Do we REALLY breathe correctly while we train?


By: Ryan Golec, LMT, ACSM, CHEK P2

Director of Movement and Education at Performance EDU

Breathing Part 1:

Breathing and its role in posture.

Breathing has become a recent hot topic in the fitness and therapy world. The problem that exists, as with all topics, is that it becomes distorted and confused as it travels through the inner and outer circles. Let’s get down to the basics. Breathing is kind of a big deal. No one will debate that. If you don’t breathe, you die. Now that the basics are covered, let’s talk about breathings importance in movement. In part 1, I would like to look specifically at how it affects our thoracic spine, rib cage, and general posture.

Let’s take a basic look at breathing anatomy. The Diaphragm is our primary breathing muscle. It is shaped like a dome and attaches all the way around the bottom of the rib cage, and trickles down the lumbar spine. When it contracts, it pushes down against the organs to make room for the lungs to passively fill with air. Now that is pretty know, but the guys we don’t think about are the Intercostal muscles that lay between each rib. They stretch and contract to increase and decrease the space between the ribs to again allow more room for the lungs to fill. There are also muscle around the neck and shoulders that will assist during large metabolic demand. Great, so who cares right? Well, let’s look at postural dysfunction to help us understand why we care.

Postural dysfunction is usually defined by tight pecs, lats, neck flexors, and abdominals; as well as weak rhomboids, low/middle trap, and spinal erectors. The thoracic spine is overly rounded into what we call hyper-kyphosis. So let’s stretch the tight stuff, strengthen the weak stuff, and walk like soldiers. This is all fine in theory. Oh yea, we’re not all high school kids in the weight room just doing bench and getting massive pecs, so why are we actually tight? Our Kyphotic position is an adaptation to a series of activities over time that have conditioned the body to be bent over and rounded. Sadly, 30 minutes of stretching and strengthening may help, but isn’t fixing everything. Insert breathing.

We have to first evaluate the ribcage. Rounded posture compresses the rib spacing, especially at the first 4 or 5 ribs. This chronic compression trains the intercostals to stay in a short position. Breathing into these shortened areas can get the intercostals of these upper ribs to remember how to move again. And guess what muscle hang out around there...Pec Minor, Scalenes, SCM… all traditionally recognized as muscle involved in Kyphosis, and forward head posture.

We also have seen this distorted coaching in the “breathing” world where everything is this relaxing “belly breath”. So people avoid breathing into the chest and leave the sticky ribs in their current position. But at least you are learning to relax right?

Let’s see if we can help clarify this and in turn, start fixing some posture! For starters, the diaphragm should contract down in a 360 degree expansion below the ribs. This will be more relevant in part 2. What’s important to know here is that we have the power to focus on improving areas that are not expanding with faulty patterns. In addition, all of the intercostals should expand to increase the space between the ribs with each breath. Breathing should start by the sensation of filling from the pelvic floor all the way up to the shoulders. So let’s use this idea to help us improve our posture.

Posture breathing progressions:

  1. Start by lying on a firm surface. Begin to breathe normally and see where you expand. For our posture work, begin to target breathing up into the chest and ribcage. Focus on keeping the back from arching. Often times with dysfunction in breathing, instead of the rib cage expanding, we see the rib cage tilt back and arch the low back. Once you've dialed that in, notice if you fill your chest evenly on both the left and right side. If you have a more rolled forward shoulder on one side, you may find it difficult to fill there. Finally, make sure the shoulders don't elevate with the inhalation. As you breathe in, your shoulders should begin to fall back into a neutral position. Once you acknowledge these points, you can practice. Work to fill evenly and work to improve the volume of your breath each time. As you get better, you should notice your head will also start to be more relaxed on the floor and your chin should start to tuck. These are signs of the tension reducing in the previously stretched neck stabilizers. You should spend 2-10 minutes a day with this.

  2. Now that you are able to improve the key positions, we can work on maintaining a stronger posture. It is a small addition. As you breathe in and fill from the belly to the shoulder, begin to maintain the expansion of the chest and release you air mostly from the belly. Although there is a natural rise and fall of the chest in breathing, most of us have created an excessive collapse with our weakened posture. As you begin to maintain that expanded chest position, you may find your upper back muscles turning on to support the new position. Make sure that you check in on the shoulders and avoid letting them elevate. You should spend 2-10 min a day on this.

  3. This progression is simple. Start to do your previous breathing drill while seated or standing with your back flat against the wall. By moving to a vertical position, you should begin to feel more challenge on the posture muscles as you improve your breathing mechanics. You can now work on this variation 2-10 minutes a day.

  4. Finally, you can move this into daily practice. Work on this breathing as you sit, stand, or move throughout the day. Start to acknowledge when you are collapsed or hunched. tune into the improved position for a few minutes at a time. And be aware of where you may be restricted. Shoulder and neck pain can often be an indication of a postural restriction. Make this a part of your daily awareness and you will find improvements in movement, reduced pain, and improved endurance.

It’s not to say that we shouldn’t strengthen the muscles of the upper back and core. That is a huge part of staying strong and tall. But we will never get great activation of those muscles if we can’t get them into a good position first. Stay tuned for part 2 where we look at breathing and its role in chronic lower back pain.