I’ve blogged about the importance of breathing patterns many times in the past, and for a good reason. Breathing patterns and the muscles responsible for breathing affect so many things in our bodies, yet we too often ignore their importance. In the presence of a faulty breathing pattern, accessory muscles will compensate for the diaphragm not doing its job properly. We then see hypertonic neck muscles (scalenes, sternocleidomastoids, upper trap, etc) which can also lead to neck pain and headaches, referred pain in the shoulder, etc. But this is only the superficial stuff.
If the diaphragm isn’t working properly, chances are that it’s also not positioned optimally. We could debate which one causes the other (dysfunction causing faulty positioning or faulty positioning causing dysfunction), but it would be a case of the chicken or the egg.
The thing to keep in mind is that when the diaphragm isn’t positioned properly there are also surrounding structures that are affected. The lower ribs flare out, the T-L (thoraco-lumbar) junction is stuck in extension, and the whole rib cage is positioned differently. This in turn will affect the positioning of the scapula because it sits on the rib cage, and therefore the positioning of the whole shoulder girdle will be changed.
Faulty breathing patterns can also affect structures lower down the kinetic chain. Because of the attachment of the diaphragm and its fascial connection through the psoas, that goes through the hips, the positioning of the hips can be affected. And if the hips are positioned differently, everything below (femur, tibia, foot) might be in compensated positions.
Before this turns into an anatomy course, I’ll stop here! The goal was just to make you understand how powerful breathing patterns can be and how it can affect the whole body. That is why school of thoughts such as the Postural Restoration Institute put such an important focus on breathing patterns and diaphragm function to treat all sorts of problems (overuse injuries, low back pain, shoulder pain, flat feet, etc, etc). All of their corrective work involve very specific breathing patterns. They have a bunch of different exercises incorporating breathing patterns to get you back into a “neutral alignment” as they would put it.
I have learned a great deal from PRI and started including a lot of their stuff with my athletes, which has worked almost like magic in many cases. Here is one of my favorite exercises that I stole from them to teach proper breathing patterns:
The position: Lying on your back with your feet up on the wall and your knees and hips at 90° angle, squeeze a foam roller or a small medicine ball between your knees. Dig your heels into the wall and posteriorly tilt your pelvis just enough to get tail bone slightly off the floor. Get your right arm straight up and reach with the palm of your hand towards the ceiling.
Execution: Take a deep breath trough your nose, Blow out through your mouth as hard as possible trying to inflate the balloon as much as possible. Blow all your air out in the balloon. When you have no more air in your lungs, pause for about 4 seconds while pushing your tongue against the roof of your mouth (your teeth should not be clenched). Then, breathe back in through your nose, and repeat the sequence. You can do anywhere from 5 to 10 breaths, but start on the lower end, and make sure you control everything.
Cues: Make sure that the tail bone remains slightly off the ground the whole time and the heels keep digging in the wall. When reaching up with your right arm, you only want to reach as high as your arm will go, meaning you don’t want to lift your upper back off the ground to reach higher. The pause with the tongue against the roof of your mouth is probably the most important step. Do not repeat on the opposite side.
We only do it on one side because the diaphragm on the right side and on the left side are shaped and positioned differently; we want to facilitate the air going into the right side to re-position you in a more neutral position. This is again part of the PRI philosophy that the human body is assymetrical for a host of different reasons; we have a heart on the left side above the diaphragm, we have a liver on the right side under the diaphragm, the left side of our brain manages motor control, etc. I’m not going to get too deep in the PRI philosophy as it could be the subject of an entire different blog post, but hopefully you get the concept a little bit.
Don’t overlook breathing patterns and make sure that it’s part of your assessment protocol with everything else you assess for.
Sign up for my newsletter by entering your info below; it’s FREE and you get instant access to my 3 reports on sports performance training!