from Tabata Times
Before we get started, I first want you to sit back, close your eyes, and take in three deep breaths. Really pay attention to how those breaths feel — what structures of your body move and inflate. Notice anything?
Breathing…it’s something we do without thinking every day: 16 times per minute, 960 times per hour, 23,040 times per day, and around 8,409,600 times per year. We all do the ever-important life sustaining activity of breathing. But my question is — Are you doing itcorrectly? Right. I know what most new athletes are thinking when I talk about this topic:There is a “right” way to breathe??? I wanted to write about this topic because, well, it is something I struggle with constantly. I often forget to be cognizant of my breathing during a WOD; I am constantly trying to remind myself to not assume the ever popular “recovery position” as demonstrated above (me during 15.3).
Although we breathe constantly throughout the day, it is an often overlooked skill with new athletes. Typically when a new person begins CrossFit, we as coaches immediately dive into basic human movements designed to build a foundation for complex movements like Olympic lifting and gymnastics. Let’s see your ankle dorsiflexion, your hip mobility, thoracic extension, overhead position…on and on and on. We often are so eager to teach the proper air squat, push-up, deadlift, press, etc….we completely forget to address the most important skill of all before any movement occurs. Without proper breathing, we set ourselves up for impaired performance, poor movement, inadequate oxygen supply for uptake by our working muscles, and impaired spinal stabilization. If you want to create “core stability,” then you better own breathing!
In this article I am going to go over how I address breathing patterns with athletes from what to recognize when examining an athlete’s breathing pattern to how to correct poor breathing mechanics. Bear with me as this very simple and innate task becomes a bit “scientific.”
“In through the nose and out through the mouth.”
I am sure we have all heard this statement by now. Coaches often state to breathe through your nose and out through your mouth, but do you know why it is important to take a breath through your nose? Let’s run down a quick list of the importance of doing this simple cue (Breathing.com):
1. Nose is the main external opening for respiratory system…mouth breathing bypasses the entire system
2. Warms and filters incoming air
3. Nasal hair and mucous lining prevent environmental substances from traveling through remainder of respiratory tract
4. Improve lung volumes
5. Increase circulation
6. Increase blood O2
7. Slow respiratory rate
Although most of us default into mouth breathing while we are fatigued and approaching exhaustion, we must begin to get into the pattern of breathing through our nose.
When an athlete first walks into the box and is ready to start building towards a healthier lifestyle, one of the first things I will have them do is the exact task with which I began the article. I have to say that 9 times out of 10 a person takes a massive deep breath…into their neck. I witness the shoulders rise because traps contract, Scalenes elevate the first and second ribs, Sternocleidomastoid muscles contract, chest expands from anterior to posterior, and then in succession, as the person exhales, everything relaxes downward. This is what we call paradoxical breathing. Paradoxical breathing is primarily identified by a lack of “belly” expansion, inappropriate chest expansion, and utilization of accessory muscles to aid breathing (such as those mentioned above). This example requires a bit of biomechanical explanation.
Let’s begin with what muscles are “typically” involved in respiration. The main function of deep muscles of the thorax is promotion of movements (primary in thoracic cavity) required for breathing. Two phases of breathing — 1) inspiration, or inhaling and 2) expiration, or exhaling — coupled together cause cyclical changes in thoracic cavity volume. The anterior thorax is formed by two primary layers of muscles that help form the anterior lateral thorax wall. Thoracic musculature extends from one rib to the next. During contraction, the thoracic musculature brings the ribs closer together.
external intercostals (superficial) — lift ribcage increasing A->P and side-to-side thorax dimensions.
internal intercostal muscles (deep) – active forced expiration depressing ribcage. Other muscles are engaged during forced expiration, like rectus abdominus.
“THE” most important MUSCLE… of inspiration. The diaphragm creates a partition between the thoracic cavity and abdonimopelivic cavity.
