BREATHING – THE MOST FUNDAMENTAL MOVEMENT PATTERN
Breathing or Respiration (the two will be used interchangeably from here on out); is an action that we do upwards of 20,000 times a day. Unfortunately, many of us don’t give much thought to it. At the bare minimum, we need to breathe to take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide; of course this is only in order to live. You’re obviously halfway decent at this whole ”breathing” thing or else you wouldn’t be reading this right now.
Can you imagine having to consciously think about breathing all day? If that was the case, most of us would be dead already. I can barely remember where I put my car keys everyday, I’d be screwed if I had to remember to breathe too.
Yes, we should be VERY thankful that breathing is an automatic bodily function; but this unconscious action can lead to unwanted issues for many people. Especially if you have given no thought to the quality of your respiration on a day to day basis.
Our brain’s number one job is survival, not to survive to be 80 years old or to be 90 years old, only to survive RIGHT NOW. Combine survival as our primary directive with our unintentionally stressful environment, & we get too many of us living in our Sympathetic OR fight or flight nervous system. We become dependent on our accessory breathing muscles (think neck, upper chest & lower back) to create respiration & supply oxygen to the body.
Our sympathetic nervous system can be very useful (here comes every trainer’s favorite maxim “it depends”), depending on the context. A life lived unconsciously in this over stimulated & up-regulated state is not efficient. Living in this state requires tremendous amounts of energy & resources that could be going towards other bodily functions.
BREATH WORK AND VITAL METRICS
If you want to thrive, you’ll want to have the capability to control your breathing; which in turn gives you the power to influence many other systems in the body. Your breath has the power to influence your heart rate, assist in accessing the full spectrum of your autonomic nervous system (sympathetic vs parasympathetic, a.k.a the Rest & Digest nervous system), and even spark digestion.
Proper breathing strongly influences the position of your ribs and hips, which is vital to ensure proper pillar stability (hips/spine/shoulders all working as one). And if you don’t believe bracing and protecting the spine is an important task when it comes to lifting and your everyday life, this article may not be for you. Proper breathing uses your primary respiratory muscles (diaphragm and intercostals) and can help to brace your core under heavy external loads.
“Proper” sounds pretty awesome, doesn’t it? Whether you’re a world class powerlifter or someone’s sweet old grandma (you could even be both), you can benefit from some targeted breath work!
MUSCLES INVOLVED IN RESPIRATION
The main muscles of respiration are the diaphragm & the intercostals. These muscles are the ones we want to rely on for the most efficient respiration.
During the inhale, the diaphragm contracts & flattens out. This action & the resulting pressure of the internal organs slowly lowering with the diaphragm expands the thoracic cavity. Expansion of the thoracic cavity allows for passive flow of air into the lungs.
During the exhale, the diaphragm relaxes, pressing back up on the internal organs of the thoracic cavity and assisting the internal intercostals in actively pushing air out of the lungs.
During the inhale, the external intercostals contract to elevate & externally rotate the ribs. This creates 360° of thoracic cavity expansion, more thoracic cavity expansion means more air flow into the lungs.
During the exhale, the internal intercostals contract to depress & internally rotate the ribs. The depression & internal rotation of the rib cage actively pushes air out of the lungs.
We can all agree that oxygen is pretty important, as it is a key substrate in many of the reactions that create energy within the human body. Respiration is pivotal as it is the mechanism that supplies oxygen to the body. Proper respiration (using the diaphragm & intercostals) allows for more efficient intake of oxygen & excretion of carbon dioxide & other byproducts from chemical reactions within the body.
THE ACCESSORY MUSCLES
The accessory muscles of respiration are the sternocleidomastoid, the pec minor, the abdominals, & the quadratus lumborum. These muscles can be very useful for respiration during high intensity exercise & fight or flight situations. Again; context is important! Over reliance on these muscles can cause issues such as neck pain, shoulder pain, and lower back pain.
On the inhale, elevates the sternum assisting in expansion of the thoracic cavity.
On the inhale, assists in externally rotating the ribs helping to expand the thoracic cavity.
On the exhale, compresses the abdomen, assisting the major muscles of respiration in actively pushing air out of the lungs.
On the exhale, pulls the ribs down, compressing the thoracic cavity & actively pushing air out of the lungs.
HOW TO BREATHE BETTER TO PERFORM BETTER
When we are breathing efficiently, the brain is able to communicate with the diaphragm via the phrenic nerve. This communication can be unclear or even non-existent if we are living in a constant state of survival via our unconsciously up-regulated ANS.
