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The Core Debate: Should you brace your core during exercise?

Embracing Core Breathing Techniques for Pelvic Health

woman doing abdominal exercise on pilates mat

Whether or not to brace the core during exercise is debated quite a bit in the exercise and Physical therapy world.  Physical therapists have long understood and cued the exhale to engage the belly and sustain a contraction of the core muscles. Furthermore, in the Pilates arena, classically the breath was cued to maintain an engaged core throughout an exercise.  This is often referred to as “core breath.” However, frequently when an exhale contracts or creates a “brace” of the abdominal muscles it often creates a static contraction and restricts the breath.

Let’s take a deeper look at the physiology of the breath and its relationship with our ‘core’.  Imagine that your rib cage is a closed, overturned umbrella. As you inhale, the overturned umbrella opens out to the front, sides, and back.  This promotes a balance of the breathing muscles, primarily the diaphragm, setting up the pressure system that relaxes and lengthens the pelvic floor.  (Diagram: Inhale) As you exhale, the umbrella closes and changes the pressure system, engaging the pelvic floor, lifting and drawing in the abdominals. (Diagram: Exhale) With an understanding of this dynamic nature of breath and the importance of the pressure system, let’s return to the question “should we brace the core in exercise?”  

If our goal is endurance of the abdominal muscles to stabilize us through movement, do they need to be working a low level, ‘pulled in’ throughout? YES, But. . .

In our Pilates studio and in PT, we talk a lot about stability, especially spinal stability. Stability is the ability of the muscular system to contract and relax appropriately to support dynamic movement.  More specifically, spinal stability refers to the ability to contract the core muscles to support the spine in movement. When we exhale, we contract the core muscles to activate the air pressure system of the lungs. Thus, when we exhale our core muscles successfully stabilize the spine. However, our bodies are designed for continuous breath to survive.

The risk is that as we focus on stability, we overemphasize the exhale and disrupt the breath pressure system that promotes optimal activation of the core. Balance of breath means inhaling too! We would be missing the mark, and often instructors and students do this, if we simply cue pulling in and holding on the exhale for stabilization. In that case, we are emphasizing a rigid static hold. Rigidity is the nemesis of healthy movement.

In our Pilates classes, we talk about reinvesting and discuss the difference between stability and rigidity. The first breaths pull the core in to stabilize the system, but each subsequent breath deepens and stays part of the dynamic system needed to move. We accomplish this with core breath. We train our bodies to keep the core muscles active without preventing necessary breathing. The breath primarily moves through the diaphragm and ribs, allowing a low grade contraction of the abdominals, and the pelvic floor to lengthen and contract with each breath. This is important because now we are respecting the pressure system which promotes healthy core and pelvic floor function.

Have you ever held your breath during an exercise? If so, you have braced your core in an unhealthy way. When you do this, you lose half of the system that allows for a pelvic floor relaxation. Likewise, overemphasizing the exhale may encourage a pushing out, or a ‘rectus poofus’ of the abdominals in an unhealthy manner.

Try to match your breath to the challenge but never lose the inhale. As the challenge increases, instead of long, deep inhales and exhales which could release the abdominal support provided to the spine, try smaller excursions like our short rhythmic ‘staccato breath’ in Pilates.  This allows for and promotes an inhale and lowered pelvic floor within a task and avoids over recruitment in the pelvic floor leading to Pelvic dysfunction.

Ultimately, the goal of the exercise, most definitely within our office, is to promote healthy function in our daily lives. But, as we know, function is not uniform. We have varying demands on us throughout our day. Our postural musculature needs to react and adapt to those demands.  If we can master this breath, pressure, muscle system relationship, we can respond to those demands.

So, what is the magic answer to the question “Should we brace our core during exercise?” Yes, we are engaging the core but it is not a static hold and brace.

It is a living, breathing, dynamic movement! Are there exceptions to this rule? Ahh, but of course. But that’s a story for another time. Happy breathing!


About the Author: Francesca Durant

Co-owner of Durant Physical Therapy and Centered Body Pilates, Francesca Durant is an experienced physical therapist and Pilates professional with specialized training in pelvic health from Herman and Wallace Pelvic Rehabilitation Institute.


Could you benefit from an assessment of your breath or pelvic floor?

Francesca is accepting new patients at Durant Physical Therapy, call 860-430-2344 now to schedule a health assessment!

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