Can improving breathing skills improve overall movement integrity?

We already know breathing is a significant part of every living moment. Your breath keeps you alive. It fills your lungs with oxygen and provides a way to center yourself. It keeps you sustained during a workout and other daily activities. 

Your breath is also connected to mobility and stability in your movement patterns. The muscular work of breathing happens in your core. Your core is connected to movement throughout your entire body. This means that your breath is connected to the rest of your body and your movement through your core. 

When we talk about core, we mean all of the muscles in your trunk that stabilize your midsection during functional movements so that your arms and legs can move effectively. Under your “six pack” muscles that typically get more attention, there are important muscles that help to provide core and pelvic stability. This stability at your center allows for a healthy range of motion through the rest of your body. 

Because you use your core to breathe, you can use your breath to change the way your core functions. One of the things we teach around here is how to build what we call the Canister. It’s our name for a position of structural integrity you can create within your core, using your breath.

As you engage this canister, you improve the core’s ability - as a structure with many movement components - to hold together under a load, including its own weight, without breaking or deforming excessively.

What are the possible problems?

Our bodies are adaptive. This is generally a good thing, but can also cause some problems when we talk about it in terms of adapting to inefficient movement patterns. When we move our body the same way for a long time, the brain and nervous system get used to this. We tend to learn a movement pattern and then stick to it. The body takes the path of least resistance. When the need arises for it to move differently, this is where we start to see problems. 

Sometimes we need our bodies to make a certain shape in order to function more efficiently. If your body has learned an inefficient movement pattern and you are suddenly asking it to move efficiently, this might be a lot to ask of your body all at once. 

Muscles can shorten adaptively to the way they’re commonly held. A common problem we see is this lifestyle where we are constantly hunched over our computers at work, or our phones at home, and this causes our bodies to grow used to a forward folded position. We lose mobility in our upper back and grow into a forward rolled posture. This can have a domino effect of movement restrictions from the trunk outward. Your upper back is probably tight and immobile, which causes instability in your shoulder blades, so your shoulder joint tightens, which causes your elbow to become unstable, and the effects continue down into your wrists and fingers. 

A tight upper back can also cascade downward into instability in your low back, which means your hips are tight, and your knees might be unstable, and so on. 

As your body adapts to these mobility issues and learns to move with inefficient shapes, it will work around these restrictions by borrowing mobility from areas meant to be stable, and over time this can cause pain and injury. 

What are the solutions?

Fortunately, because our bodies are adaptive, we have powerful tools to help ourselves out of pain and restriction and into healthier, more effective movement.This is where we can retrain our nervous system to move correctly and develop an efficient and powerful movement pattern.

One of the most accessible tools we have to start making these changes is through our breath. Learning to use breath to create a canister of stability in your core can be an incredibly effective solution. However, with these tissue restrictions that are impeding our movement, it can take time to learn how to breathe efficiently and begin to see positive changes in our movement patterns and stability versus mobility points.

One way to speed up the process is to mobilize first, and then use breathing exercises as stabilization. A good formula for movement is Mobilize-Stabilize-Train. We work to first increase healthy range of motion, then find stability within that improved range, and then build sturdiness in this healthier pattern with training such as strength training or moving our bodies in human ways through play.

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How do we know what to change?

There are two ways to go about applying breathing techniques to make these changes. We can take a path that begins deep inside your body and works its way out, or reverse that and begin on the surface and work our way deeper.

Inside-Out: neurodevelopmental exercises (DNS)

We can start by taking advantage of simple positions and movements that the nervous system is already familiar with. These are movements that most humans learn in much the same way, starting at birth. These techniques are based on exercises from the Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization system, and could honestly be put to better use by a clinician or coach who is trained in the system.

3 Month Position 
On your back with your feet on the floor. Flatten your back into the floor.
Breathe in and engage your canister, filling up the space as best you can.
Lift up both legs one at a time until the hip is at 90*. Keep the knees bent to 90*, and the ankles relaxed.
Lower one leg so the heel touches the floor, keeping the knee locked. Try to make the movement in the hip. Come back to neutral, with legs up.
Repeat with the other leg and alternate for reps.

6 Month Position 
Start in the above 3 month position, and move your thighs closer to your stomach.
Pack your shoulders by making fists tightly, and move your hands up in the air above your shoulders. Relax the fists but try to keep the engagement in the shoulders.
Lower the heel while straightening the leg, and at the same time raise the opposite arm overhead. Bring it all back to neutral.
Repeat with the other sides and alternate for reps.
4 Point Crawl
Start on hands and knees, engaging your canister to keep a flat and level spine.
Lift your butt in the air slightly by bringing your thighs closer to your stomach (your knees should not straighten, your hips should be doing the majority of the moving.
Try to keep the back flat and engaged while moving either one limb at a time or opposing limbs at the same time.
Go for distance here, 25-50’.