Lets face the facts, we all at some point during our days are breathing improperly with relation to optimal percussion. Environment matters! If you just received good or bad news your body will have an immediate response to that stimulus pushing you into a tendency you may not want to be in. The vital metrics and how the body regulates itself work on both sides of the street. My breath dictates my heart rate and vice versa. It’s when we get stuck living highly anxious lives and strenuous jobs, or such low levels of activity that we see these breathing blips on the radar become catalysts for poor function.
When we are relying on our accessory breathing muscles for too long, our ribs become stuck in an externally rotated position with our hips stuck in an anterior pelvic tilt. This is an inefficient position to begin an inhale from, leading to suboptimal intake of oxygen.
An analogy for this would be to imagine yourself running a 100m sprint against peak Usain Bolt AND he has a 5m head start, you are most likely the inferior sprinter & you are starting behind him, a pretty disadvantageous position.
In this inefficient & poorly aligned position, we cannot create enough pressure to properly exhale and brace our core, leaving the ribs in an inefficient, externally rotated position (too wide). This inefficient breathing pattern relies on the quadratus lumborum leaving our hips in an anterior pelvic tilt (tilted forward), placing pressure on the lumbar spine, more load on the Illiopsoas, and reducing pillar stability & spinal integrity.
This externally rotated rib position, as well as anterior pelvic tilt lead to a sub optimal zone of apposition. I refer to this position as the “Kardashian Walk”, your chest is the first thing through the door & your butt is the last.
A very important lesson I learned from the PPSC is that proximal stability leads to distal mobility. In other words the more stable your core is (360° of pressure, not just your six pack) the more likely your extremities will be starting from a proper position for movement. To achieve proximal stability, we want to have a more internally rotated & depressed rib cage with a more neutral-ish pelvis than we typically see in most people. Think ribs down as well as towards each other & parallel with your hips.
(Photo courtesy of Postural Restoration Institute)
THE MISCONCEPTION OF “BELLY BREATHING”
You may have heard the term “belly breathing“ before. Although the intention of the term belly breathing is good, it gives an incomplete picture of what proper respiration truly is. Breathing solely through your belly is inefficient and can exacerbate some of the issues listed above.
Proper respiration needs a full 360° of expansion from the thoracic cavity to passively allow air into the lungs. Belly breathing causes an over reliance on the diaphragm and does not allow for the full 360° of expansion to occur since the posterior external intercostals are not as involved in the process.
When a proper inhalation occurs, we notice expansion through the posterior & anterior rib cage as well as the belly & even the lower back.
EXERCISES TO IMPROVE RESPIRATION
If you are looking to improve the function of your diaphragm, improve your pillar stability, as well as up-regulate your CNS before a maximal lift then you’ve come to the right place.
The first three exercises below might introduce you to your diaphragm for quite possibly the first time in a long time, as well as help to get the rib cage more internally rotated. This will create a more optimal zone of apposition & more efficient respiration.
The last two are breathing drills to up-regulate the CNS. These drills will create a heightened state of awareness helping to potentiate the fight or flight nervous system for more physically demanding tasks.
90/90 DIAPHRAGMATIC BREATHING
This drill is a staple in my programming. I typically like to start & end my sessions with this exercise with newer clients. I love this exercise as it allows the person performing it to actually feel true 360° of thoracic cavity expansion. The client receives feedback from their posterior rib cage pressing into the ground as well the hands on their chest/belly rising towards the sky.
A great drill to move a client towards proper rib & hip congruency. This drill is also great for getting some posterior expansion of the thoracic cavity.
90/90 SUPINE ARM REACH
There is no faking overhead mobility here! This drill cues clients to maintain a neutral spine while reaching overhead to create a more authentic overhead position.
HYPERVENTILATION (Inhale Nose/Exhale Mouth)
HYPERVENTILATION (Inhale & Exhale Mouth)
TRAIN BREATH LIKE A MOVEMENT PATTERN
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will guide your life and you will call it fate” – Carl Jung.
A conscious breathing practice has tremendous benefits on our overall physical and mental health. Something like a meditation practice, or journaling, can help to reduce stress and shift us more towards our parasympathetic or rest & digest nervous system. Becoming more conscious of the breath can influence many bodily functions (mentioned earlier on), as well as help to improve our mind muscle connection.
It’s important to remember that breathing is our most foundational movement pattern. If you perform an action upwards of 20,000 times a day, it’s important that you do it efficiently.
Training to consciously use the diaphragm and other primary respiratory muscles is the lowest hanging fruit in terms of pain-free performance. Using these primary respiratory muscles ensures a more optimal zone of apposition which in turn ensures proper pillar stability for more mobility at the extremities. Don’t get stuck looking like Kim Kardashian with an exaggerated anterior pelvic tilt and externally rotated ribs!