Updated: May 27
Here's a video taken just a few weeks postpartum, and shows me practicing one of the first exercises I did after I had my son. Doesn’t look like much, right?
As it turns out, your breath is your most powerful tool to stabilize and support your body during movement, manage intra-abdominal pressure and keep your body strong. And during the childbearing experience, it takes a little intention to keep breathing in a manner that supports these functions.
Quick anatomy review: during a normal breath, the pelvic floor mirrors the diaphragm (see animation below). The diaphragm contracts (and descends towards your pelvis) to draw air into the lungs and the rib cage should expand 360 degrees. In response, the pelvic floor lengthens and descends. The abdominal muscles lengthen and expand outwards slightly. On exhale, everything reverses; the diaphragm and pelvic floor rise and the abdominals contract inwards. Upshot: Pregnancy tosses a major wrench (well, baby) into this system and all of the beautiful coordination between these muscles gets jumbled. When coordination between inner core muscles is lost, we start to see a whole host of symptoms that are commonly associated with pregnancy and postpartum (leaking urine, large abdominal separation, lower back pain etc.)
Nailing your breathing strategy is a key consideration during pregnancy postpartum exercise.
The specific breathing strategy I teach utilizes the Connection Breath (sometimes called a Piston Breath). The Connection Breath trains the coordination and optimal function of the core and pelvic floor. In fact, many core and floor dysfunctions (including incontinence, pelvic organ prolapse and diastasis recti) may be managed using this strategy. It is incredibly effective at activating and strengthening your inner core (diaphragm, pelvic floor, innermost abs (transverse abdominals) and multifidus) during pregnancy and it is one of the first exercises you can do after childbirth to begin retraining your core muscles.
On the inhale, focus on expanding your rib cage in 360 degrees (like an umbrella) and allow your abdomen and pelvic floor to expand and relax.
On the exhale, blow air out through pursed lips and gently contract the pelvic floor; the transverse abdominals should play follow the leader.
Note: In these videos, I am NOT pulling belly button to spine, my belly movement is being driven by my breath and pelvic floor contraction.
During pregnancy and early postpartum, this core activation can feel like work in and of itself. You can increase the challenge by performing it in a variety of positions. Begin practicing this breath in a seated position, progress to standing and then progress to other positions such as hands and knees. If you are seated or standing, make sure your rib cage is stacked nicely over your pelvis (both your rib cage and pelvis should be in "neutral" positions; read more about alignment in this post).
If you know that you have a particularly wide diastasis recti (abdominal separation) OR if being in a hands-and-knees positions puts too much pressure on your belly (if you think it might, it is), then do this standing, sitting or however else it feels comfortable. Breathing is, after all, something you do in any position that is accessible to you. Practice it in all of them.
Once you have mastered the Connection Breath, you can use it as a strategy to support your core and pelvic floor during exercise or activities of daily parenting. Try to incorporate it into other “core” movements such as a pallof press, “functional” exercises like squat, hinge, push/pull variations and even picking up your kids and groceries.
A basic application of the Connection Breath is known as "Exhale on Exertion". Essentially, you are exhaling with a pelvic floor contraction during the hard part of an exercise.
Exhale on exertion: Inhale during the easy portion of the movement (e.g. descending into a squat) and exhale during the effortful portion of the movement (e.g. rising from the squat). Gently contract your pelvic floor during your exhale. The strength of your exhale and pelvic floor contraction will vary depending on the demand of the exercise you are performing.
"Exhale on exertion" is a great place to start and it works for a lot of people. If it doesn’t work for you, try another strategy. Here are a few to try:
Exhale before exertion: Initiate your exhale just BEFORE beginning the effortful portion of the movement.
Exhale through exertion: Exhale throughout the entire movement (e.g. beginning exhale as you begin to descend into a squat, and exhale all the way through until you stand again).
Inhale on exertion: Exhale during the easy portion of the movement and inhale during the effortful portion of the movement.
And if you find something else not listed here that works for you, that’s okay too. The point is not to adhere to some prescribed “optimal” breath strategy, but to find something that makes you feel strong and supported. These breathing strategies should make your lifts and actions feel stronger when you find the one that works for you. Experiment!
If you are returning to exercise postpartum, or managing core or pelvic health concerns, coordinating this breath (or one of a few variations) with your movement patterns can dramatically improve your strength and stability. It may also help manage symptoms associated with core and pelvic floor dysfunction (e.g. incontinence, heaviness, discomfort) during exercise or activities of daily living. Please try these out and let me know what strategy works for you- Especially if you come up with your own! If you try these out and something’s not working, contact me through my contact page and I’ll help you troubleshoot!
Want to know more? Take a deep dive into HOW to perform the Connection Breath and use it to feel stronger in exercise and your activities of daily living. Download my free guide Breathe Better for a STRONG Pregnancy and Postpartum.
My mission is to make sure that having a baby is not a reason why you can’t do all the things.
If you have questions about exercise or pelvic health pertaining to pregnancy or postpartum.
If you’re local (Seattle's Eastside: Redmond, Bellevue, Kirkland and surrounding areas) and interested in working with me on a custom personal training plan.
If you’d like help finding a qualified pregnancy or postpartum personal trainer near you.