Do you really know how to breathe?
I get some pretty strange looks when I tell the majority of my clients that the first session with me will almost entirely be devoted to breathing. Everybody knows the importance of breathing but it goes far beyond just staying alive and it’s also a lot more complicated than you might think.
We are born with perfect breathing mechanics. If you look at a baby lying on their backs their bellies rise and fall as they breathe. This belly breathing is called diaphragmatic breathing and has been used for centuries in yoga, martial arts and strong man competitions as a method of controlling the nervous system and resulting movement. However, it is only in the last decade that the importance of proper breathing is really beginning to be understood in the mainstream for both athletes and general population.
What is poor breathing:
Most of us over the years have developed an upper chest breathing pattern. By this I mean we see our chest rise rather than our abdomen when we inhale. This is usually coupled with short shallow breaths, much like how we breathe when we exercise just in a not so exaggerated way.
Some of the many ways which poor breathing patterns affect us are:
The primary function of our respiratory system is to bring oxygen in and take CO2 out. The ratio of Oxygen in and Carbon Dioxide out helps to regulate the pH levels in our blood. When we exercise the stress placed on our metabolism produces higher levels of CO2 than normal. To counter act this the body starts to breathe faster in an effort to remove the higher levels of CO2 and restore the pH balance.
However, when we breathe in this low level hyperventilation state consistently we are breathing more than our need to and creating a Co2 deficiency. In other words we are breathing much faster than we need to be and exhaling more Co2 than we can afford to if we are to keep the pH balance. Put simply we are over breathing. This Co2 deficiency raises the pH of the blood causing the blood vessels to narrow. This has been linked with causing chronic constriction and tightness of muscle and fascia (the thin layer of connective tissue surrounding our muscles).
Therefore, it is common to see clients and athletes who are always tight with tense muscles. Obviously this means that your movement will be vastly impaired and all the stretching and mobilization in the world won’t work until you have controlled your breathing and brought it back into a consistently normal state.
Constantly breathing with the upper chest and neck muscles will obviously make the muscles involved highly active. When one set of muscles is more active than the synergist muscles (corresponding muscles of a joint or movement) you will create an imbalance in the movement of the particular region of the body. So with poor breathing patterns, muscles which are meant to be accessory muscles like the scalenes, pecks and traps become the dominant muscles and become highly active compared to the upper back muscles. This causes the shoulders to be pulled forward, the scapula’s to be destabilized and thoracic mobility to be diminished.
For those of you who have been following my blog you will know that I spend a lot of time talking about upper back mobility and rounded shoulders. Well poor breathing is yet another contributor to this poor posture.
In conjunction with the upper chest breathing muscles becoming over used we usually see the ribs flair up as the chest rises with each inhale. This causes the lumbar spine to go into over extension creating tight spinal erectors and hip flexor muscles. This will cause the butt to stick out like a duck and the pelvis to go into a downward tilt known as anterior tilt. The end result is the spine ends up in an S shape known as Janda’s upper/lower cross syndrome. This generally results in weak glutes, lower abdominals and upper back while having overly tight hip flexors, spinal erectors and chest muscles. As you can imagine this leads to all sorts of upper and lower back pain as the years go on as well as lots of strength and performance leaks with athletes.
· Core Strength
The term core strength is well known. Everyone in the fitness industry from the local Zumba instructor to the high flying sports medicine doctor talks about core strength. In fact it is talked about so much that no one knows what it really is.
The core is not just the 6 pack muscles that are worked so much. The inner core is made up of many muscles which are also the primary respiratory muscles. These are the Diaphragm, the Multifidus and Pelvic floor muscles. When we neglect these by not working on diaphragmatic breathing the inner core becomes weak and unstable. Therefore it is important to work on the inner core strength before working on any of the outer abdominal muscles or any muscles at all for that matter.
There is no surprise that the strongest men in power lifting and weightlifting competitions are experts at controlling their breath and inner core muscles as these are the stabilizing muscles for the whole body.
Breathing has a huge impact on anxiety and stress. The upper chest shallow breathing known as paradoxical breathing puts the body in the fight or flight response. This is the response that is described above. The pH imbalance is known to cause anxiety, which is why during a panic attic you will see the person breath with extreme shallowness. Giving the sufferer a paper bag to breathe deeply into is used to try recapture some of the Co2 in an effort to lower the pH level. In severe cases the body will shut down causing the person to fall unconscious so it can regulate the breathing by itself.
This is one of the reasons that many athletes now use mediation as part of their training to get control feelings of anxiety in the run up to major competition. Also when you think of someone who practices Tai Chi, Yoga or Martial Arts you think of that person as being calm and collected. It is no small coincidence that these practices involve a huge dedication to slow rhythmic breathing. Think of the surfer too, a sport that needs fluid movement and mobility will need calm relaxed athletes in control of their breath. So again, no coincidence that you will travel a long way before meeting a stressed out high level surfer (Keanu Reeves in Point Break doesn’t count)
What do you do:
Unfortunately fixing poor breathing isn’t as easy as it might seem. Years of habit can’t be undone with a few minutes of belly breathing. Fortunately all of our Inwood and Washington Heights fitness classes emphasize proper breathing mechanics during the seesion. In particular our Yoga and Good Moves classes give extra attention to your breath.
There you have it a brief run down on the importance of breathing correctly and some exercises on how to retrain yourself. So whether you are a walker, runner, yogi or football player start practicing your breathing. There is a lot more research to be done about the effects of good and bad breathing mechanics but it is a sure thing that regardless of your sport or fitness goal, even if you have none at all, you will benefit from learning how to breathe!
For a much more detailed look at the effects of breathing make sure to check out Patrick Ward's blog and look at books by Leon Chaitow.