I’m sure breathing is about as sexy as, well, heavy laboured breathing, but it’s something I’ve come to realize is incredibly important. Sure, without we all kinda die but deeper than that, there’s the element of how and why we breathe the way we do and how that affects our ability to hoist loads against the effects of gravity.
I wrote a piece last week on the Diaphragm (click HERE to check it out), which outlines why it’s so important and how much it plays into the anatomy of the core, shoulder, and even the hip. For those too lazy to click the link above (GOD, I GOTTA DO EVERYTHING FOR YOU!!!), to summarize, it’s the boss like Rick Ross. It gets stuff done like Walter White, and when it doesn’t get its way, it tends to drop ATMs on guys heads (See? Breaking Bad references. You’re welcome, world).
Breathing and posture are directly related as well, although it’s sort of a chicken vs egg question about whether breathing affects posture or posture affects breathing. I’ve had clients who had pretty good posture develop a chest cold that made them cough and wheeze, and as a result left them in a flexion bias. Similarly I’ve known people who have extension postures that develop a lot of issues getting their diaphragm to drop in a normal inspiration, but again, whether the diaphragm contributed to their extension remains to be seen.
As a result of the interplay, whenever dealing with someone who has jacked up posture, either hunched over like Quasimodo waiting to find a bell tower, or hanging into extension and sticking out their proud badonkadonk, breathing becomes a central tennet in how they will train, as well as what kinds of exercises need to be incorporated to get the most bang for their buck.
Just like everything, there’s an optimal position for best benefits, which happens to be in a neutral spine approximation. Can you breathe in either extreme? Of course, but that doesn’t mean it’s optimal. You can still bench press after you tear a pectoralis major muscle off the bone, you just wind up using your anterior delt and triceps to do all the work, but that doesn’t mean it’s optimal. Similarly, you can breathe without optimal diaphragm use, you just wind up using your intercostals and scalenes more, but that doesn’t mean it’s optimal.
Let’s say you’re one of the cubicle drones whose life parallels a Dilbert cartoon. Most likely you’ll exhibit some form of a flexion bias, with the shoulders rolled forwards and up in your ears, which also showcasing a butt that tucks under like a scolded dog. You complain of “carrying your stress in your shoulders” and have tight hip flexors. Sounds vaguely familiar? Now I’m sure there’s a lot of people reading this who will say that it isn’t them, which means you’re pretty fortunate, but I’m sure you could find 5 or 10 people in your immediate circle with whom this would be the case.
An easy way to see if you fall into this boat is to simply look at your collarbone. If it’s easily visible because it’s protruding out like a warehouse support beam, tilted up at an angle greater than 20 degrees, and surrounded by the mountainous upper traps that are holding your shoulders and head from falling forward all day every day.
For someone like this, testing thoracic range of motion typically shows they’re about as flexible as a clam through their t-spine, and do all their extension work from their low back and even from their neck. Typically it also means they have little to no overhead shoulder mobility, and they also have a lot of trouble getting shoulder depression on movements like pushes or pulls.
for these people, if they have some limited mobility, the first place to start would be to get them to own more thoracic extension, coupled with deep belly breathing to get the diaphragm involved in the process. Breathing helps to reset sympathetic nervous tone, re-program the stabilization system for the core and thoracic spine, and allows for the mobility training to have a much bigger effect. Combining extension with rotation work for the t-spine is important, as we don’t just breathe through the saggital plane.
Each movement should be timed to the breath cycle. When you get to the end of the stretch, complete one full, long deep inhale and exhale before releasing the stretch.
From here, you can work on incorporating some active mobility through the area.
And for the more adventurous of the bunch….
Breathing control is the limiting factor in all of these exercises. Once someone is placed in a stressful posture, like taking someone in a flexion bias and getting them to go to an end range extension drill, the first tendency is to brace and hold their breath. This is counterproductive to the purpose of the movement, so make sure you’re thinking of long full smooth breaths in and out throughout the set. No holding your breath, unless the guy doing cheat curls next to you had some burritos for lunch and has his music turned up so loud he doesn’t realize he’s providing some acapella for you.
A more advanced drill I’ve been playing with lately is resisted breathing. If you’re hoping to deadlift stupid weights, or squat them or whatever the kids are doing with their weights these days, you’d better have some strong breath control. To borrow a line from Mike Robertson, if you want to have an 800 pound deadlift, you need 800 pound erector spinae, as well as 800 pound abs to couple the forces required to balance things out. You would also need 800 pound diaphragmatic control to produce the intraabdominal pressure necessary to keep those two sides from crushing your delicate little spine between the two of them, so resisted breathing becomes really important.
The goal here is to have the diaphragm depress and the abdomen expand, pushing the weight up which is resisting the overall movement. Lax control means the go-to default will be bracing the abs and using the ribs to breathe through apical breathing, so focus on getting the weight to go skyward.
So what if you live in the other boat, where you pretty much have extension on the mind all day and night. I’ll let Eric Cressey fill the void for that one. He just put out a free video on breathing and extension bias in the lead up to his new book being released next week, and he did a bang up job on it. It’s a short watch and he gives you some solid exercises as well as the rationale and coaching cues to use with the folks who love them some lordosis, so I figured I’d use that video for the second half of todays post.