In part 1 I discussed the ABC’s of movement as it applies to our principles of movement based evaluations and programming. If you missed part 1, you can find it here. Today I am going to tackle “B” which stands for Breathing. Despite the fact that we take about 20,000 breathes per day, we rarely think about how we breathe. For the most part, it’s on autopilot. For those with a background in singing, yoga, freediving or even fire breathing, you will have a better understanding of the importance of breathing well.
Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale..simple right? Well, believe it or not, most of us are pretty lazy breathers. But I’m here to say it’s not your fault. You were born that way. We were all born that way. I’d even go as far to say, we were set up to fail! Although our bodies seem balanced…left and right arms, legs, eyes, lunges, etc., when you take a look under the hood, things aren’t quite the same. Perhaps the architect that designed us was having an off day. Take a look at the picture below and notice the asymmetries.
Most notably, our heart and pericardium sit to the left side, our right lunge is larger and has 3 lobes, the left is smaller and only has 2 (that is to make room for the heart), and our diaphragm is larger and more domed on the right compared to the left. Not seen in the picture, is a big honkin’ liver that sits on the right side and our diaphragm has three spinal attachments on the right side and only two on the left.
So, with years of taking 20,000 plus breathes per day and just going with the flow, our bodies will adjust or adapt accordingly. Think of it as taking the path of least resistance. By hanging out in a position that facilitates our anatomical imbalances, it makes breathing “easier”. The good folks at the Postural Restoration Institute (PRI) have identified these anatomical imbalances and correlated them to common postural patterns. The most common that we come across is known as Left Anterior Interior Chain/ Right Brachial Chain patterning. Basically it looks like this:
The right shoulder sits lower than the left, the right hip is internally rotated and there is a rib flare on the left side. This comes from standing like this:
You may not realize you stand like that but now that you have seen it, keep it in the back of your mind. I can guarantee you will start spotting the pattern on others. They’ll be in the line at the bank or the grocery store or waiting for the light to turn green at the cross walk. Their weight will be shifted to their right, the left leg will be ahead of the right and their right shoulder will droop. It’s our bodies way of modifying posture to accommodate for the anatomical imbalances, the net effect is that we shift to the right. To keep this post light in terms of anatomy and physiology I am not going to delve into the deeper explanation surrounding the right stance pattern. But do understand that our Autonomic Nervous system plays a central role and can be considered as our body’s way of best supporting a role of survival by way of the fight or flight response. Our brains have situated our resting posture to react and move to the right automatically so that in the event we have to flee quickly, there is no time delay in the response which could negatively affect our chance of survival.
By now you are probably thinking, so what! It’s a natural posture that benefits us should we ever have to run away from danger and it’s easier to breathe! Well, going back to part 1 about alignment, I’ll connect the dots. Recall how poor postural alignment can lengthen some muscles and shorten others and cause imbalances that can result in painful syndromes? The right stance posture is a long way from neutral and unless we are aware of it, you can’t fix it and it all starts with learning to take control of how you breathe.
I want you to stand in front of a mirror and take a deep breath. I mean really deep. Keep an eye on the muscles at the top of your chest and then run up your neck. Do they tighten up and flare out? Does your chest rise and fall with each breath? If so, you would be considered and apical or chest breather. Basically you don’t use the big muscles of the diaphragm to draw in and expel air. You use the small muscles of the upper chest and neck to do the work. Those muscles are supposed to be accessory muscles to assist in breathing, not the primary movers.
Now, put your hand on your belly button and this time when you take the breath in, try to fill your belly with air so it pushes against your hand. If it’s hard to do, don’t worry. Most folks have never been taught how to use their diaphragm to breathe. However, it’s the first step in learning how to breathe properly. It’s easier to try it while lying on your back with your knees bent at 90 degrees and your feet flat on the floor. Muscles that are used to stabilize your spine while upright can relax and so you can focus on the belly breath. The video below is a great example of both types of breathing patterns and what they look like.
Ok, so now that you know how you should be breathing, I want to tell you why. When you chest breathe and your ribs flare out, you are essentially accommodating those asymmetries I talked about. From a functional perspective, chest breathing drastically reduces the bodies ability to stabilize your core. It’s referred to as losing your zone of apposition where you can’t use your core musculature to “clamp down” and brace in order to stabilize the spine during movement. The pic below illustrates the point.
By keeping the ribs down and expanding through your midsection when you take a breath, your Alignment improves dramatically. To demonstrate how much rib positioning actually affects shoulder mobility, Mike Reinold uses a PRI corrective technique below to improve shoulder rotation by simply helping the client to breathe properly. I have set the video to start at the 53 sec. mark because that is where he explains the technique. Just understand that your shoulder blade must glide around the ribs smoothly in order for your arm and shoulder joint to function properly. Now he is a bit wordy but be patient. The result is amazing and it is directly related to breathing. Once corrected, so is postural alignment which allows for things to move the way they should.
I think you now have a better understanding of how much breathing can affect alignment and mobility. My final comment is to give you a bit of a sequence to use when working out. The order in which I coach clients to lift or move is to first inhale or breathe in, then brace at the core and then finally move or lift. This helps to create stability around the spine and promote better movement. Breathe>Brace>Move, and that leads to “C” (part 3) in our approach to moving better.
Thanks for sticking in there and reading all the way to the end 🙂 Part 3 will be a bit shorter but pieces it all together.