Origin: Xiphoid process (base of sternum), cartilages of ribs 7 – 12, anterior surfaces of the lumbar vertebra (typically 1-3), crura (tendinous structure that extends inferiorly from diaphragm to attach to the vertebral column) of the upper two (left crus) and three (right crus) lumbar vertebrae
Insertion: central tendon binds with ALL (Anterior Longitudinal Ligament- running along anterior vertebral bodies and restricts excessive hyperextension).
Primary Action: expansion of thoracic cavity and compression of abdominal cavity
When the diaphragm is in a relaxed position, it takes on a dome shape; when it contracts, it moves inferiorly and flattens out, thus increasing volume of thoracic cavity. A person is capable of contracting the diaphragm voluntarily and thus push down on the abdominal organs and therefore increase their intra-abdominal pressure. The voluntary contraction of the diaphragm to increase intra-abdominal pressure has been a common weightlifting practice. Probably, like many, I was taught to inhale deeply during the eccentric phase of a movement and exhale during the concentric phase of a movement. Still solid practice to follow during a 1RM. Kelly Starrett even discusses such breathing coupled with pulling up on the anal sphincter to aid in creating midline stabilization — or what I typically call “spinal stabilization.”
Muscles that can be addressed preventing proper breathing:
Ideally, you need to figure out why you are breathing incorrectly: what is facilitated and what is inhibited? Typically an overactive diaphragm is occurring as a compensation for core weakness and/or other muscles not activating to contribute to stabilization. Here are a few muscles that need to be addressed based on their locations in relation to the diaphragm.
- Quadratus Lumborums
- Transverse Abdominus
- Rectus Abdominus
- Internal/External Obliques
- Spinal Erectors (iliocostalis, longissimus, and spinalis)
Next, you need to address the muscles that have been overactive due to improper breathing mechanics. In order to do this, I would have the athlete stretch major overactive secondary breathing muscles: Scalenes, serratus anterior, posterior superior serratus, and SCM. You can also check pec major/minor, but these are easy to stretch.
SCM and Scalenes (Anterior/Middle/Posterior):
All instructions are based on stretching the right side. This stretch will also stretch the SCM. I prefer to have athletes perform these stretches seated. Have athlete begin by sitting in a chair with proper posture (neutral spine), then reach with their right hand behind their back and grip the base of the seat. Athlete then places left hand over top of head and grasps right side of face near ear. Then the athlete gently laterally flexes the neck to the left (bring left ear to left shoulder).
Instructions to stretch each:
Anterior: Begin stretch with head rotated slightly towards right
Middle: Begin stretch with neutral head position
Posterior: Begin stretch with head rotated slightly towards left
Serratus Anterior is often an ignored muscle, so I want to take a bit of time to discuss the SA. Composed of several portions that originate from the upper 8 or 9 ribs, the SA inserts on the anterior medial surface of the scapula from superior to inferior. The SA’s primary action is protraction of the scapula and often is known as the “boxer’s muscle.” The SA also performs upward rotation, elevation, and depression of the scapula at the scapulocostal joints. Most importantly (the reason this muscle is being discussed in regard to breathing), when the entirety of the SA muscle contracts it aids in respiration by lifting the ribs.
So how are we going to release this muscle?
I’m a fan of the SA smash. Grab a hard foam roller. To hit the right SA lie on right side with arm extended over head and place foam roller beneath axilla. Externally rotate arm to fire SA, then slowly smash Anterior – Posterior and Inferior – Superior rib by rib. Small movements are key. Then when ready, attempt to slowly move arm between internal and external rotation.
Posterior Superior Serratus:
The posterior superior serratus goes from the spinous processes, supraspinous ligaments, lower portion of ligament nuchae, and spinous processes of C7 -T2 and attaches to the posterior aspect of ribs 2-5. Their primary action is assisting with inspiration by elevating the above mentioned ribs. These muscles have been known to cause chaos for upper body mechanics and have such been given their own syndrome appropriately coined posterior superior serrates syndrome. The muscle is typically known for its ability to refer pain in a wide variety of areas.
