Proper core engagement on the left.  Sucking in, on the right.

The other day as I was on social media, I came across a big fitness guru’s post on her first postpartum workout back in the gym. She has millions of followers, and I’d venture to guess a hefty portion of these followers are moms or moms-to-be.  In her message, she offered cues for each exercise.  For the cat/cow yoga pose, she instructed her followers to “inhale and draw abdominals in” during the cat position. And then to “stretch the abdominals” in the cow position. What in the holy fuck?!  I cringed and shouted at my phone…NOOOOOOO.

Okay, I don’t entirely blame her. You can only do better if you know better.  Most people, even athletes and fitness professionals, don’t understand how to use their breath to engage the transverse abdominis (your corset abs under the “six pack” muscles).

I debated on if I should be the form police, and I decided that yes…yes I should.  The thought of like half a million moms sucking in was more than I could stand.   I explained in a comment why it is important to exhale as you pull belly button into spine and move into the angry cat pose. NOT suck in. You actually inhale in the cow pose.  I digress.  She didn’t respond, and I’m sure wrote me off.

It prompted me to give you this visual demonstration.  You can see in this video that sucking in and engaging your core are two totally different things.  Sucking in simply shifts the air in your body, putting pressure on your diaphragm and pelvic floor. Whereas engaging your core brings the ribs down and your muscles are able to act as a corset protecting your back, core and pelvic floor.  It makes you stronger and more functional.

I always tell everyone…the breath is totally different than what you are accustomed to after years of sucking it in to look skinny.  To engage your core PROPERLY, you inhale and FILL your abdomen with air.  Release the air and pull belly button in and up.  Do it in a mirror.  You will see a few things happen if you have it right…your rib cage will go down, your hip bones will pull in toward one another, and your belly button will actually move up.  It is cool to watch!

When you suck in, you are simply holding your breath and dispersing internal pressure.  Your ribs will likely flare out and your pubic bones don’t pull in.  Why? Because your internal abs didn’t come together.  Your diaphragm has no where to go, and you can only breathe shallow.

Think of correct core engagement like pulling shoe strings tight–that’s what proper breath and core activation does to the transverse abdominis (“corset abs”).  Now think of sucking in like squeezing a ballon in the middle.  The air pressure just moves–and eventually it will pop, presenting as a failed system like incontinence, prolapse, diastasis recti, back pain, or some combo!  The body is smart like that.

It takes practice, but eventually proper breath and core activation becomes second nature.  I promise.