Position and Breathing.
Welcome back! And thank you for taking the time to join me in part 2 of “Position is King”. In order for you to fully understand and appreciate all of what is to be discussed, I strongly recommend you go back and read Part 1 if you haven’t already done so. To read Part 1 CLICK HERE
Now then! This next topic is huge and one that could be discussed in whole libraries of books! I hope to just give you at least some appreciation of how position affects breathing and breathing affects position.
But first, let’s go over the basics.
Rib Cage Mechanics and Breathing 101
One of the best analogies I’ve heard which relates to the chest, rib cage and breathing is that of the bucket handle and pump. At the front of your body you have your sternum (chest plate) and your ribs. Think of your sternum as a water pump handle and your ribs as a bucket handle.
Now if we go to the bottom portion of your rib cage, the bottom left and right ribs form an angle underneath your sternum known as “The Infrasternal Angle” or “ISA” for short.
The Infrasternal Angle
When you inhale your chest expands and the sternum (pump handle) moves upwards and outwards. Your ribs (bucket handle) then lifts up to expand the rib cage and thus increases your ISA. Conversely, when we exhale the pump and bucket handle moves back downwards and inwards which decreases your ISA. IE when we inhale the pump handle is drawn upwards and when we exhale, the pump handle is forced downwards. All of this occurs to maximise airspace and airflow in and out of your lungs.
If you are still not with me, for arguments sake, let’s say that inbetween breaths, your ISA sits at 90 degress. Therefore when you inhale, the angle increases ABOVE 90 degrees and when you exhale, it reduces back down and below 90 degrees.
Right I’m not going to teach you to suck eggs here so this will be quick. One of the best analogies I’ve heard with regards to breathing is to simply think of your lungs as balloons. When airflow is travelling into a balloon, the balloon expands in ALL directions. Air doesn’t just go forwards in a balloon, it’s a 360 degree expansion (relatively speaking! I won’t bore you too much with the physics of lung pressures etc!). Your lungs are just like balloons, air needs to expand within them in all directions!
Put simply, when we breathe, air should move in ALL directions within the lungs.
Breathing, Movement and POSITION.
So where to start? Well, firstly, our body’s move when we breathe. Breathing therefore, is movement and movement is breathing! However, position affects movement and breathing and vice versa! Complicated isn’t it! Well let me break it down for you.
When you inhale your body extends (arches back). We refer to this position as extension. On the other hand, when you exhale, your body flexes (bends forwards). We refer to this position as flexion. Neither is bad, they are just working in partnership so that you can effectively move air in and out of your body/torso. You simply need to be able to do both. When you are inhaling, you should be able to move air in all directions within your torso. Air should be able to go forwards, backwards, down up and circumferentially. Remember to think of your lungs as balloons, air expanding in all directions!
It doesn’t take a Rocket Scientist to work out that if you do not breathe, you die. Therefore our brains will always prioritise breathing and has in place, many fail safe options to go to should your primary method of breathing fail. The body is task orientated you see, just because it cannot do something one way, it will find another way through compensation. One example being, if your upper back muscles become “tight” through poor position and air cannot be moved in a backwards direction (back of the balloon cannot expand), your body will compensate to allow more air to move forwards. This will keep you breathing but it comes at an expense. More on this shortly.
Your diaphragm is your primary breathing muscle. However, it too can also fall victim to poor position of the body and lose its ability to work efficiently. Your diaphragm sits underneath/inbetween the low portion of your ribs (Think back to your ISA!). Its position is dictated by the position of the rib cage and the pelvis. Should the rib cage be pulled up or the pelvis be allowed to tip forwards (as modern life so commonly makes them do!), the poor old diaphragm loses its optimal and strong position and becomes weak and unable to do its primary breathing role.
Once this happens, your ability to breathe effectively is reduced but that does not mean you are going to pass out, flail around in a panic of short breath and die. Far from it, what happens is your brain will click into gear and start calling upon other muscles to help move air in and out of your lungs and keep you alive. The change in position of the body may mean the diaphragm cannot work effectively but other muscles in this position can assume it’s role! These muscles tend to be your pectorals, neck muscles, traps and lower back muscles (to name a few!)
The problem with this is that it comes at a cost. The average human breathes in excess of 20,000 times a day! If your body is in a poor position, cannot effectively breathe using your diaphragm and has had to call on those above muscles, that’s a lot of times those muscles have got to work! Remember these muscles have their own jobs to do and are now being asked to “moonlight” as accessory breathers.
What do you think is going to happen??
Bingo! They are going to get tired, overworked, toned up and cranky! Now you cannot use your diaphragm and have a whole body full of cranky, toned up muscles. It’s no wonder then that you start to develop neck pain, headaches, low back pain, shoulder pain, chronic pain/fatigue and are reporting that your performance and concentration levels have dipped!
Now also think about what will happen to your ability to move air in all directions (like a balloon) if the muscles in your back have toned up to the point of being like a brick wall. You got it, you will no longer be able to move air backwards into your body! This poses a problem for movement, particularly flexion (bending forwards) and exhaling (which bends you forwards).
If you cannot move air into the back of your torso, you cannot bend forward effectively or touch your toes. If air cannot travel backwards it is essentially stuck at the front of your torso. When you bend forwards, this air needs to be able to be shunted backwards and your upper and lower back are required expand to accommodate it. If this cant happen, air gets stuck at the front, has nowhere to go and you cannot bend forward or touch your toes. It’s that simple.
If your diaphragm and abdominals are placed into poor position, your back muscles act as compensatory “breathers”. Whilst this prevents air moving into the back of your body and ultimately costs you the ability to bend forward, it keeps you breathing! Think back to your brain being king/queen of your system…it will always prioritize breathing and keeping you alive above anything, even at the expense of a bad back, neck or shoulders etc,.
The key point here is, your diaphragm is probably your most important muscle. The second key point is breathing is movement and movement is breathing! Breathing plays such a pivotal role in everything you do from day to day life to athletic performance. And for all of this to work effectively and efficiently, you have to put your diaphragm in the right POSITION! Honestly, it never ceases to amaze me how much an individuals flexibility, mobility or strength improves or how quickly their pain drops off once we’ve got their diaphragm positioned correctly.
To summarize Part 2 then, if we can place your body in the optimum position, you can both breathe and move without compensating. This is a BIG deal for life and in sport.
Think about it this way, if you can breathe without compensation, you can move efficiently. If you can move efficiently there is no need for compensation. Movement efficiency requires little energy expenditure and there positively contributes to pain and performance levels. An individual who does not suffer from pain or injury is able to perform consistently in life and sport.
Do you now see how all of this forms the beating heart of your health and performance.?
But what is the biggest driver behind all of this going wrong?
Stress unfortunately plays a pivotal role in both position and breathing. If we stack excessive levels of chronic stress onto our brains and onto our system, it can have a profoundly negative impact. It has the ability to pull us into sub-optimal position, which leads to reduced diaphragm influence. This leads to compensatory breathing.
Stress is our final topic in this series and will be discussed at length in Part 3.
The key message I want you to take home from Part 3 is that it is stress that drives us into poor position. It is the compensatory breathing that locks us there! It is this that drags us into the deep murky waters of pain, injury, fatigue and all of the problems that are associated with these.
I hope you’ve enjoyed part 2 of this series which has covered Position and Breathing. As always, feel free to drop me a message or a comment if you wish to debate or know more.
See you in Part 3! (CLICK HERE TO BE TAKEN TO PART 3)
Thank you and take care!