I like to have athletes release PSS with a lacrosse ball. Let’s say the athlete is trying to release the left PSS. Have athlete lie supine and place left arm on opposite shoulder (gets scapula out of the way). Then place lacrosse ball medial to the left scapula (next to spine). Roll across the lacrosse ball from superior to inferior through mid thoracic area. Find some points of “tenderness” and hang out there until you feel it release.
Finally, and in my opinion most importantly, releasing the overactive diaphragm — yes, this can happen. I typically do this on athletes who need it, but it is so much more fun having you do it yourself! I draw influences from many people in the field of biomechanics here. One in particular, Dr. Perry Nickelston (Stop Chasing Pain) introduced me to a diaphragm release during a RockTape seminar. This is a great exercise to try with your athletes who are having difficulty controlling their diaphragm/breathing.
Now that we have addressed overactive areas, we must retrain the athlete’s breathing patterns and motor control of proper musculature. I typically begin with “The Basic Breathing Drill,” which will help athletes realize what we are trying to achieve with diaphragmatic breathing.
“The Basic Breathing Drill” (for Beginners):
- Lie supine on the ground
- Place your hands on your stomach
- Breath as you always have and see if you notice any movement in your hands
- Next, really focus on activating your diaphragm during inspiration by trying to breath deeply into your abdomen (“belly breathing”). Your hands should rise.
- Then slowly exhale and feel your hands fall as the abdomen retracts
- Focus on doing this drill several times and then attempt to stand and continue the drill.
- Next would be to continue to breath in this manner during exercise.
Box Breathing or Square Breathing will aid in your ability to not only control your breathing but also force you to listen to your body and pay attention to how you are performing during the WOD. Forget everything around you and focus on the two things that matter: 1) Your breath and 2) Your movement — nothing and no one else. Athletes should be performing this drill inside and outside of the box. Again, an hour in the box isn’t going to solidify new motor control patterns; repetition and consistency are key! Thus, more time spent outside of the box performing these accessory drills, the better. I also love having athletes do this drill just before an intense WOD, as at the very least it will bring their minds to the present.
- Find a quiet place alone
- Maintain proper posture throughout the drill
- Try to relax! Become mindful of your thoughts.
- Inhale through your nose for a 4 count……1…..2…..3….4
- Hold breath for a 4 count
- Exhale slowly through mouth for a 4 count
- Hold for a four count
- Complete this drill for ~4 minutes
ALSO, there’s an app for that! Appropriately named: Box Breathing App
Next, I typically discuss proper posture during a WOD. I go over how an athlete’s posture should look during a WOD when trying to recover during a met-con. (i.e. The bent over position is NOT ideal.) In a spinal flexed position, the body is unable to have appropriate chest and abdomen expansion for proper inhalation. STAND UP! Breathe deeply! It will hurt at first but your body will adjust and adapt, ultimately benefiting long term performance.
Obviously, I’m not an expert runner. I’m a CrossFit athlete, but as a requirement we must know how to do many tasks as efficiently as possible. My typical recommendation for running is to develop a 2:2 pattern. A 2:2 pattern means that for every two steps you inhale and then for the next two steps you exhale. You need to attempt to maintain this pattern throughout the run, which can be more difficult than you think. Give yourself some time to adapt.
In conclusion, every athlete NEEDS to be taught proper breath control. Especially if you are wanting to teach an athlete core or spinal stabilization. If you want your athletes to be operating from a stable lumbar spine, then you MUST learn to control your breathing. In my opinion, you want your lumbar spine like a tetherball post — that shit doesn’t move…no matter where the ball (your body) swings. If you truly want to follow CrossFit methodology with your athletes and create core-extremity capability, then you MUST get the core operating correctly. In my opinion, this all starts with proper breathing through diaphragmatic control. Next time you have a new athlete enter your box, before diving into “Let’s see your squat, deadlift, press, etc.,” how about asking, “Let’s see you breathe.”
Questions, comments, concerns? E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.