Do you know how to breathe properly? I know it’s not something many of us think about, we just do it. But if you’re not breathing properly (and very few of us are) you cannot be in optimal health or fitness.
Core strength is the big buzz term in fitness, and with good reason. But core strength cannot be optimal if your breathing patterns are dysfunctional. It starts with breathing. If healthy breathing patterns are not in place, then no other movement pattern can be.[i]
Poor posture weakens the diaphragm (which should be your primary breathing muscle). This forces an adaption that results in having other muscles, including core muscles, assist in breathing. Why is this bad? If they’re busy helping you breathe then they may not be doing their primary function properly – such as spinal stabilization.
How does bad posture adversely affect breathing patterns?
Breathing is a passive action – muscle contractions cause the thoracic cavity and hence lungs to expand, which creates a vacuum and sucks in air. The primary muscles of inspiration (breathing in) should be your diaphragm and external intercostals. But due to our predominantly anterior chain bias we’ve ended up in a perpetually slumped manner (picture yourself in front of the computer, TV or in your car), which has weakened our diaphragms and resulted in us having to resort to using other muscles, such as the transverse abdominus (a deep abdominal muscle under your “6-pack” muscles). So we start using muscles beyond their primary purpose. We can see this effect when we take a deep breath. If your chest rises and your stomach flattens this shows dysfunction – the contracting transverse abdominus sucks in your stomach. We should see the opposite. If your diaphragm is performing correctly your stomach should expand during inspiration. As a reminder, look at how a toddler breaths. Sure it’s not the most flattering look but it’s best for your health!
To see an animated graphic of the diaphragm see
Dysfunctional breathing can be detrimental in many ways.
One, if you’re not breathing optimally you’re not getting as much air as you should[iii] and secondly many of those muscles that have to kick in have a dual responsibility of spinal stabilization (such as the transverse abdominus). If they’re too busy assisting in breathing then they’re not protecting your back as well as they could be (the body will always choose breathing over spinal stability – you can’t live without air!). This can be the cause of much back discomfort.
Firstly this lean forward posture causes our heads to move off the centre line creating more tension/strain on the spine. The average human head weighs about 12 pounds. As the neck is bent forward in the very common ailment of forward-head posture it places greater strain on the cervical spine. In fact at a deviation of just 15 degrees the strain is equal to 27 pounds and at a rather extreme 60 degree deviation the strain is 60 pounds!! The compensation needed to deal with this strain causes a chain reaction that results in weakening those muscle needing for inspiration, which can restrict breath and lower lung capacity as much as 30%! [iv] Obviously, if lung capacity is diminished then so is performance. Your muscles need oxygen to perform – if your lungs aren’t filling properly then you are not optimally delivering oxygen to working muscles – resulting in fatigue at an earlier point.
Many other ailments have been linked to bad posture. Neck and back problems, headaches, temporomandibular joint disorders, arthritis, poor circulation, muscle aches, indigestion, constipation, joint stiffness, fatigue, neurological problems can all be caused or worsened by poor posture. Add shortened life spans, and increased tendency towards atherosclerosis.[v]
Checking for breathing dysfunction
Here are a couple of easy tests to check for dysfunctional breathing.
Place one hand on the upper chest while the other is placed on the lower abdomen. Take a few relaxed breaths. Ideally, the hand on the abdomen should rise before the hand on the chest. Additionally, the hand on the chest should move slightly forward and not upward.[vi]
This test is easily compromised when self administered – as people will consciously breath correctly. It’s best when administered by a professional and the client is not told what the desired result is.
Lateral rib cage expansion
Best if administered by a professional: with client facing away the professional places hands on the sides of the lower ribs with thumbs close to the spine. Client should inhale deeply and professional will note if there is any lateral widening of the trunk. If the hands rise upward first, this is a sign of dysfunctional breathing. Ideally, the hands should move apart from each other about 1.5 – 2 inches.
Pursed Lip Breathing
Take a deep breath (2-4 seconds) in through the nose. Exhale very slowly (4-8 seconds) through pursed lips. 30 repetitions 2 x daily
Guiding the breath
Best if administered by a professional: have client lie on their back. Place a hand on the client’s upper chest applying a slight downward pressure to the sternum during their exhalation and hold it there while they inhale and exhale. This should guide the breath into the lower ribs and belly. Remove the hand and ask client to actively hold the chest in the depressed exhalation position while they continue to breathe.
Correcting Forward Head Posture
Thoracic extension exercise with Foam Roller
Before strengthening our weakened neck flexor we must first we inhibit/quiet the muscles that have become overactive due to chronic forward head posture.
Sit on bench/chair with good posture – anchor arm to side on bench, lean away from anchored arm and tilt/stretch neck gently - make sure to not elevate or round shoulders - hold for 30-60 seconds. 3 sets
Levator Scapulae Stretch
Sit on bench with good posture – take one arm and touch same side shoulder blade - take the other arm place of back of head right of centre - gently pull head down to left knee - make sure to not elevate or round shoulders - hold for 30-60 seconds. 3 sets
Neck flexor exercise
Now we aim to strengthen those muscles that have been weakened by the perpetual forward head posture
Deep Neck Flexors Exercise
Correcting breathing patterns will not happen overnight. Nor will correcting the posture issue which cause the dysfunction in the first place. The more you do these corrective exercises the better and remember to relax during stretches and thoracic extension.
Any good fitness program must begin with a postural and breathing analysis and subsequently incorporate a corrective exercise phase. The danger of jumping straight into strength training without correcting dysfunction is clear. Performance and results are compromised and the risk of injury increased. These exercises are not glamorous but be patient and do it right. Your long term health depends on it! Good luck and good health!
[i] Lewit K, Relation of faulty respiration to posture with clinical implications 1980. Taken from article “Diaphragmatic Breathing: The Foundation of Core Stability” by Nicole Nelson, MS, LMT in October 2012 Strength and Conditioning Journal
[ii] How to Activate Your Diaphragm to Improve Breathing and Performance by Simon Kidd http://breakingmuscle.com/cycling/how-to-activate-your-diaphragm-to-improve-breathing-and-performance
[iii] “..it reduces the volume of oxygen available by only partially expanding the lungs” Simon Kidd http://breakingmuscle.com/cycling/how-to-activate-your-diaphragm-to-improve-breathing-and-performance
[vi] “Diaphragmatic Breathing: The Foundation of Core Stability” by Nicole Nelson, MS, LMT in October 2012 Strength and Conditioning Journal