How to “Pull In Your Abs” and “Breathe Deeply” at the Same Time

Sometimes these two instructions can confuse the brain and stop exercisers from breathing properly at all.

As a trained Pilates instructor, I spend a lot of time talking about the TVA, the ever important muscle that wraps around your waist and supports your spine (this link will explain more). Learning to engage the TVA: easy. Learning to engage the TVA and breathe at the same time: not so easy. Many clients who embark on using their TVA the first time feel lightheaded from the inability to get enough air in.

I get concerned I’m going to have to use my CPR skills for the first time!

First, let’s talk about why it’s important to breathe, other than the obvious fact that you will pass out if you don’t.

Here is a list of the myriad of benefits of PROPER breathing:

  • Strengthens postural muscles
  • Improves circulation
  • Increased energy levels
  • Improved digestion
  • Brighter skin tone
  • Makes you look slimmer (I’ll explain this- keep reading!)

There are many muscles that aid in respiration. The most important respiration muscles are the diaphragm, which sits in the bottom of the ribcage, and the intercostals, which lay between each rib. Some secondary muscles are in the neck region, such as the sternocleidomastoid and the scalenes. When we lose the ability to breathe properly using the primary muscles, then we tend to overuse the secondary muscles in the neck. What does this cause? You got it… an ANGRY neck and lots of pain!

When we inhale the Diaphragm contracts and moves downward, this makes room for the lungs to expand. The intercostals also contract and expand to move the ribs out and up. When you exhale the diaphragm relaxes and moves up, and the intercostals also relax to shrink the ribs. With this expansion and contraction, it’s easy to also let go of the TVA and let the stomach expand and contract. However what happens when you need the TVA to help you with a particular movement (like picking up a box) and you happen to be inhaling at the time?

It’s important to learn how to breathe properly, engaging these important muscles, and contracting the TVA simultaneously. It just takes a little practice and focus. Since practice makes perfect, let me introduce you to an exercise I call “rib cage breathing”. It took me a while to master this, but if done every day this exercise can get you breathing better in no time.

Sit facing a mirror and place your hands on each bottom rib. Look in the mirror and pull your stomach in towards the spine (get rid of that pooch!). Now inhale and attempt to place the air into where your hands are. Watch your stomach and make sure it doesn’t pooch too much. It will move. But you are looking to avoid major belly bulge while you do this. Now, as you exhale, think about pushing your ribs closer together. Actually use your hands to move the ribs a bit so you can learn to feel the movement on the inside of your body. Continue to breathe like this as your stare at your stomach and talk to it. Yes, I said talk to your stomach…and tell it to move less, and tell your ribs expand more. Remember: the brain controls the body.

I will warn you, this will take time and practice. Rib cage breathing did not come easy to me. I was terribly confused by it in the beginning, but then one day I was demonstrating to a client and noticed… BOOM! I was expanding my rib cage. In fact, once I learned to breathe, my BRA SIZE went up! I’m referring to the rib cage strap number part, not the cup size of course (I wish I had the magical non surgical solution to that one). You wondered how breathing properly can help you look slimmer: when your ribs expand a bit, the stomach area looks smaller. The shoulder/rib/waist/hip ratio is more pronounced.

Now wait. You’ve taken a yoga class before, and at the end of the class your instructor told you to breathe into your belly, and to let it expand and collapse. Yes, this kind of breathing I call “belly breathing”, and it is wonderful for meditation. Honestly, you can get a far greater volume of air into your lungs when you do belly breathing — it allows you to truly inhale without having to think about contracting anything. It’s freeing, it’s liberating, and you feel like you can float on a cloud when you breathe like this. But when you are lifting, or moving, or walking, or running, there is a need for your TVA to be involved. It is the power and center of your body. Rib cage breathing is going to help bring that power back to your center.

Finally, which orifice should you breathe with while exercising? Your yogi will tell you to inhale and exhale through the nose. I won’t object to that. But the years of Pilates practice have trained me to inhale through the nose, and exhale through the mouth. When I exhale with a “ha” sound, I am able to feel my TVA contract more and makes me more aware of the muscle. In fact if you do multiple “ha’s” it really helps to build awareness to your core. Try it…

Inhale gently through the nose expanding into the ribs,

Exhale and make the sounds “ha, ha, ha, ha, ha” quickly in succession.

Feel your TVA contract? BOOM! You did it. Thank goodness, now I hope I don’t have to do any CPR anytime soon!


Originally published at verticalign.com on May 9, 2016.