Harnessing Your Breath: 2

If you read last week’s article, you may already have an appreciation for the power of our breath and the positive effect on our health, well-being and performance that learning to inhale and exhale fully and effectively can have.

No longer a practise reserved exclusively for yogis and functional movement specialists, the importance of breathing and re-positioning activities is well recognised in strength and conditioning circles, forming an integral part of human movement optimisation. Understanding the role of the central nervous system and the effect proximal structures like the rib cage and pelvis have on surrounding joints and structures has a profound effect on performance; increasing the efficiency, strength and endurance of your respiration and improving your athletic performance. 

Incorporate the cornerstones

Breathing is a process that requires a coordinated contraction/relaxation of various muscles, muscles that work hard during training and need training themselves. If you want to increase your strength then you need to learn to breathe properly, if you want to move better then you need to learn to breathe properly. 

Taking a more holistic approach to training is all well and good in theory, but people still have specific athletic, health or body composition goals and as a coach, it is our job to create the adaptations in our clients to get them there. Spend your PT sessions teaching the anatomy and physiology of breathing and you may find yourself rapidly losing clients. So, the question is, how do you take the cornerstones of physical preparation; respiration, joint positioning, effects of the nervous system and the natural asymmetries of our bodies and incorporate them effectively into our strength and endurance training programs? 

Four to improve performance

If you already tried the breathing exercise in last week’s article, take a look at the exercises below. Use them as corrective exercises to address dysfunctional movement patterns or limitations, incorporate them into your warm up/cool down or simply as fillers between working sets of strength exercises. While everyone has their own idiosyncrasies, the majority of us present with similar issues and the focus should be on the following; 

  • Move out of an extension posture 
  • Decrease sympathetic tone 
  • Teach control of the ribs and pelvis 
  • Teach coordination of the diaphragm for use in respiration

90/90 hip lift 

This is a basic position that allows for development of optimal breathing patterns and kinaesthetic awareness. You will get feedback from the ground through your back, a posterior pelvic tilt and hamstring activation with the feet on the wall, which allows you to gain an understanding of the positioning and active control of the ribcage, pelvis and abdominals that can then be applied to performance of bigger, compound lifts like squats and deadlifts.

All fours belly lift 

Helpful position to restore flexion in the thorax, reiterate the posterior pelvic tilt and learn how to expand the ribcage posteriorly through proper breathing mechanics. This exercise allows for restoration of what is called the “zone of apposition” (essentially, the region into which our diaphragm must expand to function fully) and has the added benefits of decreasing the neural tone in our back extensors and facilitating the muscles integral to our shoulder health and mobility. 

Dead bug

A staple in anterior core/ anti extension training. Using a full exhale will help dial in the form and make this exercise more challenging with increased activation and therefore, increased training effect. Try switching it up and instead of thinking about sets and reps, think about breaths. Try 5-6 breaths with a full exhale, pause for three seconds before fully inhaling again. 

Bird dog 

Another anti extension exercise, but with an anti rotational element added, this activation exercise essentially inverts the dead bug. Without the feedback of your back in contact with ground, postural awareness, positioning and breathing becomes even more important to resist those extension and rotational forces. This is an often butchered exercise, but if performed correctly, teaches proper movement and motor control between lumbar spine, abdominals and pelvis. 

Calm the nervous system

The use of breathing techniques to calm the nervous system was covered last week so the final exercise is a more restorative one that is ideal to practise in the morning and evening or as a stress reliever throughout the day, helping to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. I recently attended an insightful Pranayama breathing workshop delivered by Maria Caldwell (@caldwellmaria), she explains the technique in further detail…

 “Sit in a comfortable upright position, supporting yourself if necessary. If you find it difficult to do this in a typical yogi cross legged pose then sit in a firm high back chair, with your feet firmly planted on the ground. Try not to slouch forward or sink in the pelvis. Take a few breaths first to calm the body. At the end of your exhale, pause, feel the natural drawing back and up that happens in the centre of your pelvis, and maintain that steadiness in the lower abdomen (below the navel). Inhale nicely so the activity is above the navel, and again exhale completely. Repeat this a few times, and just observe the breath.

“Try to increase your exhalation so that eventually your exhalation is double your inhalation. If you inhale for a count of 3, your exhalation should be for 6, and it should be even and steady throughout the exhale. For alternate nostril breathing, we still want to maintain an exhalation that’s double the inhale. To begin, rest your left hand in your lap, extend the thumb and ring finger on your right hand. Exhale completely . 

“Using your right thumb, close the right nostril. Inhale through the left nostril for a count of 3, close the left nostril with your right ring finger, and exhale through the right nostril for a count of 6. Inhale through the right nostril for a count of 3. Close the right nostril with the right thumb, and exhale through the left nostril for 6. This is one round.

“Complete as many rounds as is comfortable for you, but 10 is a good starting point. At anytime you feel like you have lost the pattern, don’t worry! Stop, exhale completely, and begin again, starting the inhalation through the left nostril, and continue as described above. When you are finished, its nice to just lie down, and breath freely and naturally, for a minute or 2 to allow everything to settle and integrate.”

So, there you have it…breathe deeply for a fuller, healthier life!


Sarah is a Dublin-based personal trainer and physiotherapist with a love for all things training, outdoors and coffee. For more information visit sarahcremen.ie

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