Breathing and Bracing: The Combo YOU Need for a Big Lift

Breathing and Bracing: The Combo YOU Need for a Big Lift
Are you breathing incorrectly? You might miss your next big squat or deadlift if so...

Key Points

  1. Breathing is a simple process – inhale, exhale. However, if you have faulty mechanics and compensatory patterns then there will be physiological and biomechanical feedback throughout the body which will limit your recovery and performance capabilities.
  2. You must learn to breathe in a neutral position, then use strength training to “cement” that new pattern within your central nervous system.
  3. If you can improve biomechanics, you’ll improve respiration efficiency and ATP production. So, in essence, you’re enhancing the efficiency of the aerobic system without actually having to generate a physiological stressor through training by simply improving structural positioning.
  4. Breathing patterns influence energy systems and substrate utilization. If you’re breathing poorly it will affect your recovery and performance throughout the training session.

You probably don’t know how to breathe.

Well, let me rephrase that before you get mad and express your opinion via YouTube, Instagram or some other social media platform – you probably don’t know how to breathe efficiently.

Given the fact that an average, healthy person takes almost 8 MILLION breaths every year (12-15 breaths every minute), it’s something that’s kind of important.

Breathing is one of those nebulous topics within the fitness industry; most just assume they know what they’re doing because they’ve been breathing their whole life.

While it’s true, you have been breathing since the day you were born, you just may not have been breathing correctly.

Your body is an incredibly complex and adaptable organism and as such, you can learn to compensate around a variety of poor motor patterns.

I’ve touched on the topic of breathing a few times before (see here and here) but this article is going to delve much further into the mechanics of respiration and simple ways to improve them.

Strap in chief, things are about to get sciency.

Mind Your A&P’s

Ok, so maybe the original saying was actually p’s and q’s but anatomy and physiology (A&P) is incredibly important in this respiratory related discussion.

I’m sure you’re well aware of the fact that your diaphragm is that dome shaped muscle at the base of your ribcage responsible for creating a negative pressure gradient.

Due to the differences in partial pressures between atmospheric air and systemic tissue cells, diffusion of oxygen and carbon dioxide occurs across cell membranes in order to maintain a homeostatic environment.

However, we must keep in mind that symmetry within the human body is never possible no matter how “balanced” we appear.

Given the fact that we all present with internal anatomical asymmetries (i.e. your organs), hemispherical dominance within the brain, curvatures in the diaphragm, differences in the number of lobes within our lungs, and general breathing patterns it’s fair to say that no one is born in a position of neutrality.

Asymmetries aren’t necessarily a bad thing though as there are neuromuscular and anatomical features in place to ensure that your body maintains structural integrity.

Issues arise when these asymmetries become excessive and you can’t regain a neutral position due to altered joint positioning and changes to autonomic nervous system tone.

Within the thorax with the diaphragm is another region known as the Zone of Apposition (ZOA). The postural restoration institute defines the ZOA as, “the cylindrical aspect of the diaphragm that opposes the inner aspect of the lower mediastinal (chest) wall.[1,2]

In other words, it’s basically the anterior portion of your diaphragm that runs adjacent to the innermost portion of your lower ribs.

Breathing and Bracing: The Combo YOU Need for a Big Lift

Image courtesy of: ZOA POSITION AND MECHANICAL FUNCTION

The ZOA is of critical importance to our discussion of breathing and bracing as positioning issues of this area can affect the disassociation from oxygen to hemoglobin and thus make you less efficient at respiration during exercise due to a biomechanical fault.

Takeaway: Breathing is a simple process – inhale, exhale. However, if you have faulty mechanics and compensatory patterns then there will be physiological and biomechanical feedback throughout the body which will limit your recovery and performance capabilities.

Think of a Coke Can…

The ability to establish intra-abdominal pressure is very similar to a can of coke.

When you inhale, your diaphragm and pelvic floor should work in congruency in order to generate circumferential expansion of the thorax.

When you have proper apical inflation, you will find that intra-abdominal pressure is much greater, correlating with higher degrees of spinal stabilization. Dan John refers to this phenomenon as “anaconda strength”, that is, the ability to generate internal pressure as you pull, carry, and heft weight.

Now, if activation or sequencing of the abdominals with the diaphragm becomes altered over time due to faulty breathing mechanics then, obviously respiration will be influenced as you’ve altered the ZOA which compromises stabilization.

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As world renowned spinal biomechanist Stu McGill has said in the past, if your neuromuscular system is presented with the option of respiration or stabilization, it will always prioritize breathing.

If we examine the average lifter or even athletic individuals in general, you will quickly see that many exhibit a sort of “open scissor” posture.

Physician and physical therapist Vladimir Yanda originally coined this dysfunction as “lower crossed syndrome” in the athlete lacks congruency between the pelvic floor and diaphragm due changes in the lumbo-pelvic hip complex.

