Take one look at Jill Miller’s core, and you’d guess that the 46-year-old mom of two spends hours at the gym taming her abs into submission. Her secret, however, has nothing to do with intense exercise and a lot to do with the way she breathes. “On average, we take 20,000 breaths a day, but most of us never pay attention to the muscles that make it happen,” says Miller, who used her varied background as a yoga therapist and a trained singer to develop the Coregeous Method.
This breathing-based approach, which has improved the health and bellies of thousands of women, marries deep abdominal breathing with gentle movements to train the core muscles from the inside out. “In order to have a healthy core that provides a slim silhouette, we need to stop focusing on the visible six-pack muscles and instead develop our innermost abs first,” says Miller. And the best way to do that is through your breath.
We know what you’re thinking: You breathe all day but don’t have toned abs to show for it, right? Shallow breathing doesn’t cut it. Miller is talking about intentional and deep abdominal breathing that engages a hidden muscle that we rarely think about: the respiratory diaphragm.
“The respiratory diaphragm lives inside the lower rib cage,” says Miller. Using your breath to stretch it fully causes all of the deep muscles in your trunk to fire up.
Understanding why breathing this way can transform your core requires
a short anatomy lesson. Your torso is like an elastic, muscular cylinder, says Miller, and the inside is lined by the respiratory diaphragm at the top, the pelvic floor at the base, and your deep abdominal muscles wrapping around the back and sides. Breathing correctly with your diaphragm—so that your belly expands outward like a balloon filling with air—increases pressure in the cylinder, and your innermost ab muscles lengthen and shorten as the diaphragm contracts and relaxes; each breath thereby improves both strength and pliability throughout your inner trunk.
“A strong and functional core is resilient like a rubber band,” says Miller. “If your abs are always tense—say, from sucking in your belly to look thinner—you can lose your range of motion, and your muscles can’t be used to their full potential.”
Plus, once you learn how to train the core through your breath, you can breathe your way to better abs anywhere, anytime. “When you turn on your abs through the breath, sitting and standing become toning moves,” says Miller. “And rather than holding your abs tight during exercise, breathing this way when you work out will power up your core while improving your health.”
Tone From the Inside Out
“This routine will strengthen your innermost abdominals,” says Miller. First, you’ll do breathing sequences to awaken your deep belly muscles (including the obliques, the transversus abdominis, and, of course, the diaphragm).
Next, you’ll incorporate the breath work into a few strengthening moves that will tone your core even faster. You’ll need a yoga mat, a hand towel, and a few throw pillows or a small, cushy exercise ball. Do the routine 3 days a week, and your middle will become more defined—supple and sturdy, not just tight.
Belly and Chest Breathing
Using a rolled-up towel, firm pillow, or small exercise ball, lie facedown and place prop under abdomen.
- Take 5 slow breaths over the course of about minute. Concentrate on inflating abdomen and feeling belly press into prop.
- For next 5 breaths, inhale until full, then hold, stiffening all muscles of abdomen at once, as if bracing against prop. Hold breath for 3 seconds, then slowly exhale.
- Finally, breathing as in step 2, roll gently from side to side, massaging abdomen. Continue for minute.
Move prop under sternum and repeat the 3-step sequence, this time feeling rib cage press into prop.
This position increases rib cage movement so you breathe better.
- Lie on side with knees bent and arm under head.
- First place prop under waist, then directly underside ribs.
- In each position, repeat breathing series from Steps 1 and 2 of the belly and chest breathing exercise.
Bridge With Diaphragm Vacuum
When your diaphragm is stretched in this movement, your pelvic floor gets a workout, too.
- Lie on back with knees bent and feet hip-width apart.
- While inhaling, slowly lift hips into bridge and extend arms overhead.
- While exhaling fully, let abdominal muscles go slack, then broaden ribs (you’ll feel diaphragm move and your core hollowing). Then lower hips to floor and bring arms back to sides. Repeat 10 times.
Diaphragm Vacuum on Knees
This simple move ignites your internal core muscles.
- Sit on heels and lean forward with hands on knees, arms straight.
- Take complete breath, then empty lungs and torso of air.
- Once empty of air, lean into hands, lower chin, and spread ribs apart so belly is sucked in and up.
- Hold 10 to 30 seconds. Repeat 4 more times.
This move works deep core stabilizers like the transversus abdominis and inner obliques, as well as the pelvic floor. If you’re not getting fatigued, stand farther from the doorknob or use a thicker band.
- Attach end of exercise band to doorknob or other immovable object. Hold other end of band in front of chest with elbows bent and hands shoulder-width apart.
- Take step away from doorknob to add tension to band.
- Next, extend arms straight in front of chest, pulling hands slightly away from each other.
- Keeping body still and resisting tension from band, hold 10 to 20 seconds while breathing into belly and rib cage.
- Release band for 10 to 20 seconds. Do 5 to 7 reps.
If it’s too difficult, bend either or both knees, or place a folded towel or pillow under your pelvis.
- Lie on back on yoga mat, extend arms overhead, and hold on to sides of mat as if trying to pull it apart.
- Stretch left leg straight toward ceiling and hover right leg above floor. Hold for 30 seconds, breathing into belly and rib cage.
- Concentrate on keeping spine in its natural shape. Relax, then repeat on other side.
When you turn on your core through breath work, even sitting and standing become abdominal toning moves.
- Place prop under sternum and lie facedown with legs hip-width apart and right arm under forehead.
- Flex leg muscles until knees come up off floor and push off right arm, lifting left arm straight alongside ear as if trying to touch ceiling with thumb.
- Pull shoulders down your back and extend spine, using right arm to help rotate torso to left.
- Brace and hold 20 to 30 seconds per side, breathing into belly and rib cage. Repeat 3 times on each side.
This exercise attempts to “surprise” the core muscles, helping them grow stronger.
- Lie on back and place a few pillows under pelvis—the more unstable, the better.
- Bracing abdominals, lift feet off floor and kick legs around in whatever way feels fun and challenging.
- Your core will work to keep you from rolling off. If you start to tumble, place afoot back on floor for stability.
- Continue for 30 seconds to minute, breathing into belly and rib cage.
The Perfect Plank
In a standard plank, you typically just breathe into your chest. This version includes belly breathing, so it tones everything from the inside out.
- With feet hip-width apart and shoulders stacked above wrists, hold a plank position, trying to broaden shoulder blades across back.
- Engage entire core, creating tension throughout trunk so spine is unmoving.
- At the same time, breathe into belly and rib cage, feeling the movement of respiratory muscles without allowing shape of plank to change.
- Hold for 30 seconds to minute, then rest 30 seconds. Repeat 2 more times.