by Dr. Evan Osar
Activating the deep or intrinsic muscles of the thoracopelvic cylinder (core) is a staple in most Pilates programs. However often times clients struggle to understand how to use their deeper, intrinsic core muscles without easily over-recruiting their superficial core muscles. One of the most effective methods for improving activation and coordination of the deep core muscles and reducing chronic over-activity of the superficial muscles is three-dimensional breathing. This article will discuss why and how to perform three-dimensional breathing to improve activation of the deep myofascial system. With this knowledge, Pilates instructor can help their clients overcome chronic over-activity of the superficial core and hip muscles while improving core muscle activity as they progress through the fundamental Pilates patterns.
The Deep Myofascial System and Superficial Myofascial System
As a Pilates instructor, you understand that improving recruitment of the deep muscles of the thoracopelvic cylinder (TPC) is a critical component in improving core stability. Muscles like the transversus abdominus, pelvic floor, psoas, diaphragm, and multifidus are critical to improving joint stability, control, as well as smooth, coordinated movement. However, this is not to suggest the superficial muscles are any less important in overall posture and movement. The superficial muscles are also required for greater levels of core stability and control as well as to promote and reduce body movement.
The muscles of the TPC can be categorized by their location – either deep or superficial. As its name suggests, the muscles of the deep myofascial system (DMS) are comprised of the muscles located deeper in the core. These are the muscles that fascially attach directly to the joint capsules and ligaments surrounding the joints of the TPC. Muscles of the core that are categorized as part of the DMS include but are not limited to the diaphragm, transversus abdominus, psoas, pelvic floor, multifidi and other deep posterior muscles of the spine. The muscles of the DMS contract prior to movement to stabilize the trunk, spine, and pelvis.
In contrast, the muscles of the superficial myofascial system (SMS) are comprised of the muscles located in the intermediate to superficial regions of the body. These muscles are often fascially connected to form myofascial chains, slings, or lines (Osar and Bussard 2016). Two examples of this system include the anterior and posterior oblique chains which wrap around the TPC and connect the upper and lower extremities with the core. These muscles are designed to move the body and provide higher levels of stability required for life, sport, and/or occupation.
Optimal performance requires balanced coordination between the activity of the DMS and SMS. When working synergistically, stability and movement is smooth, coordinated, and relatively efficient. One of the hallmarks of chronic low back and hip pain/tightness is the loss of synergy between the DMS and SMS. Individuals with chronic pain/tightness will demonstrate a delay in the timing and activity and often demonstrate atrophy of one or more muscles within the DMS. To compensate for loss of deep muscle stabilization, the SMS becomes over-active. This results in higher levels of resting muscle tone and over-activity when performing even simple tasks like standing, walking, and of course Pilates exercise.
Pilates instructors will recognize common signs of over-activity of the SMS in muscles like the oblique abdominals when the individual overly pulls their trunk and spine into flexion as they attempt to recruit their transversus abdominus (see image to the right). Another classic example of over-activity of the SMS is the individual who overuses their erector spinae to stand (see image on the left below) and then when performing a prone exercise like the swan pattern, instead of maintaining optimal thoracopelvic cylinder control, the individual over-extends at their thoracolumbar junction.