How purposeful breathing can get you bigger, stronger, more flexible and recovering faster than ever.
Jason Aggarwal 13-05-20
BREATHING AND THE NERVOUS SYSTEM
1. A quick neuroanatomy lesson:
Our nervous system has two components: the somatic nervous system and the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The somatic nervous system is responsible for voluntary muscle action and communicating sensory information from the muscles, skin, eyes, ears and mouth. The ANS is responsible for regulating digestion, breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, immune function, arousal, excitement, stress and recovery. Within the ANS, there are two components. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is responsible for short bursts of extreme output and stress (fight or flight). The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is responsible for recovery, calm and clarity (rest and digest). (2, 3, 4, 9)
2. Breathing and the autonomic nervous system:
Of all the functions of the ANS, only one can be consciously accessed by humans: the breath. Therefore, breathing is the one and only way we can actively modulate the activity of our SNS and PNS. In general, inhalations, particularly when performed quickly through the mouth, upregulate the SNS. Exhalations, particularly when performed slowly, or when breathing nasally, upregulates the PNS. (1, 2, 3, 4, 9)
3. Performance and the sympathetic nervous system:
For very intense, short bursts of activity that do not need much focus, we can jack up our sympathetic system. Ever watch someone hyperventilate before a big lift? Instinctively, they’re using breath to ramp up their SNS. Be careful, however, as too much of this can and will burn you out, and it prevents you from being able to think carefully about what you’re doing. If you must, limit yourself to one “hyped” set per workout. (2, 3, 9)
4. Performance and the parasympathetic nervous system:
At times when we need to be calm and focused, or relax and recover, we need to be able to upregulate our PNS. To do this, we need to slow our breathing, focusing on slow breaths through our nose. Additionally, mild breath holds after you exhale will bump up that PNS activity. This is great to use pre- and post- workout, between sets, and before a big game or performance. (2, 3, 4, 9)
THE BIOMECHANICS OF BREATHING
1. Just another motor pattern:
Breathing is a motor skill. Every time we inhale, a dome-shaped muscle beneath our lungs called the diaphragm descends as the external intercostals spread the ribcage apart. This increases the volume of the chest cavity, reducing intra-thoracic pressure and forcing air to rush not the lungs. As the diaphragm descends, it pushes our abdominal organs down towards our pelvis, forcing the pelvic floor to drop to create room for the guts. When you exhale, the opposite must occur: the pelvic floor pushes the guts back up toward the chest as the diaphragm ascends and the innermost and internal intercostals squeeze the ribcage together. This decreases the volume of the chest cavity and increases intra-thoracic pressure, forcing air out of the lungs and into the atmosphere. Throughout the whole process, the abs (all of them: internal oblique, external oblique, transversus abdominis and rectus abdominis) must kick in to stop our guts spilling forward. Yes, that means that belly-breathing is dysfunctional, and often associated with a weak core. (1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10)
Here is an animation of the breath cycle
2. Why that matters for you:
Breathing is kind of important, and your body will find a way to breathe no matter what (unless you’ve got congenital central hypoventilation syndrome, where your body literally forgets to breath). If your body cannot rely on its primary muscles of respiration – diaphragm, intercostals, pelvic floor and abs – it will be forced to use other muscles like the adductors, glutes, pectorals, traps, lats, rhomboids and neck to pull and tug on the ribcage to get air in and push air out. This is probably one of the ways we end up with “tight” muscles, especially when stretching fails to solve the problem. (1, 7, 10)
3. What you can do about it:
Take some time to breathe properly. Implementing the 90-90 hip lift (link below) before training is a great place to start, as you’ll start to see improvements in range-of-motion from the first “set”. Ensure you exhale all of your air out until your abs contract, and keep your abs on as you inhale quietly through your nose. As a bonus, the increased PNS activity will improve your focus. To gradually progress into higher-pressure systems, which arguably carry over better to heavy lifts, consider utilising bear position breathing, or a circuit of pre-selected exercises that can bias airflow into the right areas. (1, 4, 6)
Here is a video of the 90-90 hip lift
1. Cupples, Z. (2018). Human Matrix: The Code for Maximal Health and Performance [Ebook] (6th ed.).
2. Holdsworth, J., Dietz, C., & Korfist, C. (2020). Reflexive Performance Reset: Level 1 Manual. In Reflexive Performance Reset: Level 1. Brisbane.
3. Krebs, C., Weinberg, J., Akesson, E., & Dilli, E. (2018). Neuroscience (2nd ed.). Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer.
4. McKeown, P. (2016). The oxygen advantage (2nd ed.). New York City: William Morrow & Company.
5. McKinley, M., Dean O’Loughlin, V., & Pennefather-O’Brien, E. (2017). Human Anatomy (5th ed.). New York CIty: McGraw Hill Education.
6. Moore, J. (2020). In Multi-Directional Speed.
7. Myers, T., Chambers, G., Maizels, D., & Wilson, P. (2014). Anatomy trains (3rd ed.). London: Churchill Livingstone.
8. Oatis, C. (2016). Kinesiology (3rd ed.). Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer.
9. Porges, S. (2011). The polyvagal theory (1st ed.). New York: W.W. Norton.
10. Wallden, M. (2017). The diaphragm – More than an inspired design. Journal Of Bodywork And Movement Therapies, 21(2), 342-349. doi: 10.1016/j.jbmt.2017.03.013