The Ultimate Guide To Breathing

We take 20,000 to 35,000 breaths per day. The diaphragm should be mostly responsible for almost all of these breaths, yet in most modern humans, it lies dormant. A well-functioning diaphragm is fundamental for stability, good movement, healthy organs, injury resilience and stress management. The diaphragm is the master muscle and it is key for long-term success in all health, longevity, body-composition and performance goals. However, sitting in chairs for prolonged periods throughout the day causes our brains to figure out a more efficient method of breathing.

Breathing in Chairs

While we blame the chair for causing most of the physical dysfunctions of the modern human there are other factors involved, such as leading stressful lives, injury and emotional trauma. When sitting in chairs, our abdomens are compressed and it’s no longer necessary to maintain an upright position on our own. Therefore, the brain figures out that it will use less energy 20,000 to 35,000 times a day by using the ancillary muscles of the chest and shoulders instead. This is great if sitting in a chair is the only activity that is ever required. However, havoc is created when more complex tasks are demanded — in other words, anything else that involves moving the body.

Are you sitting in a chair while reading this? If so, I urge you to move to the floor, to a standing, kneeling, half kneeing or squatting position. Make that change!

Breathing for Injury

In all cases of chronic pain that mysteriously just comes on as a result of exercise, sports or manual labor activities (such as elbow tendinitis, shin splints, neck pain, SI pain, etc.) there’s a dysfunctional diaphragm present.

A well-functioning diaphragm creates stability for the entire body. Every contraction of the diaphragm creates pressure inside the abdomen (intra-abdominal pressure), which in turn creates a neurological innervation and eccentric contraction of the transverse abdominis, pelvic floor and obliques. Then these muscles concentrically contract as the diaphragm relaxes, creating a continual cycle of core stabilization and protection for one of the most vulnerable parts of the body, the lower back.

Imagine the potential for injury if all of this lies dormant throughout the day and then a demanding physical task is attempted. Abdominal hernias are common in males of the bodybuilding and powerlifting demographic. An abdominal hernia is a sure sign that the muscles of the inner abdominal cavity are weak. This injury is particularly common during the barbell back squat exercise as the lifter supports the load skeletally (on their spine). The risk is mitigated slightly during the barbell front squat because more abdominal tension is required to successfully carry out the lift. The risk is mitigated almost entirely during the Zercher squat or kettlebell front squat because the load is barely being supported skeletally. It is held with the arms, creating maximal intra-abdominal pressure even for those who don’t know what their pelvic floor is.

Breathing for Fat Loss

Breathing with the diaphragm promotes relaxation, concentration, clarity of thought and a lack of stress. This is key for metabolizing fat.

Breathing with the chest and shoulders mimics panic breathing and tells the brain that we’re in survival mode. For every 20,000 to 35,000 chest breaths we take on a daily basis (when not physically exerted), we are telling our brains to deposit fat under our skin because we’ll need for survival.

Breathing During Movement

Do you ever find yourself holding your breath while performing a fiddly task such as using a screw driver, washing the dog, reaching for a dish or tying your shoe strings? Most people tend to hold their breath during basic, unloaded day-to-day movements because their diaphragms don’t work. They can’t breathe with their chest muscles at the same time as using them for reaching, so they stop breathing.

Picture the newbie in a yoga class, grunting, hissing and making all sorts of noises while trying to perform a Vinyasa sequence. Their nervous system is freaking out because of all these new bodily positions. The usual breathing muscles of the chest and shoulders are in use so they gasp for breaths at any opportunity. The breath holding creates more tension in the body which in turn leads to more sweat. Ergo, newbie’s yoga mat is covered in a pool of sweat.

As a rule, humans should breathe normally throughout all unloaded movements, through their noses with their tongue sitting on the back roof of their mouth – the natural resting place after swallowing. Unloaded day-to-day movements do not require much strength to perform. However, there are many instances that holding ones’ breath momentarily is optimal and necessary, such as when lifting something heavy. Enter, mechanical breathing.

There are two types of diaphragmatic breathing: anatomical and mechanical. Conscious control of both the transverse abdominis (TA) and the pelvic floor (PF) are required for mechanical breathing.

Transverse Abdominis (TA) and Pelvic Floor (PF) Activation

The TA is the only muscle in the human body that does not attach to a bone. It’s the deepest of the abdominal muscles and wraps around the waist like a corset or a weight lifting belt. When it contracts, it compresses the abdomen from all sides and creates stability for the lumbar region. The same nerves that innervate the lower fibers of the TA also innervates the upper fibers of the PF.

Activating the TA

Activate the TA by holding the ribcage in a neutral position and suck in the waist line as much as possible on every exhale. Expand the waistline as much as possible on every inhale.

Imagine the abdominal cavity to be a box: the roof is the diaphragm and the walls are the TA. The floor is the PF. Let’s assume diaphragm control and TA activation are in the bag, without the ability to contract and relax the PF on demand, the internal pressure of the abdominal box is compromised.

Mastery of the pelvic floor during movement is the key to unlocking real strength. The ability to engage the pelvic floor while simultaneously engaging the TA and diaphragm transforms the entire abdominal cavity from a mass of soft tissue into a solid box that fixes the pelvic region to the thorax and transmits force efficiently from one part of the body to another.

Activating the PF

To engage the PF, imagine squeezing a pee and a poo at the same time.

Steps to mastering PF activation:

  1. Engage PF during lifts and throughout the day.

  2. Develop the ability to contract the anterior region while relaxing the posterior and vice versa, through frequent practice.

  3. Develop the ability to make waves with the PF (i.e. contract anterior and hold, contract posterior and hold, relax anterior, relax posterior, and vice versa).

