Is there a correct way to breathe? Surely if air is entering and exiting then that’s all we need to worry about? Well – yes for sustaining life – but maybe not for aiding optimal function of the musculoskeletal system!
Can we assume all postnatal dancers have a disrupted breathing pattern? Yes, most probably!
Good breathing patterns are our foundation – they affect our entire body. Our diaphragm, pelvic floor and core muscles should move together with each breath – the co-ordination of these muscles is essential in regulating intra-abdominal pressure – poor pressure management within our core canister can lead to pressure leaking out of a “weak area” – leading to the risk of hernias, prolapse and a persisting diastasis recti. In addition, poor breathing patterns can lead to excessive holding of tension in our pelvic floor, core and neck and shoulders. Tension holding is not a sign of strength and will eventually lead to a weakening of a muscle as it is not being stimulated correctly.
Pregnancy can alter and disrupt optimal breathing patterns. During pregnancy the rib cage widens and the diaphragm gets pushed up (LoMauro and Aliverti, 2005) – the diaphragm struggles to contract and flatten and rib cage movement reduces – this make it difficult to get a deep inhale or exhale. These changes can throw us into shallow breathing pattern (all neck and shoulders) or belly breathing (where the inhale pushes the belly out).
Can we assume all postnatal dancers have a disrupted breathing pattern? Yes, most probably! And as a side note, I haven’t worked with one dancer, young or old, male or female, prenatal or postnatal with a good breathing pattern! This begs the question – do dancers have poor breathing patterns? To be honest, I can’t answer that with any scientific back up, but in my experience, neck and upper abdominal tension is a very common “habit” in dancers. I believe every dancer needs training in correct breathing patterns.
I’m pregnant/postnatal – why care about my breathing?
If we don’t re-establish and train correct breathing mechanics, we will miss out on strengthening and connecting with our core and pelvic floor in a natural way. A correct breathing pattern should naturally lengthen (inhale) and contract (exhale) our entire pelvic floor and abdominal wall. When diastasis recti, weakened abdominal and pelvic floor dysfunction are almost part and parcel of the maternal journey, correct breathing will be the first step in retraining your system correctly.
Re-establishing correct breathing
Correct breathing is not as simple as letting your belly rise and fall (this actually shows pressure leaking of a weakened area). Read the 4 steps below to see how you can improve your breathing pattern and work your core and pelvic floor correctly.
#1 – Develop an awareness of your breath
Position yourself in a comfortable kneeling position with attention to posture, shoulders over pelvis and pelvis in neutral (Figure 2). Wrap your fingers around each side of your rib cage (fingers on the front, thumb wrapped around to the back). Take a 5 second inhale and exhale. What happened on the inhale?
1) Did your neck get tense?
2) Did your shoulders move up?
3) Did your tummy expand?
4) Did you widen and lengthen your lateral abdominal muscles?
5) Did your rib cage expand in 360 degrees? (i.e. did it widen, expand out to the front and out to the back)
6) Did you notice any movement in your pelvic floor?
#2 – Let’s get your ribs expanding in 360 degrees
Now repeat your inhale and exhale and let’s get your ribs expanding in 360 degrees. Wrap your fingers around each side of your rib cage. On the inhale concentrate on keeping your neck and shoulders relaxed and instead “blow your rib cage up”! It should expand out to the side, front and back.
To help with rib expansion we need good eccentric length in our lateral abdominal muscles (transverse abdominals and obliques). If you lack this strength you will notice very little expansion of the rib cage and your tummy will expand out (belly breathing!). To practice lateral expansion of the abdominals, drop your fingers down so they rest on your sides and under your rib cage. Breath into your fingers – you should feel your sides expand out into your fingers. Your tummy will expand a little but not a lot!
Missing out on good rib expansion and eccentric lengthening in our lateral abdominal muscles will essentially mean we are missing out on a good opportunity to use our core muscles effectively. A muscle must first lengthen to get a good contraction; this is why dancers work their plie before they take off from the ground – this will give them better jump height because the calf muscles have been lengthened first. If we take this principle to the core we need to ensure that our breathing allows our core muscles to lengthen before they contract.
In a nutshell, good rib expansion and lengthening of the core muscles gives opportunity for the muscles to contract well – thus providing lots of lumbopelvic stability. This is especially important when you are dancing – if your breathing patterns aren’t allowing good lengthening and therefore good contracting, then you will never be able to sustain correct core tension when performing exercises that require lumbopelvic stability!
Video 1: Exercise to assist with rib mobility
#3 Time to take note of your pelvic floor
If you are starting to find good movement in your ribs and lateral abdominals then focus now on allowing your pelvic floor to relax and spread on the inhale. As you exhale you should notice a natural contraction or recoil.
#4 The exhale
If the inhale has done its job at lengthening the abdominals and pelvic floor then they are in a perfect position to naturally recoil (at rest) or contract more fully if required for exertion (i.e. dance, general exercise, lifting kids!). On the exhale allow your pelvic floor to gather together and lift whilst concentrating on contracting your tummy muscles evenly –contraction of your abdominal should start at your lower transverse abdominals (as low as hip bones and pubic bone) all the way up to your ribs.
In a nutshell
Co-ordinating the movement of your ribs, lateral abdominals and pelvic floor on your inhale and exhale will be key to retraining the muscles of your core and pelvic floor whilst teaching them to contract effectively for optimal function. If you are postnatal and are looking to retrain your core, heal diastasis recti, address pelvic floor dysfunction, improve overall strength for return to dance or even address pain and discomfort breathing patterns should be addressed first and foremost.
LoMauro A, Aliverti A. Respiratory physiology of pregnancy: Physiology masterclass. Breathe (Sheff). 2015 Dec;11(4):297-301. doi: 10.1183/20734735.008615. PMID: 27066123; PMCID: PMC4818213.