Most of us take breathing for granted. We breathe roughly 14 times per minute, roughly 20,000 times per day and despite all that practice, the majority of us still kinda suck at it. And the reason is because we don’t use our diaphragm as it’s intended – which is as our main breathing muscle. It’s a consequence of our repetitive habits, postural habits and chronic stress.
You can be an elite athlete, couched potato, weekend-warrior or chronic smoker, there’s a very good chance that the way you’re breathing is compromising your mobility, energy levels, and impacting your performance, recovery, and daily life.
Under normal circumstances, as we inhale our diaphragm contracts, descends and flattens out. As we exhale it relaxes and comes back up and returns to its domed shape. This domed shape allows the diaphragm to press against the ribcage and create stability and power to draw air in and function effectively.
Our ribcage which houses our lungs and diaphragm among other important things, expands when we inhale and compresses when we exhale. Ideally, it expands and compresses 3 dimensionally, front to back and side to side and equally all the way around.
Our ribcage and pelvis are best friends, because they share so many things in common. They both attach to our spine, they share a bunch of muscles in common, there is a pelvic diaphragm that works in synchrony with our thoracic diaphragm, and they’re the connection between our axial skeleton and our limbs. Because of their intimate connection, when one moves the other one moves too.
Ideally you want the ribcage and pelvis to be stacked over each other. Just like a bottle and bottle cap, when they line up with each other you can rotate with ease and you can create a seal. This seal allows the diaphragm to retain its domed shape against the ribs and work efficiently. This is known as our zone of apposition and is what gives our pelvis, spine and thorax stability.
However, because of the repetitive habits of our daily life we lose this seal and we develop this extension pattern where the pelvis tips forwards and down and the ribs move forwards and flare. When this overextension happens our diaphragm descends and remains in this inhaled and contracted position. It is no longer able to remain our primary breathing muscle. So now all the accessory breathing muscles, found in our neck, back and ribs are working overtime to help us breathe. This repetitive overuse and chronic tension can lead to things like migraines, neck, shoulder and back tightness and pain. These accessory muscles also burn through energy quickly, producing a bunch of metabolic waste which ultimately causes you to fatigue quicker.
This extension pattern stimulates our sympathetic nervous system, also known as our fight or flight system, where our heart rate and respiratory rate are increased, our body starts releasing a bunch of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, and our body becomes tense. Now this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s our body’s protective mechanism – if you’re lifting heavy weights, fighting, or running for your life you want these things to happen to keep you safe and alive. You just don’t want it to be happening all the time. It’s a vicious cycle, chronic stress causes us to breathe inefficiently and breathing inefficiently causes stress.
When our diaphragm is stuck in this descended and contracted state we become hyper-inflated. Which basically means we’re getting more air in than we’re getting out. This leads to an imbalance between carbon dioxide and oxygen in our system → leading to things like increased anxiety, fatigue, weakness, irregular heart rate, and the list goes on. This also has profound effects on our endurance during exercise. As more and more air gets trapped in your lungs and isn’t exhaled, the residual volume of air in your lungs starts to fill up. As you continue exercising and this air continues filling up, it becomes harder to get as much air in. Your body then starts working harder with the help of your accessory breathing muscles to help you inhale. However, the real problem is you can’t get the air out. So next time you’re gasping for air during your workout, think about how much better you could be feeling and how much harder you could be going if you could actually get a good exhale!
These patterns tend to get stronger the longer we go without addressing them. Now this doesn’t mean you’re doomed to a life of pain, anxiety and crappy endurance, but just consider how much better you could be feeling, moving and performing if you started learning how to manage the position of your ribcage and pelvis and using your diaphragm more efficiently…
Here’s a demonstration of a great exercise used to help restore our diaphragm’s ability to exhale and bring our pelvis and ribcage closer to that stacked position. Once you think you have it down, try adding a balloon to the mix! The balloon provides resistance as you exhale and really teaches you to inhale air through your nose rather than your mouth… a lot trickier than it seems. Trust me!
In our breathing workshop, after getting a good understanding of how each step of this exercise is performed we assess shoulder and hip mobility before and after performing 3 sets of 5 breaths. The incredible changes achieved are as a result of better ribcage and pelvis positioning, all thanks to breathing. Those results are after only 15 breaths, almost equal to how how much we breathe every minute. Imagine what kind of results we’d see and feel if those 20,000 breaths we take everyday, were just a little more efficient.