To put it succinctly, the pelvis is tipped forward, ribcage is flared upwards (on one or both sides), and they’ve got a pair of spinal erectors that could double as a set of steel cables.

In this case, they’re going to have a tough time getting any sort of diaphragmatic inflation and these folks will have to resort to using their sternocleidomastoid, external intercostals, serratus anterior, and scalenes to pull the ribs up (i.e. externally rotate) and draw air into the lungs.

When this occurs, their extension bias is reinforced with every breath they take as they fail to inflate their posterior mediastinum (area of the lungs located behind the heart).

If you can’t keep your ZOA and breathe into a position of neutrality, you will limit triplanar movement capabilities (ability to move in all 3 planes) by influencing the positioning of the ribcage and pelvis.

In this case, if you tilt the pelvis forward you’ll alter breathing mechanics and simultaneously take the glutes and abdominals out of position to fire effectively. Good luck pulling or squatting any significant weight without two of your prime agonists in position to work efficiently…

Breathing and Bracing: The Combo YOU Need for a Big Lift

If you take nothing away from this article, remember this: position affects activation.

I’ve touched on this phenomenon before in this article, but suffice it to say, if a joint is out of position, the motor patterning of the surrounding musculature will be affected (the core and hip complex in this case). 

Takeaway: You must learn to breathe in a neutral position, then use strength training to “cement” that new pattern within your central nervous system.

Breathing and Energy Systems

So, we know that breathing can affect muscular activation but have you considered how your body actually recovers after a 400m sprint or that set of 20 on back squats?

You probably already guessed it by now – respiration.

There are certain energy systems in place within your body that will adapt to training based upon the stimulus. However, some of them are dependent upon oxygen in order to replenish ATP (i.e. the energy that your body uses so you can train).

Your aerobic system has the highest power capacity out of all 3 systems but it’s also responsible for improved recovery capabilities, neural plasticity, and balancing neurotransmitters.

As Charlie Weingroff put it, “The aerobic recovery system is an athlete’s off switch.” As muscle fibers become more oxidative, they can relax more quickly and you’ll foster a more parasympathetic environment which is the foundation for improved recovery.

If we go back to our lower crossed model from Yanda above, we know that athletes stuck in extension are inhalatory dominant, meaning they never fully exhale all of the air from within their lungs due to the fault in their biomechanical positioning.

Breathing and Bracing: The Combo YOU Need for a Big Lift

Prime example of lower crossed syndrome in action.

When this happens, there is an increase of oxygen within the bloodstream resulting in a higher blood pH. As you know, blood pH has to remain within a normal physiological range for a host of reasons so, any slight alterations are met with an influx of sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3) from the kidneys to buffer the changes in acidity.

However, keep in mind that resistance training alters blood pH as well due to the influx of hydrogen ions from metabolic processes. So, your kidneys must also buffer this increase as well, thus they’re essentially pulling double duty by regulating pH from your breathing as well as your training.

When this occurs you enter a state known as respiratory alkalosis.

In order to get the full picture though, we have to remember that there’s a little molecule floating around in your blood stream known as hemoglobin. You can think of hemoglobin as a car and oxygen as the 4 wheels that bind to the car to get transported around.

Now, due to a phenomenon known as the Bohr Effect we know that “oxygen binding affinity is inversely related both to acidity and the concentration of carbon dioxide”.

In other words, when the pH, temperature, or carbon dioxide concentration increases, oxygen is less likely to disassociate with hemoglobin thus depriving your mitochondria of the element they need to undergo aerobic metabolism and produce ATP.

So, we know that our pelvic position has altered our blood pH, the kidneys are being overworked, and our aerobic metabolism is limited by the fact that oxygen can’t detach from hemoglobin in order to reach the mitochondria.

When alkalosis is present within the periphery, our alatic and lactic systems (ATP-PC and anaerobic) must work even harder to produce energy; but, as we know, these systems are self-limiting due to their byproducts and influence on central nervous system dominance.

If you're still not following, here's a biomechanical model which might make a bit more sense…

Let’s say you’re warming up for a new squat rep max but your breathing mechanics prior to the lift are altered. You exhibit a hard anterior pelvic tilt (APT) and as such, you take a breath into your upper chest (neck breather) rather than generating 360 degrees of circumferential expansion (diaphragmatic breather). In turn, this will just push you harder into APT (lumbar hyperextension) and generate in-congruency between the diaphragm and pelvic floor. 

However, you can’t efficiently use your aerobic metabolism to produce ATP because of your pelvic positioning and subsequent pH changes within the blood which limit oxygen disassociation from hemoglobin.

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Without congruency you will have poor respiratory efficiency (as described above) and a lack of intra-abdominal pressure. You continue to squat but due to the physiological factors at play the demands placed upon your alactic (ATP-PC) and lactic systems (Anaerobic glycolysis) become too great as the set progresses and you're forced to cut it short.

Takeaway: If you can improve biomechanics, you’ll improve respiration efficiency and ATP production. So, in essence, you’re enhancing the efficiency of the aerobic system without actually having to generate a physiological stressor through training by simply improving structural positioning.

