To help us gain a deeper understanding of how this all works and how we can safely train the breathing muscles, we enlisted the help of good friend, gifted yoga instructor, physical therapist, and long-time Yoga Journal contributor, Julie Gudmestad.
From Julie’s perspective, there are two scenarios that we are considering: “The first is for oxygen intensive activities, like running or cycling, where it is important to get the old air out fast and the new air in fast. Faster, deeper breathing uses different muscles than the second scenario, where the goal is deep relaxation or meditation, in which you quiet the nervous system.”
It is this first scenario that we will concern ourselves with here.
Stoking the Furnace
Many athletes will go to any lengths with training, equipment, and technology to squeeze out the slightest performance improvement. Julie laughs about a conversation with a well-known bike racer, who was regaling her with detailed descriptions of the expensive alloy parts he had acquired, shaving additional ounces off the weight of his bike. When she asked, “What are you doing to stoke the furnace that runs all of this,” he apparently didn’t have much to say.
Most of us – athletes or not – are not trained or conditioned to think much about our breathing and the untapped potential that it holds. It is easy to believe that it is automatic and simply takes care of itself. The truth is that it doesn’t take care of itself. It requires awareness and effort to maintain and improve your breathing abilities against the constant onslaught of gravity and our own disruptive patterns.
“For example, consider baseball pitchers,” offers Julie. “It is not strength, but flexibility – degrees of shoulder rotation –that has the most impact on their ability to rocket the ball at the catcher’s mitt. If you have a few more degrees of movement, that translates into greater acceleration of the ball. Range of motion is critical.”
According to Julie, “It is not so much an issue of strengthening the muscles, but that we are losing the expansibility of the ribcage and associated muscles. Like everything else – hamstrings, neck, shoulders, etc. – once you lose the flexibility, it is very difficult to get it back.”
It is the same case for your breathing. Imagine sitting slumped, whether at your desk, behind the wheel of your car, or bent over riding on a bike. The muscles on your front body shorten up. You lose mobility of your upper abs. Everything tightens up around individual ribs, and the heavy muscles and connective tissue on the front of your chest get shorter and limit your ability to open up your lungs and breath properly. The longer it continues, the more you lose flexibility, and it’s harder it is to get it back, especially after your 40th birthday is fading in the rear view mirror. We highly recommend keeping your breathing mechanism in shape so you don’t have to worry about getting it back!
Breathing Physiology 101
Now before we get to the “how” of improving the strength and flexibility of your respiratory system, let’s let Julie refresh our collective memory as to the basic physiology of the breath:
“The diaphragm is the dome-shaped muscle at the bottom of your ribs that divides your upper torso (chest) and your lower torso (abdomen). In its resting position it is dome-shaped, but when it contracts as you inhale, it presses down flat, lengthening the lung space and creating a vacuum which pulls in air.”
She continues, “Your lungs do not have the ability to expand and contract on their own. Instead, they change shape in response to the shape of their container. In addition to the motion of the diaphragm, there are muscles that lift up on the rib cage, including some neck muscles, which attach to the collar bones and upper ribs. There are also sets of muscles between every two ribs (intercostals). Your ribs are like a bucket handle that lifts up and out – as you inhale, each rib moves a few degrees up and out which increases the volume of your chest cavity, at the same time your diaphragm pulls down from below, expanding it further.”
All of these muscles, except the diaphragm, are accessory muscles of respiration. Under normal circumstances the diaphragm is the prime mover of respiration, but when you need more oxygen and you need it faster, those ancillary muscles become very important. The stronger your muscles and the wider the range of motion, the more effectively and efficiently you can draw air into your lungs.
On the flip side, a relaxed exhale is simply the elastic recoil of all those previously mentioned muscles as they release the contraction. But when you need to get air out faster, you use your abdominal and intercostal muscles to compress the abdomen and ribcage, which expels the air more quickly.
Problems happen when you use accessory muscles to do the main work of breathing, due to stress, posture, restrictive clothing, or difficult emotions. Overworking these “accessory” breathing muscles can result in headaches, anxiety, higher blood pressure and all the other bad outcomes researchers have been documenting for many years. In this case the diaphragm does not do its job properly and will atrophy over time, just like every other unused muscle.
So where should the average person start? What training will give you the most benefit?
Julie recommends exercises and stretches that open up the ribcage and strengthen the intercostals and diaphragm.
Ex. 1 – Opening Stretches
Start by lying on a small roll (bath towels rolled up the long way) under your spine, from your tailbone out past the top of your head. Stretch your arms out to the sides, with your shoulders and elbows each bent to 90 degrees. Breathe and relax as gravity helps you open your front body. This gently stretches the shortened pecs, intercostals, and upper abs. This position also takes pressure off the diaphragm, allowing it to move freely, allowing normal, relaxed diaphragmatic breathing to begin.
Ex. 2 – Gentle Twists
Julie also encourages use of gentle twists. Try lying on your side with knees bent up toward your chest, and then open your top arm as your head turns to look behind you. If your arm doesn’t reach the floor, support it with a pillow or blanket. Breathe into whichever side of your chest is on top, and you should be able to feel your ribs and chest expanding as you inhale
Ex. 3 – Breath Awareness
Another helpful technique is to wrap a long belt (like a bathrobe belt) around your lower ribs, a couple of inches above your navel. Hold the ends of the belt and pull gently to provide a bit of resistance (to strengthen) and a bit of sensation to help you feel how the breath is moving, or not moving, as you breathe. You should be able to feel your ribcage expanding up and out as you inhale, and shrinking back in as you exhale.
If you just aren’t ready for the commitment of rolling up a towel, belts, or lying on the floor, you can start by just putting your hands on your belly and feel it expanding out into your hands as you inhale.
Ex. 4 – Strengthening
For those of you who are already on board with breathing training, you can use these exercises to further strengthen your breathing and respiratory muscles. First, lie on your back with your knees bent. Practice the pelvic tilt by flattening your low back while you exhale (try not to push with your legs), and then relax and let your low back lift as you inhale. Your obliques (the muscles forming a cross on the abdomen) and tranversus muscles (the deepest layer of abdominal muscles), are having to do double duty during this exercise: They compress the abdomen, pull down on the rib cage, and force exhalation. These are the muscles that are used for trumpet playing, sneezing and fast exhalations during aerobic exercise.
Lastly, for those of you who would prefer a higher tech solution, there are devices such as the Power Lung (www.powerlung.com), which is a breathing trainer that creates adjustable resistance on both inhales and exhales and helps strengthen and exercise all of the respiratory muscles.
If you would like to start enjoying the very real performance improvements that come from developing your breathing, then there is a little something here for everybody – just in time to start off the New Year! The key is persistence. Even a few minutes a day consistently will provide noticeable and worthwhile results and you will begin to see how much power and potential lies with your breath!
So have you had experience with respiratory training? What worked for you? What results did you see? Please share. We’d love to hear from you!
Julie Gudmestad is an Oregon Licensed Physical Therapist and Certified Iyengar Yoga Teacher.
You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.