, a full exhale is also going to make your midsection resemble a “closed canister,” rather than an open one. This will make any work you perform that much more effective.

Below are a few favorites of mine, and you can see how I get a full 6-8 second exhale before each rep.

Here's another good one I've stolen from Mike Robertson. In my experience, this one is very challenging to perform correctly, because most people will compensate almost immediately if they're not progressed properly (and then claim it's not hard or they don't feel anything). But when someone can actually get into the right position, this exercise earns its title:

Just Breathe?

With all the talk about breathing, I'd like to offer a word of caution. One of the more common breathing interventions is lying face down on the floor and inhaling into your stomach – often called “Crocodile Breathing." Due to the biomechanics of the diaphragm, this isn't going to help your overall patterns. Some may feel better after Crocodile Breathing because they're changing their breathing patterns, but this position doesn’t allow you to “parachute” your pancaked-diaphragm - the underlying cause of most issues.

The most effective "core" interventions are those that combine breathing with the correct biomechanics, which I've listed above. By getting full, proper exhales - in the right positions - you’ll see quicker and longer-lasting results.