Hopefully you were able to read parts 1 and 2, where we discussed some of the reasons why proper breathing is important. Now the rubber meets the road. Time to do something about it! Let’s get into the “how”.
We discussed a pop can analogy in part 2, describing one opened pop can and one that was closed. If you stood on them, the closed pop can would withstand significantly more weight because the inside had more pressure. We want to keep this image in mind while breathing. When this is done you will have more core stability and overall strength, which results in less muscle compensation.
Another pop can analogy can be used to demonstrate core stability. Take the same two pop cans, but this time, they are both opened. Picture a dent in the side of one can and leave the other as perfectly cylindrical around the outside. If you stepped on these cans, the can with the dent would crush much sooner than the cylindrical can. Apply this to the “core canister” of our body, the abdominopelvic cavity: you want to maintain a cylindrical core without a dent to prevent any “energy leaks” and keep it optimally strong. This can be applied to breathing, or pretty much any movement. In most instances, you don’t want to arch your lower back posteriorly or tip your pelvis anteriorly. Just think of trying to prevent a dent in your pop can. Or, keep your diaphragm and pelvic floor parallel. Both of these pop can analogies translate to increased performance and a decreased likelihood for injury. Strive to create pressure and prevent a dent in your core and that alone will help you to make significant changes.
This may be foreign to you and can be very difficult at first. The easiest way to learn is to lay on the floor on your back with your feet up on a couch or chair. Your hips and knees should each be bent at a 90 degree angle. Take your fingers and place them on your lower abdominal or inguinal area. Try to breathe into your fingers when you inhale, while preventing your ribs and chest from moving up toward your head. Your ribs and chest should primarily only expand laterally. Sometimes it helps to cough and feel the intra-abdominal pressure push into your fingers to get some feedback on what it should feel like. Then, try to simulate that same pressure when you breathe.
You are off to a great start. Another visual is to think of your abdominopelvic cavity like a balloon that you are inflating. You don’t want to just inflate it to the front; it should expand out to the sides and back down into the floor equally, as well. Envision wearing a pair of sweatpants, and you want to expand the waistband equally a full 360 degrees around. If you feel an area that seems to be “dead” or not expanding equally, consciously try to breathe down and into that particular area when you inhale. Back to the balloon analogy: the apex, or fullest part, of the balloon should be about two inches below the belly button. This is sometimes a helpful visual to demonstrate how low the actual breathing should be. Once you start to improve, start working on maintaining that pressure while you exhale too, not just while you inhale. Ideally, you should feel the same pressure with your fingers when you exhale as you do when you inhale. This all takes work, but the benefits are profound.
It is best to work on this breathing on a consistent basis. Like any exercise, the more it is performed, the easier it becomes. Consciously work on this for five to ten minutes per day and you will eventually find yourself breathing in this manner unconsciously during your daily activities. That’s the goal! (Remember those motor patterns?)
In part 1, we discussed a few of the many ways breathing affects us systemically. Hopefully it answered some of the “why” breathing is important. Let’s dive into some more “why”, this time looking at the musculoskeletal side of things.
If you have ever paid attention to how a healthy baby breathes, you will have noticed that it is entirely with their abdomen. If they are laying on their back in just a diaper, you will only see their belly move with each breath, not their neck or shoulders or even chest. If you look closely, you will also realize that their belly doesn’t solely expand forward with each inhalation, it also moves out to the sides and down into the floor with each breath as well. It’s as if their abdominopelvic cavity is a balloon, and they are filling it evenly all the way around, 360 degrees. Fullest expansion should occur about two inches below the belly button
Try it. Lay on your back on the floor (preferably not in a diaper). Do you naturally breathe in this manner? Could you if you consciously tried? You should be able to. Believe it or not, we all started breathing in this way. However, we often develop improper motor patterns as we go through life. A motor pattern is the term that describes the order in which muscles are used to accomplish a particular task. For example, you want to take a drink of coffee. The brain sends the “drink coffee” message via the nerves to certain muscles in your arm to lift your cup of coffee to take a drink. Those muscles then respond by contracting in that particular sequence to lift the cup to your mouth. There are ideal and non-ideal muscles that get used for this pattern. The more we use a particular pattern, the more likely we are to use that pattern of muscles again in the future. This is why it is important to use the “proper” motor patterns, whether it be while drinking coffee or breathing or performing a back squat.
Again, we all started breathing properly if we were a healthy-developing infant. Then life happens. We sit in desks at school for a good portion of our childhood, we sit in the car with our head and shoulders rounded forward while holding the steering wheel, we spend too much time on the computer or cell phone or in our desk, and then we throw daily stressors of money, kids, relationships, and our jobs in the mix, and we have a perfect recipe for changing our ideal breathing patterns. You can observe adults and even children that don’t use their diaphragm (the muscle that we use with abdominal breathing) to breathe, but instead use their chest, upper traps, and neck muscles. This leads to chronic tightness from the overuse, one of the reasons people love getting massaged here so much. They also carry all of this stress as tension in these muscles, which is a vicious cycle and perpetuates these improper motor patterns unless something is done to correct it. This also frequently attributes to many headaches, as well as neck, shoulder, and upper back pain or discomfort. All from breathing.
It doesn’t stop there. Take two pop cans. One is opened and the other is not. If you stood on these cans, the unopened can would withstand much more weight before crushing. The only difference between the two is the amount of pressure that’s inside. If you think of your abdominopelvic cavity like this pop can, you will want it filled with more pressure so your core is more stable. This helps protect your low back, creates more strength for every movement you can conceive, and stabilizes everything all the while. How do you fill your “pop can” with pressure? You guessed it, breathing. Well, breathing with your diaphragm along with activating the abdominal wall and pelvic floor.
So, you’re telling me that proper breathing can help with neck, shoulder, upper back AND lower back pain?? Yes! Actually, it can help with a host of other ailments in both the upper and lower extremities too (think core stability). Basically, if the core isn’t stable, nothing else can be either, which puts distal joints and tissues at risk for injury.
Many muscles in the body follow this pattern. The body is very good at compensating and if the entire core and body isn’t stabilized as described above, the brain recruits other muscles to contract to help stabilize instead. Think: “if you don’t do it, somebody else will!” This isn’t the worst thing in the world, because even though these other muscles being used for stabilization is “non-ideal”, it’s better than nothing. They help protect the joints and connective tissues from acute injury or help us get from point A to point B. However, if this occurs for long enough, these improper motor patterns will lead to chronic, overuse injury.
You may be wondering what the purpose of these “other, non-ideal” muscles is. They have a purpose and specific function, but the primary function is not stabilization. Typically, they are larger muscles that are used more for movement than stabilization.
Next up is part 3, where we bring it all home. We’ve touched on a few things that can be done, but part 3 will be specifically geared toward the “how to” of breathing.