The Not So Simple Act of Breathing

“Breathing correctly is the key to better fitness, muscle strength, stamina, and athletic endurance.” -Dr. Michael Yessis, Sports Performance Trainer, Biomechanist, and Author.

3d rendered illustration - diaphragm

Breathing is necessary for sustaining life. We inhale oxygen to use for energy production and we exhale to remove carbon dioxide. When we breath in, the diaphragm, a large dome shaped muscle contracts and flattens. It is located where the chest and abdomen meet. Exhalation occurs when the diaphragm and the abdominal muscles relax. In times of increased respiration, increased abdominal pressure will tilt the diaphragm and the rib cage upwards to enhance the uptake of air. We can breath both consciously and unconsciously. Normal respiration is 12 to 16 breaths a minute, 960 breaths an hour, 23,040 breaths a day, 8,409,600 a year, which adds up to 672, 768,000 breaths if you live to be 80 years old. As you can see, that’s a lot of breathing. If this breathing becomes disordered, we spend a lot of time doing it poorly. Some experts say it takes about 10,000 hours or repetitions to become an expert at something, we get over double those repetitions in a day. The pattern can easily become ingrained into our body. A few reasons why our breathing may become disordered include restrictions in the ribs, shortened muscles in the thorax, and psychological problems (anxiety, depression, etc). Breathing Pattern Disorders (BPD) (including hyperventilation syndrome) are becoming much more prevalent in the 21st century. Hyperventilation syndrome is breathing in excess of metabolic requirements which reduces CO2 concentrations in the blood to below normal levels, increasing alkalinity and resulting in adaptive changes that cause symptoms. Let’s look into why these BPDs are becoming more prevalent and the type of adaptations in the body they can lead to.

The Postural Restoration Institute (PRI) was founded by Ron Hruska, MPA, PT, and is based in Lincoln, NE. Hruska states that we are all right dominant creatures, even if we are left handed. Our Vagus nerve is much more prominent on our right side and humans like to shift their weight to their right side. These right dominant adaptations include a pelvis that becomes oriented in an unnatural way and a trunk that is rotated to the left. With these postural adaptations, the diaphragm is unable to work properly and this can lead to BPDs. Dysfunctional paradoxical breathing is present when a person uses the diaphragm to exhale but uses the muscles of the thorax to inhale. It provides inadequate tidal volume and the accessory respiratory muscles (includes the upper chest muscles and scalenes) are overworked. Due to the fact that these muscles are overworked, the head is pulled forward and the shoulders are rounded forward, and there is often an increased sway in the low back, an anteriorly (forward) tilted pelvis, and over-extension in the back. The whole body becomes misaligned. Good breathing becomes inhibited and accessory respiratory muscles can become tight and painful. Also, when you breath improperly and hyperventilate, it can drive our sympathetic nervous system into constant action. Being in sympathetic overdrive can have negative health consequences over a long term time period. It can be useful in a stressful or dangerous situation, but we don’t want to be this way all the time. Our cortisol levels remain high and so does our blood sugar. We can return our body into the parasympathetic state (relaxed) by practicing deep abdominal breathing techniques. This helps calm our mind and facilitates physical recovery. Let’s take a look at a few tips to improve our breathing for better strength training, enhanced sports performance, increased relaxation, and rapid recovery.

  •  Breath out and activate your abdominal muscles before you drop down in a squat.  The thought should be “ribs down” to keep from being in over-extension. After expelling all your air and bringing the ribs down, inhale while maintaining that posture. This technique can be applied in any kind of squatting or lifting. Mike Arthur, CSCS, came up with this tip to keep his athletes out of an overextended position when performing squats. While it’s important to keep the back out of a flexed position while lifting, it’s also important to stay out of hyper-extension. The old school technique of looking up at the ceiling only helps drive an athlete into more hyper-extension, which can lead to back problems. Ditch the “look to the ceiling technique”, pack the neck, and keep the ribs down.
  • Practice breathing in a deep squat while performing a lat stretch. Eric Cressey demonstrated this one recently as an antidote to those athletes that live in extension. This drill will help get the diaphragm working properly, get some length to the lats, and also work on dorsiflexion. It’s also okay to have some forward knee motion in the squat pattern to avoid a big forward bend and overuse of the back musculature. Find something sturdy to hold on to, hinge back until you feel a stretch in the lats, and then drop down into a deep squat. Flexion (rounding) in the spine is okay because we want to counteract that hyper-extension.
  • Practice abdominal breathing before a workout to set good breathing patterns or use it afterwards for recovery. Strength Coach Cal Dietz, M.Ed. of the University of Minnesota and author of Triphasic Training recommends having athletes take 5 to 10 minutes after a training session to work on belly breathing. He recommends a breath that has a longer exhale in comparison to the inhale. An example of this is the Andrew Weil, M.D. breath, which has an inhalation of 4 seconds, a 7 second hold, and an exhalation of 8 seconds. He recommends this breathing pattern for getting from a catabolic state to an anabolic state as quickly as possible after a workout, especially a difficult one, to help speed up the recovery process. In the book, Every Day is Game Day by Mark Verstegen, the author recommends using a 6 (inhalation)- 4 (hold)- 10 (exhalation) breath or a 4-2-6 to move from “fight or flight” to a “rest and digest” mode. There are many options to relaxing the nervous system with breathing techniques.  I don’t think it matters which one you choose, as long as you make use of it consistently.  Find the one that works best for you.
  • Use an explosive breathing technique to wake up the nervous system in times of low energy. Sometimes we may feel tired or groggy, but we can use our breath to get fired up. There is an example of this in the previously mentioned book, Every day is Game Day. To get invigorated, try breathing in for 6 seconds, hold for 2 seconds, and breath out all your air as explosively as possible. You can also try a 4 (inhale)- 0 (hold)- x (explosive) which will help oxygenate the body, fully empty the lungs of CO2, and preload the rib cage for expansion with the next in breath.

Hopefully you will find some of these techniques useful and you fully understand the importance of better breathing. The positive benefits range from better posture to improved recovery, and many more.  I couldn’t leave you without throwing one research study at you. A study out of the Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology showed that healthy subjects could increase Heart Rate Variability (HRV) with the practice of deep breathing exercises. HRV is the variability of time between consecutive heartbeats. Low HRV has been associated with increased risk of mortaility after a heart attack. HRV can also show you how you are responding to training and if you are headed towards over-training. Many companies now make software that will analyze your HRV and you can use it to measure your workout readiness. Check out omegawave and BioForce HRV. The benefits of good breathing are numerous, and for something that seems so simple, it’s amazing how many people now days are doing it poorly. Improve your breathing, improve your life.

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