The diaphragm is one of the main muscles we use to breathe. But did you know that it is also a major pressure regulator in the body? It is involved in every movement we do: from sitting in a chair, walking, getting out of bed in the morning, lifting a box from the floor, talking, and even going to the bathroom! The diaphragm helps the body absorb shock and works with your other “core” muscles to transfer forces to your upper and lower body (like when you jump, run, walk, or lift). But the diaphragm can’t do all that work alone… Let’s talk about a group of muscles “down there” that are just as important as the diaphragm! In fact, they have a similar name—the pelvic diaphragm. These muscles act as a trampoline to help absorb shock and transfer forces from your trunk to your pelvis and legs. They also have an important role in maintaining continence (holding-in urine and bowels until there’s a good time to go to the bathroom), supporting all of our internal organs such as our intestines, bladder, reproductive organs, and they are important for sexual function and pleasure—and yes, both men and women have a pelvic floor!
Your pelvic floor muscles work together with your diaphragm: When you inhale, your diaphragm flattens, the pressure within your “core” or abdomen (called intra-abdominal pressure) increases, and your pelvic floor muscles lengthen (stretch) downward slightly. When you exhale, cough, sneeze or lift, your pelvic floor muscles should contract and lift upwards and inwards. This is because your body has to maintain the right amount of intra-abdominal pressure to maintain posture and support for whatever activity you need to perform.
If the diaphragm, pelvic floor muscles, abdominal muscles or back muscles are weak or don’t activate at the right time, this impacts your ability to absorb shock and transfer forces in a healthy manner. Dr. Mary Massery—a prominent researcher, educator, and physical therapist—describes the core muscles as being like a soda can. If you squeeze, shake, or push the can when it is unopened and full (meaning there is enough intra-abdominal pressure), it won’t lose much of its original shape or leak. But, if the can is open and you squeeze it, shake it, or push it over, it will lose its shape and spill. So if your pelvic floor, abdominal, or back muscles are weak or not activating at the right time, it is hard to maintain enough intra-abdominal pressure to prevent leaking or slumped posture with lifting, carrying, jogging, or sitting!
How do you know if your core muscles are weak or not working properly?
Common symptoms or signs associated with weakness or poor functioning of core muscles can include:
- Low back pain
- Leakage of gas, urine, or feces when you laugh, sneeze, cough, or change positions
- Post-partum (and even many years post-partum)
- History of abdominal, pelvic, or back surgery and associated scar tissue
- Chronic respiratory diseases (emphysema, asthma, cystic fibrosis)