Don’t Suck it in, Push it down or Pooch it out.

Let’s talk about your belly and what it is doing when you move and when you sing.

To start, I want to revisit the concept of core stability: When we have good core stability, we have a balance of strong muscles that live in close to the midline of the body combined with freedom of movement in the joints of the hips, shoulders, vertebrae as well as the knee, ankle, elbow and wrist. Put another way, our axial skeleton (skull, spine and ribs) relates well to our appendicular skeleton (shoulder blades, arms, pelvis and leg bones).

When we have a dynamic sense of coordination and ease of movement in the core we are employing versatility, agility, stability and awareness to get there.

So, what are we doing when we don’t have those elements?

We have compensations. There are three primary ways I see bodies compensate and they all relate to breathing and core function.

Bracing, or sucking it in, is the most common one I see. This can be a vanity issue (ahem), a part of breath holding or even an extension of butt clenching or jaw clenching. It can be an unconscious habit. Like, stop right now and notice if you’re gripping in your belly. Were you? We can also brace as a result of some mis-guided cuing in movement classes. Bracing is something we need to do when we are engaging in a high load activity – like lifting a really, really heavy weight. It’s a less useful strategy when we are walking up the stairs.

The cue of ‘navel to spine’ or even the ‘imprint’ cue that is sometimes given in pilates classes can create a sort of sucking in and bracing that we don’t want. Are they terrible cues that should never be used? No. There’s some value there, especially when you have someone who is needing to either re-connect to their core or connect for the first time. We all know where the navel is and can usually find a way to draw it towards the spine. BUT, this isn’t a long term, viable way of engaging that body to build core stability.

Try moving slllooowwllllyy from down dog to plank – do you grip and brace in your core to get there? If yes, back up and see if you can identify the point where you can go just before you brace.

Bearing Down is another issue. Your core is like a tube of toothpaste. When we squeeze a tube of toothpaste we want the toothpaste to come out the opening, not push down to the bottom of the tube. When we engage muscles in the core we want there to be an in and up motion of everything from the pelvic floor north.

If you are engaging and pushing down, you’ve got load headed in the wrong direction. This can create a drag down effect on the larynx and open up a whole host of problems for the pelvic floor from prolapse to hernias.

It isn’t easy to see bearing down, so you might need to ask someone if they feel any downward motion when they are moving or singing.

I have worked with more than one singer who was suffering from prolapse and it was a lightbulb moment for them to connect that downward motion with why their prolapse felt worse after rehearsals.

NB: Here’s a helpful little hint: we don’t really want to be pushing down hard to get poop out either. So, if that’s you sitting there for 20 minutes and you’re not there because you are escaping your children for 20 minutes, you might need to rethink your poop strategy.

Bulging is the third way we can see that core stability isn’t optimal. I define bulging as an abdomen that moves outward when we are moving or singing. This is very common in folx who have a diastasis recti (this is a widening and thinning of the linea alba that connects the two halves of the rectus abdominus). But even without a diastasis, bulging can happen.

The abdomen does have some outward motion when we breathe in – as the diaphragm descends it pushes on the contents of our abdomen and they will move forward in response. Bulging is not this motion. It is an extension of this motion. It is that tube of toothpaste not moving up or down, but moving out. And it is a moving out that increases when we move or sing.

Ironically, when someone has a habit of bracing, the larger volume breath they take in to sing (primarily in a classical singer), will result in a bulge in the belly that goes beyond what you would expect to see. A refinement of ribcage mobility and core engagement will help remedy that.

Once you’ve identified that one of these patterns is going on, what’s the exit strategy to start building new patterns?

We want to connect with the very local area of the abdomen, then move in ways that we add arms and legs and then start to vary the planes of movement we are using and then start to add load progressively.

Got questions, or want to explore more? Schedule a consult and let’s get you on the road to better function!

The Core-Voice Connection

It seems without fail that singers have excess tension in the shoulders, neck and throat/jaw. Undoubtedly, some of this tension is due to where we typically carry stress in the body. Show me a stressed out person and I’ll show you shoulders hunched up by the ears. However, this tension can get ratcheted up when we go to sing if the functional core, as I call it, isn’t strong enough to do its job well.

When I ask singers if they ever work on their core, they often answer, oh, sure, I do crunches. Ouch. Crunches tend to target the outer abdominal muscle, the rectus abdominus…you know the one that creates the mythical six-pack abs that we somehow think are the gateway to the perfect life. However, the rectus abdominus ain’t doin’ nothin’ for your voice. Or, not really.

* Try this

Lie on the floor and tense the front of your belly and press it out slightly. Can you feel the corresponding motion in your throat? Even in a sitting position, you can tighten your belly and feel a corresponding tightening in your throat. Evolutionarily, the throat and belly go together because a secondary function of the throat is as a valve to close and give us leverage in lifting things. But, unless you are lifting something heavy while you are singing, why would you want the throat to tense? We can massage and stretch the muscles in the upper body, but for them to get a full release, they can’t be active in singing, which means your core needs to be strong (er) and you need to retrain your body how to sing without using those muscles.

*

When I teach my Yoga for a Strong Core class, I talk about the ‘functional, reflexive core’. The FRC has an inner layer that includes the pelvic floor, the transverse abdominus as well as the diaphragm, the psoas, and the multifidus. The outer layer is everything else. In other words, ALL the muscles in the front of the mid-lower torso and ALL the muscles in the mid-lower back of your torso along with a few extra.

If your functional, reflexive core is not strong and balanced, the muscles in the shoulders, neck, throat and jaw get recruited in to try and help you produce your voice. What they are actually doing is getting in the way of your optimal sound.

Here are some poses will help you started with strengthening your functional core:

* If you are a new mom, be sure you are cleared for exercise before beginning these.

 Constructive Rest

1. Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor.

2. Place one hand on your lower ribcage and one on your low belly – below the belly button but above the pubic bone.

3. Notice on inhale how the belly rises secondarily to the ribcage expansion.

4. When your exhale is full and long, you might feel the deep belly engage – this is your Transverse Abdominus (TA) muscle. If you don’t feel it, try again with pursed lips or on a hiss.

 

Constructive Rest with a Ball

1. Lie in constructive rest and place a ball or block between your knees.

2. As you exhale, squeeze the block block, notice the engagement of the deep core and maybe even feel a lift the pelvic floor (keep your hips neutral – the back should not flatten toward the ground).

3. Inhale release the squeeze (but don’t let the ball fall)

4. Repeat steps 2 and 3, 10 times.

 

Constructive Rest with a Ball and Hip Lift

1. Lie in constructive rest with ball or block between knees.

2. As you exhale, squeeze ball gently and lift your hips up off the ground.

3. Inhale and bring the hips back down.

4. Repeat steps 2 and 3, 10 times.

 

Flowing Chair Pose

1. Stand with your feet hip width distance apart.

2. Inhale arms up above head and as you exhale bend your knees and stick your butt out behind you like you are going to sit in a chair. Be sure to keep the shins vertical – knees lined up over ankles. Bring the arms parallel to the floor in front of you.

3. Exhale and push through your heels, engage your TA muscle to stand back up. Inhale and return to step 2.

4. Repeat steps 2 and 3, 10 times.

 

Some advanced poses for building your functional core include:

* If you have a diastisis – a common result of pregnancy or just excess intra-abdominal pressure, stick with the above exercises until it has closed.

Boat Pose

Side Plank

Locust Pose (you look like superman)

Table Pose while raising Opposite arm and leg

Staff Pose with block

 

When your core strengthens you can really release the excess tension held in the shoulders, neck, jaw and head!