Even a cursory understanding of good breath mechanics can help focus the mind, coordinate the body, and reduce pain. Due to the nature of the adaptations that come with exposure to sport environments—combined with early specialization and a general lack of cultural free movement play—movement intelligence and freedom get limited in general, and breath mechanics does not escape this fate. Dysfunctional breath mechanics accompany, contribute to, or outright cause problems such as aerobic inefficiency; back, neck, and shoulder pain; negative autonomic and behavioral feedback loops; and more. Conversely, skilled breathing can be a Swiss Army knife for performance, resulting in coordinated movement, pain management, and enhanced focus.Skilled breathing can be a Swiss Army knife for performance, resulting in coordinated movement, pain management, and enhanced focus. Click To Tweet
While I enjoy seeing more and more coaches and athletes taking an interest in the benefits of breathing techniques, many are doing so without understanding the basic skills involved. Breath mechanics are the actual muscular skill of breathing techniques themselves, but you don’t have to learn to levitate like Himalayan yogis to get it right. Simple constraints and cueing will achieve an effective enough outcome for most performance environments. However, there is a deep, deep well of opportunity for those who would send the bucket all the way to the bottom.
There are two issues I’ve seen with the instruction of breath mechanics in performance environments:
- Too much jargon. Coaches and athletes have enough skills to learn and tools to integrate into their respective disciplines without adding another seemingly complicated endeavor to the list. Confusing and hypertechnical jargon provokes an adverse reaction in coaches and athletes alike.
- It can be tough to learn and integrate. The proprioceptive component of skilled breathing is subtle, and the way it’s often taught is too slow and myopic for use in environments that move fast. Performers need tools and heuristics that allow for rapid feel and focus and deliver a palpable difference in performance outcomes when executed.
My goal for this article is to give both coaches and athletes simple cues and tactics to quickly integrate skilled breathing into their total arsenal, so they can avoid problems down the road and be more efficient and effective in their pursuit of high-performance longevity.
Ideal Breath Mechanics
Before we address ideal mechanics, it’s not as if your athletes don’t breathe a certain way that they’ll drop dead on the field in a heap of failure. Not at all. That said, mechanics do matter.
The reason for any mechanical movement standard is to optimize innate anatomical leverages to achieve a movement outcome more efficiently and effectively. As an easy example, we can all run hard and long to some degree, but that’s not the same as spending time with a good track coach to optimize our running mechanics. You can, of course, go out and pound the pavement for hundreds of thousands of reps with no problem until the wheels come off, but why not use those reps as constructively as possible?Failing to address breath mechanics at all leaves free money on the table. Click To Tweet
Failing to address breath mechanics at all leaves free money on the table. As we start to explore the place of proper breath mechanics, especially in the context of sport, let’s establish a clear framework that includes the presence of an ideal as well as reasonable expectations in regard to achieving our outcomes. Ideal breath mechanics use primary breathing muscles to do most of the work because they have much better leverage to move the rib cage. It’s not bad to use accessory muscles per se, but it is bad to use mostly accessory breathing muscles—especially if it becomes a habit that carries outside of acute stress.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
For our purposes, ideal breath mechanics will represent those expressed without additional structural stress outside of posture in gravity and without added metabolic or psychological stress—all of which have an immediate and measurable effect on breathing.
When we breathe, the diaphragm and external intercostals ideally do the lion’s share of the work during inhalation, expanding the size of the rib cage so the lungs can inflate. The circumferential attachment of the diaphragm expands the lower rib cage, while the intercostals open the space between individual ribs. For this reason, these muscle groups are called the primary breathing muscles. Next time you chow down on some succulent barbecued ribs, know that you’re eating cow intercostals—that’s some top-of-the-food-chain shizzle right there.
When these primary breathing muscles work in concert, we more effectively control airflow into and out of the body, stabilizing trunk pressure and mitigating fatigue of the breathing muscles themselves. If not, respiratory metaboreflex can shunt blood from the extremities to the trunk as the diaphragm fatigues. The ancient Greek name for the nerve that innervates the diaphragm is the phrenic (nerve), which means “mind.” The ability to use the diaphragm, especially under stress, will help divert athletes from a cycle of over-arousal to a state of relaxed focus. Just a coincidence, I’m sure. While the breath wave, as I’ve described above, is not always available, as much of your ideal breath mechanics as possible should be preserved across training and sports environments.
Training the primary breathing muscles purposefully will reduce the stress load on more sensitive tissues in the spine through pressure regulation (an easy example is the Valsalva maneuver, often used when lifting heavy) and by decreasing the workload on accessory breathing muscles. Some postural orientations negatively affect breathing efficiency. For example, anterior pelvic tilt can create rib flare, limiting diaphragm excursion and rib mobility. Conversely, a stiff and kyphotic thoracic spine shuts down posterior and lateral rib motion, which is especially important for athletic pursuits when the abdominals are hard at work stabilizing the trunk.
Focusing on the ideal infrasternal angle, hypertonic scalenes, and apical breathing is great stuff, but it should not be your first concern in the training hall or on the field. Genetics, movement history (including injuries), and sports environment all play a part in how all movement compensations form; breath mechanics are no different. For coaches, in particular, it’s generally a better use of time to move athletes toward the ideal as simply as possible and outsource specific roadblocks to specialized professionals.