Breathing patterns influence energy systems and substrate utilization. If you’re breathing poorly it will affect your recovery and performance throughout the individual training session but also in the days to follow as well.

Alright, So I’m Jacked Up. What Do I Do About It?

You know, it’s a good thing you asked.

Ideally you’d want to get assessed by someone who understands breathing patterns, functional movement, and biomechanics but I’ve included a few simple correctives which you can apply to yourself in order to help clean up some common compensatory patterns.

But, for starters, we need to discuss what constitutes good breathing since we both know now that crappy respiration mechanics can really jack you up.

Since I’m sure you’re already incredibly confused from the fairly heavy anatomical jargon and intricate physiological discussion above, here are a few simple bullet points for you to remember:

  • Diaphragmatic breathing is not JUST into the stomach – the stomach rises first, then the chest follows with proper apical expansion.
  • Inhale through your nose, exhale through your mouth – don’t sweat the mechanism here, just keep this in mind with any breathing drill.
  • Slow down – No, seriously. Most people are in a state of mild hyperventilation and would do well to reduce their frequency of breaths and improve the quality of each individual repetition.
  • Exhale fully first to set your ribcage, then inhale – You should be incorporating this sequencing during each drill within this article but also during your setup for any lift as this is important for resetting the position of your pelvis.
  • Exhale like you’re blowing out candles on a cake – you should feel your abs turn on and it will be mildly uncomfortable when you remove most of the air from your lungs. Don’t freak out, it just feels weird because you've probably never come close to fully exhaling in your everyday life.
  • Relax into the breath – this phrase is a favorite of yogis everywhere but the saying holds true. With these drills we’re trying to tap into your parasympathetic nervous system, not get you psyched up for a new deadlift PR. For real though, chill out.
  • Belly. Lower Back. Chest. Upper Back. – That’s the order we’re looking for when it comes to a quality inhale.
  • Keep your exhale twice as long as your inhale – Most people are stuck in inhalation and don’t realize it. Fix it by remembering this point during your breathing reset drills.

If you’re performing your breathing work correctly, you may notice that your heart rate slows, muscular tension reduces, and you actually begin to salivate slightly.

Your vagal nerve (1 of the 12 cranial nerves) works to control heart rate via the SA and AV node but also influences nervous system dominance.

So, the salivation I mentioned above is normal considering the breathing work is shifting your body into a more parasympathetic state (“rest and digest”) and as such your body is simply trying to prepare for digestion by upregulating the first stages of the process (amylase within the oral cavity).

Breaking Down Breathing

Now that we’ve discussed the physiology of breathing, it’s time for the practical application. We’ve got to provide your body with an environment of high stability and low stress so that you can access a neutral spinal position.

Enter the 90/90 position…

In essence, this position has the least influence from gravity and as such, you’ll be able to focus on what actually matters – positioning of your ribcage and pelvis while breathing diaphragmatically. 

Keep in mind, the purpose of this drill is get to get your hamstrings and adductors active, breathe into your stomach first, and then allow the chest to rise as the final step.

Don’t just rush through the breaths, there’s a reason for the cadence and neglecting to pay attention to the small details will likely result in little to no benefit from the drill.

Quadruped positioning is the next progression once someone has mastered the 90/90 position. Again, there’s less influence from gravity as compared to your standing posture but you’re still having to control the lumbo-pelvic hip complex.

The main goal here is to inflate the posterior mediastinum which I mentioned earlier in the article. You should feel a mild to moderate stretch within your upper back between your shoulder blades if you perform this drill correctly.

Moving through our progressions, we’re now going to get into a deep squat where we can use our quads for kinesthetic feedback regarding our breathing mechanics. This drill will also help to drive more air into the upper chest (beneficial for those who primarily breathe just into their stomach – i.e. powerlifters) and inflate the posterior mediastinum.

This position may be tough for some folks as many people never get more than 90 degrees of knee flexion as they get older. If you can’t get into a deep squat initially, try to emphasize the exhale and relax into the bottom position.

A quick word regarding these drills – these are not just a simple “quick fix”. You very well may see some quick improvements to specific ranges of motion after a few breaths in each position (that’s the idea at least) but this is something that should be included daily to re-ingrain neuromuscular patterning. It literally takes 2-3 minutes to hit a couple of these drills and the feedback is instantaneous, that's a small price to pay for such a large benefit.

Breathe Well and Lift Heavy

Everything begins and ends with the breath. But, you must keep in mind that pelvic and diaphragmatic positioning influences muscular activation, breathing mechanics, and peripheral recovery capabilities.

Breathing may seem incredibly complex and rightfully so, it is. However, it’s important that as athletes and professionals in the field, we don’t write off intricate concepts simply because we don’t fully understand them.

Take time to hone your craft and understand the minutiae because in the end, like most things in life, it really is about quality over quantity.