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!

Beyond The Kegel

In 1948 Dr. Alfred Kegel developed the pelvic floor contraction exercise for women that we now call Kegels. It was a pretty big deal because before that it was surgery or nothing for women who were dealing with incontinence and prolapse. His exercise gave women options and empowered them with something they could do to restore function to their body.

But, kegels have become a bit of a hot button issue in the fitness and women’s health world. Some people say you should absolutely NOT do kegels. Some say you absolutely SHOULD do kegels. Some say you only need to squat and not to kegels.

The whole debate will leave you wondering, will kegels help me? Should I be doing them regularly? How exactly do I do a kegel? Please, FTLOG, someone just stop me from wetting my pants!

Pro Tip: Save yourself the pain of googling “how to do a kegel” because you will get 95,000 answers, each one a bit different.

Here’s what I have gleaned about Kegels and you can make an (hopefully) informed decision about their role in your life and the health of your pelvic floor.

Kegels are a targeted, spot treatment, focusing on the musculature of the pelvic floor. The theory behind them being that the reason incontinence is happening is due weakness in the muscles of the pelvic floor and therefore the muscles have too little tone. Of course, what we need to do when something is weak is strengthen it, right?

I attended a conference where Women’s Health PT (WHPT) after WHPT was interviewed and shared that they see far more hypertonic (too much tone) pelvic floors than hypotonic (too little tone) pelvic floors (especially in those in the fitness world, interestingly enough). Those pelvic floors that are too tight will still register as weak if they are tested because the muscles are already tightened to their max and they can’t engage MORE than they already are. So, kegeling in those cases is no bueno because it will just further add tension to tight muscles.

For some women kegels are enough to solve the problem, though there is some research out there showing the long term viability of kegels is questionable – meaning it might shore you up for several years, but after that things can start to go downhill. Sometimes we forget that it is equally as important to release muscles as it is to engage them. Kegels are also not always great for prolapse either. If you are prolapsed and squeezing the pf muscles, you may just be strangling (for lack of a better word) the organ that is prolapsed and that can make things worse.

Every moment of training I have received in yoga and movement over the last 18 years has emphasized that the places where we experience pain and problem in the body are only a small part of the whole picture.

Solutions to problems in the body come when we consider the WHOLE body, the breath and the brain.

I have seen and experienced the truth in that statement in my own body and in other bodies.

When we apply that to the issue of pelvic floor weakness, we get this: when you have a group of muscles like the pelvic floor that are meant to engage in response to the information (loads) they are receiving from the rest of the body via movement and breathing we will find a long-term solution when we engage in practices that address all of the following: upper body tension, calf tension, rib cage position, core strength and how the breath impacts all of that. After all, over 34 muscles in the body are sending input to the pelvic floor. And, believe it or not, how you think can also impact how the body functions and how you perceive pain. So, your belief in your body’s ability to heal will impact the rate and level to which you get better. Plus, a group of muscles that are meant to fire reflexively will simply not do well when we try to spot treat them by isolated movements.

Might kegels be a part of what you do? Maybe, if a WHPT determines that you have pelvic floor muscles that will benefit from them, but I would hope that he or she has you do them in conjunction with being mindful of the position of the body, the breath and the movements you are doing.

Might kegels be a good thing to do if you are seeking to reconnect to your pelvic floor (like soon after birth or if you have disconnected due to years of pain and discomfort). Yes, they can help your brain re-establish a connection to the pelvic floor.

Might using a kegel-type exercise like the pelvic floor ruler be a useful way to assess how much control and ability to engage you have in those muscles? Yes, it can be very useful to track how well you can engage and release the muscles.

Can you solve your pelvic floor problems without doing a kegel per-se, because you are recoordinating your body through a whole body approach where the pelvic floor might go along for the ride when you are breathing and moving? Absolutely.

What’s that shapewear doing for your voice?

Let’s say you’ve got a killer gig speaking or performing and you want to look your best on stage. You buy shapewear to wear under your carefully selected outfit thinking you are taking a step that will make you more confident on stage.  Shapewear makers advertise to us the potential to eliminate our muffin top, say bye-bye to back fat, have a jiggle free tummy and thighs and present a body that appears smooth and toned in clothing. You look great, but are great things going to happen to your body and voice?

What else is shapewear doing?

When you apply constant pressure onto the torso and abdomen in the form of compression you increase pressure in those cavities. That means your breathing is forced to be shallow. Your circulation is compromised because blood cannot move as easily around your body. Your stomach is compressed putting you at risk for reflux, slowed digestion and elimination. Your pelvic floor is compromised because it is overloaded with pressure…sneeze pee anyone? Your voice cannot be connected to the body when your being is shoved into a casing like a sausage.

If you don’t already know, for your voice to function well you need to have good mobility in the ribcage, diaphragm and abdomen. The relationship that exists between the diaphragm, transverse abdominus and pelvic floor on inhalation and during phonation is what sets the foundation for the voice to be produced well and easily.

It might feel as though you are experiencing support and resistance as you sing against the compression of the shapewear. That isn’t a bad thing, but it isn’t a viable long term solution – we know that the less we use our bodies the way they are designed, the less able our bodies are to function. So, if you get used to singing in shapewear and you go to sing without it, you’re going to have trouble getting your body to do the things that the shapewear was providing.

How nervous are you?

The most effective way we have of dealing with our nerves in any given moment is to focus on the breath. A free, smooth inhale and a long, free exhale are key to shutting down the fight of flight response in the body. Shapewear, the very thing we’ve chosen to feel more confident on stage, is actually augmenting the nerves and making it impossible to tame them because we cannot access the breath the way we need.

The bottom line.

Can you get away with wearing shapewear and performing well? In the short term, yes, if you aren’t already battling nerves. But, long term, we aren’t sausages or nerf footballs meant to be squeezed and stuffed. We are bodies that are meant to move, breathe, sneeze, sing and speak freely. If the opportunity of a lifetime to audition, speak or perform on stage presents itself, put down the shapewear ladies, it won’t help you on stage.

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!