Outside-In

Working from the outside and moving in deeper, we want to start by mobilizing tight tissues and then move into stability once we have improved movement capacity.

Intercostal Stretch

 The intercostals are the little muscles between your ribs. Mostly likely, these muscles are stiff and immobile from a habitual seated posture. This can inhibit your breathing patterns as well as contribute to stiffness in your thoracic cavity. An Intercostal Breathing exercise can help with this.
From a seated position, bring your right arm over your head. Your bicep should be by your ear.
From here, take a big inhale and begin to tip your ribcage to the left, keeping your pelvis steady and imagining the right side of your ribcage growing space between each rib. As you breathe in, imagine you are breathing into the whole right side of your ribcage and feel that space grow and expand. Try not to let your elbow fall forward but keep it pointed up to the sky. Hold the right side of your ribcage with your left hand to give yourself a tactile cue to stretch through your whole side and not just your armpit.
Continue to breathe into the stretch, feeling the expansion with each inhale. Exhale as you relax a bit, or as you straighten back to a tall seated position. Complete 5 total breath repetitions.
Repeat this on the other side.

Kneeling Lat Opener

Next we will want to work on focusing your breathing into your upper back.
From a seated or standing position, bring your arms out in front of you and lace your fingers together. Turn your hands so your palms face away from you, maintaining the finger lock.
Drop your head and pull your arms forward, feeling the space between your shoulders stretch and expand. Inhale. Pay attention to the feeling of expanding your ribcage. Exhale. Inhale and feel the space in your back and sides expand.
Remain here and practice 5 breaths.

Child’s Pose

Next we will want to work on focusing your breathing into your upper back.
Place your forehead on the floor and keep your knees tucked up under your chest so that your chin almost touches them. Your toes should be pointing straight behind you. Stretch your arms along your sides so that your hands are close to your feet.
From here, relax your shoulders down towards the floor, releasing any tension. As you inhale, fill your low back with the breath and feel it grow outward and upward. Exhale and flatten your back.
Repeat this 5 times.

Forceful Exhalation

Begin practicing this exercise in a supine (lying on your back) position so that you have the external cue from the floor and gravity to help you feel it out. As you gain practice you can also do this exercise from a seated or standing position..
Breathe in. Now, as you exhale, use your abdominal muscles to squeeze as much air out of your lungs as you can.
On your next exhale, purposefully focus on engaging your deep core muscles - the stabilizers - to force every last bit of air out of your lungs, even to the point that your stomach is concave.
Repeat this for 5 breaths, focusing on a forceful exhale and noticing how much more air you expel when you intentionally engage your core to empty your lungs fully.
Take a few regular deep breaths with a full (not necessarily forceful) exhale, and notice how much bigger your inhale is now that you’ve emptied your lungs intentionally and made space to let in more fresh air and oxygen.

Sandbag breathing
​Lying on your back, bend your knees and keep your feet on the floor. You should feel relaxed.
Place a moderately weighted sandbag (or something similar that can provide weighted feedback without hurting you) onto your stomach. Using a sandbag will provide an external cue for your breathing pattern as well as give your abdominal muscles something to work against to improve core strength and stabilization as you breathe.
Focus on intentionally raising the sandbag upward as you inhale. This will mean that you will try to focus your breath into your belly. Notice how your core muscles are working to assist your breath here. Deeply inhale as you push the sandbag upwards, and fully exhale as the sandbag lowers. Continue with this intention for 5 more breaths.
Once you remove the sandbag, take another breath and notice how your breathing feels to your body.

Use the techniques together

Another way to take advantage of the benefits of these exercises is to combine "inside out" with "outside in". There's no reason these two paths toward core stability should remain separate. In fact it makes a lot of sense that they would compliment and even bring great effectiveness to the other.

You could spend some time mobilizing with the intercostal stretch, flow right into the low back with Child's Pose, and then move deeper into finding stabilization with the 6 month position. Or, mobilize with the V back Opener and the Seated Spinal Twist and then explore moving around your floor space with a bear crawl for stability.

Play around with different pairings and let your body tell you what it needs and what works well for you!

Putting the Canister to Good Use

Taking the time to learn to breathe efficiently is a simple change with significant long term rewards. Because breathing is mostly nonconscious, it is likely we all have some inefficient breathing patterns and habits we have never noticed that might make practicing this skill unnatural in the beginning.

Putting in focused work and practice will create new muscle memory in your breathing patterns. It will become more natural and automatic to engage your canister during daily movement. With practice, you will begin to reap the benefits of incorporating efficient breathing into your everyday life and movements.

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