  4. Develop the ability to control the tension-o-meter of the PF (i.e. 20% tension to 80% tension).

  5. Practice all of the above during unloaded movements.

  6. Practice all of the above during loaded movements.

Weightlifting Belts Rant

This rant does not apply to Girevoy Sport athletes who wear their belts loosely below the transverse abdominus. This does not apply to elite level powerlifters, strongwomen and strongmen who lift loads in the realms of “super heavy”. This rant does not apply to athletes who are in the process of competing in sporting activities such as CrossFit or powerlifting meets.

Wearing a weightlifting belt weakens everyday athletes. It is detrimental to longevity and increases susceptibility to injury. The belt just acts as the TA and teaches the nervous system that it doesn’t need to activate its real TA. To wear a belt, even in training for an event, might increase performance on the day but causes weakness in the long term. Wearing belts is especially bad for anyone with a history of lower back injury because they are the individuals who need to build their TA activation the most.

Weightlifting belts feel nice and make it easier, but there is no place for them in any training for everyday athletes. A 2.5 x bodyweight deadlift is well within reach for anyone using the belt that we were born with. It just takes some courage to take a few steps back and train for longevity instead of short-term strength or mass goals.

The Valsalva Manoeuvre

This is a method of maintaining intra-abdominal pressure for those who don’t own their diaphragm, pelvic floor and transverse abdominus (most lifters). It basically involves holding one’s breath to brace for a lift. The Valsalva manoeuvre is a great place to start for all beginners because just the act of holding one’s breath creates sufficient IA pressure for light to medium loads. But as the lifter advances in strength, to leave the pelvic floor and transverse abdominus disengaged leads to guts exploding through the abdominal cavity wall – abdominal herniation. Abdominal hernias are a sure indicator of underactive, weak pelvic floors and TA.

Instead of coaching the Valsalva manoeuvre from beginner level, I suggest coaching PF, TA activation and diaphragmatic breathing techniques. This builds strength from the inside out and sets the beginner up for success further down the road.

Breathing Anatomically

The movement of the body and the breath match each other.

Example 1: as one descends in a squat the abdominal cavity is compressed, which encourages an exhale. During the ascent, as the pressure on the abdominal cavity subsides, a natural inhale is encouraged.

Example 2: Twisting to reach for something from standing. As the torso twists it compresses the abdominal cavity encouraging an exhale.

Anatomical breathing should be present throughout most normal day-to-day movement.

Breathing Mechanically

The pelvic area is full of bones and muscle and is the power house for many movements. The thoracic area is also packed with bones and connects to the massive shoulder girdles and head. Between the bottom of the ribcage and the top of the pelvis is the abdominal area, which is mostly soft tissue. The only hard tissue that can take compression in this area is within the few bones of the lumbar spine.

Sometimes force needs to be transmitted from lower body to upper body. For instance, when pulling open a heavy door, picking up the dog, performing a push-up or lifting a barbell. During these loaded movements it is necessary for the soft tissue of the abdomen to become more solid. A degree of intra-abdominal pressure is required in order to protect the vulnerable area of the lower back and transmit force efficiently from upper to lower or vice versa. This is when mechanical breathing would be used. This would happen naturally if modern humans moved on the floor more and hadn’t devolved into the chair.

  1. Squeeze TA and PF, approx. 50% tension

  1. Inhale with diaphragm, maintaining relaxed chest, shoulders and neck. Also maintaining tension in TA and PF

  1. Turn the tension dial up to 80%-90% in TA and PF and relax diaphragm. This extra intra-abdominal pressure creates the exhale

For repeated repetitions:

  1. Reduce TA and PF tension to 50% and contract diaphragm, causing inhale

  1. Increase TA and PF tension to 80%-90% and relax diaphragm, causing exhale

Signs of Dysfunctional Diaphragm

  • Chest / shoulder movement observed between sentences when talking to someone

  • Breath holding during unloaded movement that involves reaching the arms overhead

  • Breath holding during moderately loaded overhead lifts

  • Inability to eliminate movement in upper chest and shoulders during an inhale, when cued to do so

  • Inability to consciously create movement in the posterior 12thribs during an inhale, while maintaining no movement in the upper chest or shoulders

  • Inability to consciously separate the anterior diaphragm from the posterior diaphragm and breathe with one part or the other

  • A case history of repeated chronic extremity injuries such as shin splints or elbow tendinitis

Rebuilding the neurological pathway to your diaphragm is absolutely possible.

Relearning to Breathe

For as long as one spends most of the day in a chair, relearning to breathe correctly is extremely difficult. The first step to re-establishing good breathing patterns is addressing lifestyle and workstation factors to encourage more locomotive movement (walking) and reduce time spent in the triple flexed fetal position. Although the chair is the probable root of the dysfunction, consider that there may be other emotional, or injury history factors involved.

The only way to wake up dormant tissue is with frequent and regular practice. Lay on your back and try to breathe without any upper ribcage, sternum or shoulder movement. Feel the soft tissue of your lower back and your lower posterior ribs pressing gently into the floor on every inhale. Continue with this focused breathing session for 2-5 minutes per day. Next, add resistance. Put a straw in your mouth and breathe through it for the full 2-5 minutes. When you can achieve 5 minutes, add a second straw onto the end of your first one. Gradually build this up to being able to breathe diaphragmatcially for 5 minutes, then add a third. By the time you can breathe through three straws for 5 minutes, your diaphragm will be a lot stronger and more active. I also like to ask clients to stare at something bright red while they practice their breathing. Then throughout their day, every time they see the coloraturas bright red means 5 slow diaphragmatic breaths. I'll send them emoji's of red balloons randomly throughout the week to help this become a habit.

Thanks for reading

Phil McDougall

Instagram: @phil.mcdougall

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