Cultivate your FARM
FARM stands for
I didn’t invent the wheel. Other acronyms have the same basic info. Only problem, I can’t remember them, so I came up with FARM instead.
FARM is the scaffold for “mindful” movement. You FARM as you lift, pull, or push, whether in your daily life or during an exercise.
At first, pausing to think through the acronym will seem like a hassle, but it takes a few seconds and eventually will become second nature.
Any good program for the pelvic floor and abdomen will stress diaphragmatic breathing. This is not because double blinded placebo controlled studies prove its effectiveness. Good studies are hard to find, fund, and design.
However, diaphragmatic breathing might help the abdominal canister function better; at the very least, controlled breathing feels great. The abdominal canister is a fancy way of saying everything from your diaphragm to your pelvic floor. And diaphragmatic breathing is just a fancy way of saying “breathe into your lower ribs” (a lot of websites define diaphragmatic breathing as “belly breathing,” but for our purposes, let’s focus on the lower ribs. The belly and chest will move too, but they shouldn’t over-balloon).
You want to coordinate your breathing with your moving. You also want to coordinate your pelvic floor and abdomen (your canister) with movements that require an increase in intra-abdominal pressure. The larger the increase in intra-abdominal pressure, the stronger the contraction of all muscle groups, including your pelvic floor.
Your FARM’s soil is the ascending contraction. An ascending contraction starts from the pelvic floor. A well-coordinated canister automatically ascends the contraction by pre-stiffening the pelvic floor in expectation of downward pressure.
However, a lot of us don’t have well-coordinated canisters. Many of us also have weakened pelvic floor muscles. This is why we learn to FARM.
For example, when doing a push-up, your abdominal muscles must proportionally contract with your arms and chest to create stability as you push yourself up. The pelvic floor must also contract to keep you continent and to protect your pelvic support structures from pressure overload.
The best way to accomplish these coordinated contractions is through awareness of the muscles involved (Find), optimal positioning (Align), appropriate range of motion (Release), and adequate contractions (Move).
Let’s Get FARMing
Start by identifying your pelvic floor and your breathing sweet spot.
Below are the directions for diaphragmatic breathing. Practice this breathing for 10 minutes while supine to help you “find” your breath. Then take the principles with you when performing upright movements:
- Lie on your back with knees bent and your spine in neutral. Place your hands on your ribs. You’ll read more about posture tomorrow, so for now, just pay attention to the way the ribs move against your hands when you breathe. Do they move your hands outward when you breathe in? If they don’t, put one hand on your chest. Breathe in again. If your chest moves out instead, you are a chest breather. Try to lower the breath into your ribs. Some physical therapists recommend picturing a circle around your ribs. When you breathe in, you want to widen the circle.
- What if neither your chest nor your ribs move? Put one hand on your belly. Breathe in. If your belly moves outward but with little sideways movement of your ribs, you are overdoing the belly breathing. Try to raise the breath into your ribs. [Note: You’ll still feel some movement in your chest and belly when you breathe into your lower ribs.]
- This isn’t an exact science. Play around with your breath and see if you can get your ribs to move outward against your hands on the inhale and collapse inward on the exhale. Don’t force it. If you are having trouble with this step, you might watch Julie Wiebe’s “The Pelvic Floor Piston.” Note: Although I wholeheartedly endorse her video, I take a slightly different stance on Kegels than Wiebe does.
- Keep breathing: What is your pelvic floor doing? Put two fingers on your perineum and keep the other hand on your ribs. On the inhale, as long as you aren’t holding your breath or clenching your pelvic floor, your pelvic floor will move downward. Feel this movement with your fingers. DO NOT FORCE PRESSURE DOWNWARD.
- On the exhale, feel your pelvic floor gently lift upward. Then, picture a string connecting your hip bones and imagine GENTLY pulling the ends of the string together toward your pubic bone. This will slightly contract your transverse abdominis muscle.
- Physical therapists suggest picturing the abdominal canister as a balloon. This is helpful. Your mouth is the balloon opening. As you breathe in, the balloon gets bigger; as you breathe out, it gets smaller.
When practicing your supine diaphragmatic breathing, make sure your ribs aren’t jutting toward the sky and your lower back is not pushed too far into the ground or arched too far off it. You should be able to slide at least a few fingers underneath your lower back.
During movement, the A of FARM means positioning your body so you aren’t over or under-tucking your pelvis or dramatically jutting or hunching your back and shoulders. Similarly, your arms, legs, and other body parts should be properly positioned to protect joints and tissues.
You don’t need to obsess about the biomechanical set-up of every motion you take throughout the day, but you should be aware of your body’s place in space and make adjustments if necessary.
Before you can contract a muscle, you need to release that muscle. During the supine diaphragmatic breathing exercise, this release is the gentle descent of your pelvic floor and softening of your belly during an inhale.
Similarly, set up a movement by inhaling and making sure you are not too stiff. Suppleness and strength are complementary.
Before you move, exhale. Make sure your pelvic floor and abdomen (and all your other muscles) respond appropriately to the amount of pressure required to stabilize your body.
As an example, picture lifting a heavy weight. Your abdomen will contract to stabilize your body as your arm contracts to lift the weight. The pelvic floor must pre-contract before this stabilization pressure reaches it. Therefore, as you exhale, lift your pelvic floor in and up, feel a natural mini-brace of the abdominals, and stabilize your body. If you have trouble gently activating your abdominals, try picturing an X covering your abdomen and imagine pulling the 4 ends of the X into the center (your belly button). This is not a huge movement. You aren’t doing a standalone Kegel for strength. Rather, you want to gently stiffen the pelvic floor, abdomen, and back muscles.
Often, we try to skip to the M of FARM without paying attention to how FAR we must go first.
Is this just another way of describing a pre-movement Kegel?
Sort of, but not really. An isolated Kegel focuses on pelvic floor muscle hypertrophy. Therefore, the pelvic floor contracts as strongly as possible. This type of Kegel builds pelvic floor strength.
However, absent an isolated contraction, the pelvic floor needs to coordinate with the abdomen and the rest of the body. Furthermore, the strength of the pelvic and abdominal contractions will depend on the demands of a particular movement. When lifting something heavy, you’ll need a slightly stronger (but still not maximal) pelvic floor and abdominal contraction, but when lifting something light, you don’t need to squeeze the pelvic floor in and up with all your might.
Think of the pelvic floor’s role in movement as a Proportionate Kegel. It needs to absorb and ascend the contraction, but it doesn’t need to overdo it.
In summary, find your breath and your pelvic floor, align your body (you’ll read more tomorrow), release via inhalation and pelvic floor relaxation, and only then move by exhaling and contracting.
Obviously, mentally FARMing every time you move is impossible. You won’t be able to do this during aerobic fast paced exercise. Instead, focus on FARM during crucial moves, such as lifting your kid, resistance training exercise, and other isolated times throughout the day. The goal is to make the acronym automatic, to make the FARM self-sufficient.
Go back to Week 1