Breathing is one of the most complex things we do all day. It is both a conscious and subconscious task. Proper breathing is the root of all healthy and functional movement. Think about the current popularity of muscle activation, meaning simply just because you create activity in a temporary isolated situation, does that re setting carry over into other things, after the corrective exercise?
As coaches we spend most of our day “activating tissue,” we work on getting the glutes to fire, or the core to engage, but what about breathing. Do you consider breathing as part of someone’s health and fitness?
The same is true for a breathing exercise, we can use it to activate the breathing mechanics, but it too has to relate back to function’ which means carrying over improved movement or breath to other tasks; not just the one you are currently working on. The FMS screen can be used as a tool to look at opportunities to re-coordinate or reconnect breathing to improve health. As a healthcare professional my first responsibility is to start with health, not necessarily performance or fitness.
First things first, assess risk and catch the red flags; this can be done 2 fold; (1) identify if poor breathing is structural or (2) identify if poor breathing is situational. This directly relates back to the biopsychosocial model we looked at in as well as understanding the different kinds of BPD (breathing pattern disorders).
Identifying if there is a structural problem, an obstructed airway, a deviated septum, a closure of some kind thus can alter breathing and will be key in your program design and standard operating system for screening. When people have horrible postures, rounded shoulders, forward head carry it could be because of an anatomical dysfunction. This can increase anxiety, cortisol levels, reduce adrenal function and increase likelihood of paradoxical breathing. Often called “reverse” breathing, occurs when the abdomen contracts during inhalation and expands on exhalation. Paradoxical breathing associates with the expectation of exertion, sustained effort, and resistance to flow, and stress. Clients with chronic airways obstruction also show in drawing of the lower ribs during inspiration, due to the distorted action of a depressed and flattened diaphragm As a result, this pattern causes very rapid fatigue.
Now what if that posture is where the airway is the largest and by telling our client to stand up straight reduces the client’s airway? If your airway is compromised… the body will resort to the path of least resistance – compensation.
Did you know: Three out of four Canadians report sleep apnea (75%) were 45 years and older. On average, these pauses in breath during sleep can last for 10 to 30 seconds, until the brain reacts to overcome the problem. With each episode of apnea, blood oxygen levels are reduced (hypoxia), and sleep is disturbed as the sleeper must wake briefly to resume breathing. In daily life, the person is restless, anxious and usually very fatigued.
Let’s take the airway out of the equation and move onto situational.
The first place to start is assess the risk. During my consultations I will ask clients the following questions to gain a deeper understanding if altered breathing is a concern. Then I move onto the FMS screen.
Pre-screen questions for risk:
- Do you have seasonal allergies?
- Do you cough often?
- Do you have episodes of bronchitis or chest congestion?
- At higher threshold training do you resort to hyperventilation breathing?
- How is your sleep? Do you have problems staying asleep? Do you have problems falling asleep?
- Do you feel anxious or fatigued?
- How much stress would you say you have in a week?
Before you prescribe an exercise – you must know the WHY!
Breathing changes movement; but lack of movement can also change breathing; therefore, take mobility off the table first. Key points you should consider; mobility, then stability or motor control. Remove the negatives and mobility restrictions, this frees up space for the mechanics of breath to work efficiently.
When looking at breathing, look at the mobility of the neck, the shoulder girdle, the thoracic spine, or how about the hips? When performing the FMS screen I can usually pick up breathing red flags because the first two things we look at in the Functional Movement Screen for their influence on breathing are shoulder mobility and the active straight-leg raise. Both of these restrictions can help restrict authentic breathing.
Shoulder mobility is more than just looking at the shoulders; it addresses thoracic extension and flexion. Can you actively extend your spine?
The active straight leg raise showcases active symmetry and the ability to lift one leg in an unloaded position and it tells us a lot about a person’s hip and core function.
If mobility restrictions are taken off the table and there is no risk of structural concern, then some of the below breathing coordination exercises can encourage the resetting of authentic breathing.
Breathing Corrective Exercises:
Seesaw breathing: Reversal breathing (paradoxical breathing). see-saw breathing is a way to de-emphasize chest breathing and improve abdominal breathing. Start by identifying the 2 main cavities of your upper body, your chest cavity and your abdominal cavity. Find and settle into a comfortable breathing rhythm. Observe where your breath naturally goes, and which cavity naturally changes shape. Just observe. Now, as you inhale, allow the abdominal cavity to change shape and expand while keeping the chest cavity still. Exhale. On the next inhale, allow the abdominal cavity/belly to remain still while allowing the shape change to occur in the chest cavity. Exhale. And repeat for 5 mins.
Crocodile Breathing: Crocodile breathing is another way to illicit bio feedback, it gives a different sense of feedback than seesaw breathing where the belly expands both side-to-side and pushes into the floor, lifting the low back. Lie face down with your forehead on your hands. Breathe into your stomach. Of course, the air doesn’t go into your stomach, but the idea is to breathe deeply enough so that a person standing beside you would see your lower back rise. Keep your neck and shoulders relaxed.
Check out this video from Barefoot Running, Charlie Reid:
In the FMS level 2 courses we look at crocodile breath as a great example of screening the breathing. As a corrective movement coach, corrective exercises should be a temporary measure of re setting and re-educating your clients, but also so you can pull the new thing you gained into other activities, so that it becomes functional. You’ll breathe better the next time you run. You’ll breathe better the next time you lift and you’ll breath better when you sleep and recover.