I want to talk about intra-abdominal pressure. This is often the missing part of the puzzle when looking at core and pelvic floor health and integrity.
Our body needs pressure to survive and to thrive. Without pressure systems in our body, our heart wouldn’t beat, our blood wouldn’t flow, our food wouldn’t digest. But like with any finely-tuned masterpiece, our body needs to be able to manage the pressure, and distribute it when needed.
During pregnancy our abdominal cavity is subjected to a whole load of pressure, not just from the baby but from the additional fluids and our own organs being squeezed and shifted out of the way. Sometimes our body can struggle to equalise that pressure and it builds up to a level our body can’t really handle.
If you squeezed a balloon at one end, the air would shift away from the squeeze and there would be a build up of pressure elsewhere as the air tries to make space for itself. If that balloon had an area of slight weakness, was super tight in places, had been worn down in places or was compromised in any way, the squeezed air would use that compromised area as its way out and the balloon would pop.
In most pre or post-natal women the easiest way for that pressure to come out is via the pelvic floor, or via the line of connective tissue that joins the two halves of the rectus abdominus (6-pack) muscles on the surface of the abdomen, the linea alba.
Back to the balloon analogy, now imagine your ribs are the squeezing hand, restricting space so the pressure has nowhere else to go but out. Add to that super tight pelvic floor muscles that can’t yield, tight shoulders and a rounded upper back, and a slightly wonky pelvis (all super common alignment issues for post-natal women) and you can see how your internal ‘balloon’ can struggle to find a way to equalise.
Maintaining good tone, flexibility and strength in the core and pelvic floor is crucial for managing intra-abdominal pressure. But that’s only part of the picture. If the pressure is not managed correctly, no amount of abdominal strengthening or kegels will help the area. In fact most exercise systems ADD intra-abdominal pressure by adding more load and force for the body to deal with (Imagine adding a heavy book on top of the balloon that was being squeezed and you get the picture).
The most efficient and accessible way to manage intra-abdominal pressure is by correcting your breathing patterns. Breathing into the ribs, rather than the belly, creates movement, space and flexibility which allows the pressure to equalise. If the ribs are stuck, there is no way the pressure can find balance. As the ribs are attached to the spine, the spine also needs to be able to move freely. The shoulders attach to the ribs, so they also need to be able to move without adding strain to the abs, compromising the spine or restricting the ribs (it’s a super common pattern to see the ribs get pulled upwards when raising the arms if the shoulders are very tight).
This is why pre and post-natal movement and exercise work MUST include optimal breathing and absolutely MUST be a whole body approach. If you are pumping weights that beef up the shoulders, you are only adding to the pressure. If you are flexing (curling) your spine with exercises such as sit up and crunches, you are literally pushing the pressure into an even smaller space (balloon squeeze, remember?) and then asking that small space to work really hard to contract, while under pressure.
When the ribs are able to move freely and without restriction during breathing, we create movement and space in the whole of the torso. We also free up the diaphragm, allowing it to drop down into the abdomen as we draw the breath in, and to gently lift back up into the ribs (like a dome) as we exhale. As the diaphragm draws up on the exhale, it takes with it the pelvic floor muscles, causing a natural lifting and toning action EVERY TIME YOU BREATHE.
During our pre and post-natal classes we use ‘candles breathing’ to feel this connection and to activate the deep abdominal muscles on the exhale. This not only tones the muscles, but it also trains them to draw upwards as the diaphragm lifts on every exhale.
I’ll be reviewing the candles breathing in one of my video post, so you can practice it with me. It’s safe for all stages of pregnancy, is hugely effective as a breathing pattern to use during birth, and can be practised immediately after birth. Stay tuned!