So what are we supposed to do, give up sports unless we can play with a perfectly aligned pelvic floor and ideal breath mechanics? Of course not. Mitigate what you can and understand the limitations of your athletes’ innate structures and the environment they’re playing in. If they play in pads like in hockey or football, these can affect access to the ideal.There are clearly opportunities in both training and competition where using good breath mechanics can reset the mind and body in a way few other tools can. Click To Tweet
While it’s not in the scope of this article to get deep into the weeds on the numerous compensations and dysfunctions that can occur with breathing mechanics, it does help to have some context around them. Life and sport do not exist in a bubble, and so ideal breath mechanics rarely, if ever, occur—unless your athlete is seated or lying down. There are, however, clearly opportunities in both training and competition where using good breath mechanics can reset the mind and body in a way few other tools can.
Get Them Moving
Get the ribs to move. All cues, techniques, tools, and interventions should focus on getting athletes to feel and move their rib cages better. It can be damn hard to feel and train breath mechanics because so little sensory information comes from there. Why? Because the stuff down there is mainly meant to work on autopilot (the autonomic nervous system). So when athletes have trouble training their diaphragm, it does not automatically indicate dysfunction in the truest sense of the word.
Our lungs are inside the rib cage. Let me say that again—our lungs are inside our rib cage. The obvious has to be said because breathing interventions are so often taught without reference to, well, the ribs. Focusing on moving the rib cage as a functional system provides a more accessible image and allows for a broader application later in sports-specific contexts, which means athletes can use it under stress. That is not unimportant!
Rather than getting all mixed up in correcting all breathing problems, first, just feel and move the stuff when and how we want to. Let’s start with some simple cues and tools that can help increase the feel for the athlete.
1. Fill the bucket. The cue “fill the bucket” is just a cue. It is not a detailed description of ventilation kinematics. Just get your athlete thinking and moving in the right direction, and as my good friend Coach Danny Yeager says, “start the conversation.”
When you fill a bucket with water, it goes from the bottom to the top and out to the sides evenly and equally. Imagine your torso is a big five-gallon bucket from Lowe’s or Home Depot. As you inhale, fill the bucket from bottom to top and out to the side. As you exhale, slowly pour the water back out of the bucket. Don’t expect to go full zen monk on your first try. It’s a skill.
Keep it simple and practice. As you and your athletes get it, apply it in various situations to enhance mental clarity and grab hold of the autonomic nervous system. Also, pay attention to where and when you/they cannot be filled. This can give you insight into other movement problems (especially scapula mechanics).
2. Feel/move the ribs. If you can’t feel it, you can’t change it. Having athletes simply place their hands on their rib cage can help compensate for the lack of sensory input in the area by using the nerve-rich tissues in the hands. This gives an external feedback mechanism to bounce the signal through and creates an immediate “feel” for what’s moving. Good times to introduce this are during warm-up, during cooldown, and between training evolutions.
The strap of a heart rate monitor is another great way for athletes to cue into their breathing. Simply cue them to “fill the strap with air” or combine it with “fill the bucket” from above. By getting these breathing tissues to act in better symphony, stress is distributed through the torso more evenly and with reduced energy consumption.
3. Keep your mouth shut whenever possible. Controlled nasal breathing provides 5x the airflow resistance of mouth breathing and so requires the diaphragm to work more effectively, especially when combined with slight closure of the glottis. I’ve found success with using a simple three-count inhale and three-count exhale through the nose during low-intensity warm-up drills. Athletes tend to get warmer faster (because of the increased CO2), and their breathing muscles get some work done too. Using this technique during work especially can go a long way to enhance focus, improve conditioning, and build solid breath mechanics.
Other Common Cues
You may have noticed that I have not mentioned “belly breathing” during this article. That’s because you don’t breathe with your belly—your lungs are inside your rib cage. In truth, it’s an “anti-cue”: it moves you away from the unwanted behavior of overusing accessory breathing muscles.
The belly moving is an artifact of increased diaphragm activity at rest and with a reduced load on the muscles of the trunk. As such, it’s often not universally applicable for athletes, especially under the stress of load, training, or competition. In my experience, getting athletes to think about moving their ribs reduces confusion between how they breathe when things are controlled in the training room and when things get real on the field.Getting athletes to think about moving their ribs reduces confusion between how they breathe when things are controlled in the training room and when things get real on the field. Click To Tweet
Another cue that recently got some attention is placing the hands on the knees for improved ventilation during recovery in athletic events. A study found that this bane of coaching existence actually increased breathing tidal volume because of the involvement of the pec major in particular. I don’t see any issue with athletes using what is essentially a natural position in which we mitigate the effects of fatigue. However, I would not and do not teach it.
For one, I work with lots of folks in the tactical arena, and the habit of putting your hands on your knees when you’re tired is a no-no. Second, if improved breathing efficiency is a goal, how many situations does this position apply to? What other benefit comes from its use? What state of mind does it put the player in, and what does this posture communicate to the opposition?
There are so many interesting and creative ways to learn and optimize breath mechanics. It’s a deep rabbit hole full of nuance that can be incredibly rewarding both on and off the field. The nuance, though, should be primarily reserved for organic discovery by the athletes themselves.
The above suggestions are designed to get athletes to engage with the process simply and effectively, not turn them into free divers or have them float away on a lotus blossom. The goal should be to introduce this powerful practice into the toolkit in a way that is easy to implement and creates a discernible effect on performance. Make it easy, get them to feel something, and get more advanced when the questions come.
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