As I learn more about coaching pregnant and postpartum women in Brianna Battles’ coaching course (seriously, it’s rich with practical scientific content), I have practiced teaching the piston breath to lots of people. And I know I need to polish my presentation because some people just look at me like “What’s the big deal? Breathing and kegels are not new.” So let me try to explain better why this is different and has been such a game changer in female biology.
The Piston Breath is a concept I learned from Julie Wiebe. I hit a plateau in my recovery about 9 months ago. I just wasn’t seeing any positive changes in my abdomen, pelvic floor, or my athletic capacity. Then I learned about the piston breath and neutral alignment. Slowly I began to implement the strategy, and after about 8 months of practice, my diastasis reduced by about 50% in most locations, I leak less, my guts feel less sloshy, and I can now run short distances without peeing myself. I’ve been breathing and kegel-ing for most of my adult life. Piston breathing is a game changer and a much more complete strategy.
When you take a breath, your diaphragm moves down. Your pelvic floor and deep core muscles should relax to allow your guts to come down in response to the downward push of the diaphragm. But if your pelvic floor has a vice grip hold on your vag/anus and you’re constantly trying to maintain a rock-hard abdominal contraction, your guts will get squeezed with every single breath all day long. This is one reason that leaks may occur (squeezing the bladder) and a diastasis won’t heal (too much pressure on the weakest part of the abdominal wall). Piston breathing coordinates the pelvic floor and deep core muscles (transverse abdominis) to relax in response to the diaphragm moving down and to contract in response to the diaphragm moving back up. The pelvic floor and transverse abdominis work in conjunction with the diaphragm so that pressure in the core is managed well.
The kegel is an important tool for strengthening the pelvic floor. I needed it and some folks need it to remedy weak pelvic floor muscles. For many folks, however, the problem isn’t weakness. Think about the number of Cross Fit competitors at the games who’ve never had children and are rippling with muscles and they are peeing all over boxes during workouts. Is it likely that their pelvic floors are weak? Possibly, but not likely. It’s more likely that their pelvic floors are too tight or uncoordinated.
The piston breath, unlike the kegel, is about coordinating a system of muscles–not strengthening them. Static holds of a small set of isolated muscles (kegels) can’t possibly allow optimal results for dynamic movements, yet many women hold a constant kegel throughout the day, throughout an entire run, or throughout an entire workout in order to feel secure. This will take its toll on pelvic health, often yield no relief from symptoms like leaking, and stifle athletic improvement.
Automaticity and specificity of coordinated movements is a better goal. This takes practice. Lots of practice. And then it becomes automatic. So try for a few minutes a day to lay or sit or stand in neutral alignment (check out my post Easter Egg Alignment) and focus on piston breathing. Inhale and relax the abdomen and pelvic floor. Exhale contract abdomen and pelvic floor. Try this throughout the day and then integrate it into your larger movements and workouts. In the video below, I demonstrate how to do both the foundational piston breath (aka blow before you go) and the more dynamic piston breath.
Once you have the hang of piston breathing, try to make each contraction “task specific” as Julie Wiebe says. Meaning rather than contracting with the force equal to a bear trap with every exhale, match the contraction strength to the current task. Are you picking a toy up off the floor? Only a subtle, gentle contraction is necessary . Are you attempting a 1RM deadlift? You’ll need a bit more contracting power.
I have a bladder prolapse, a rather troublesome diastasis recti, and umbilical hernia. Piston breathing has not only allowed me to continue in training, but has transformed my training into a mechanism that has helped heal me instead of injuring me further. I have been doing weightlifting, power lifting, some impact work, modified gymnastics, and substantial conditioning. Piston breathing integrated into training has improved my pelvic and abdominal health.
If you’re struggling to figure out how to implement these strategies, find a pelvic floor physical therapist who works with athletes, a coach who has been educated about postpartum issues, or better yet, find both.
Here’s Julie explaining this concept with more eloquence if you need further convincing from a brilliant, experienced, athletic, professional scientist lady.