Better Breathing for Optimal Performance

One of the most underappreciated pieces of movement that we exhibit on a daily basis (without awareness) is our breath. A common misconception is that we have poor posture because we sit for too long or that it was developed over time and is inevitable when we start to age. When you see rounded shoulders or forward head posture our immediate consensus is – bad posture. However, when we can manage position of the pelvis with a stacked ribcage and head above it, we’re allowing the body to exhibit an advantageous position to get air in and out of the body. In the world of sports and lifting, this is why we use weight belts in the gym: to increase the amount of pressure we can generate in the abdominal wall. Or why we keep a rhythmic cadence with our breath when working hard: to offset the feeling of fatigue and manage the workload being put on the body.

If we can familiarize the body with handling load in a stacked position, control the pelvis, and dictate where the air we take in goes, the athlete can exhibit better control of movement patterns while increasing load. So how are we able to manage better access of pressure driving strategies that allow us to perform at the highest level? Active breathing in specific positions influences your body in three major aspects; creating pressure/generating power, moving fluidly, and unlocking muscles that have felt chronically ‘tight’.

Let’s start with the first aspect: generating pressure and power. The concept of creating pressure refers to your body’s ability to stabilize and support the spine when under load or lifting weights. This is something we see as a compensation in athletes when swinging a bat, golf club or a kettlebell. Overtime, compensations lead to asymmetrical imbalances which limits movement variability. If the body has limited options to perform a repetitive movement (swinging), it will always take the path of least resistance whether it is efficient or not. Getting feedback from the ground where your body is in space allows force from the ground to be effectively pressed up into the pelvic floor toward the diaphragm. This happens in conjunction with an equal and opposite force from the diaphragm working to push the pressure down. Feedback from the ground up and opposing forces at the diaphragm down is what creates pressure from all angles of the body (best case scenario).

The first place to start with understanding how to feel/create pressure from the pelvic floor is starting in a 90/90 position with feet on the wall, ideally barefoot. This puts the body in a stacked position (hips underneath ribcage) to make for a smoother inhale from the diaphragm and pelvic floor. Creating the perfect brace requires reps and being diligent with your intent on doing the movement correctly. The missing link found in bracing is feeling the floor or surface your feet are on which allows for better pressure from the bottom up!

The second aspect breathing influences is fluid movement. When the body is learning a new movement pattern or exploring unfamiliar ranges of motion, the breath will be the first thing to lock up, a protection mechanism the nervous system uses to avoid injury. However, in rotational sports, having fluidity in motion (breath work paired with movement) is paramount for producing power.

An approach I’ve found success with athletes in the past is taking a familiar movement pattern, takeaway in a golf swing, and manipulating that piece in the weight room. Finding similar movements that mimic this component of a swing in the weight room is what will carry over into performance on the field. An example of this is the cable chop, an excellent, dynamic movement that can be progressed and regressed easily based off one’s ability and skill level. Progressions for this could look like start in a half kneeling position, then move into a staggered stance and then potentially adding an explosive element to the mix. Checkout the video below for a full in-depth description of how to incorporate the cable chop effectively.

The third aspect which I have seen to have the greatest carry over into everyday movement quality is unlocking muscles that feel chronically tight and getting underutilized muscles to fire. To reiterate my initial point with the misconception of “poor posture” it is that there’s no bad postures to be in. It’s what you’re doing in that position which affects your long-term ability to move in different planes of motion (rotation/side to side). If the pelvis stays stuck forward when swinging a golf club or hinging at the hips to pick up weight, you’re limiting your body’s ability to create pressure in a stacked position. And the longer you are staying in that position without pelvic control, will force muscles like the low back to work harder than needed to support posture. The more often we get out of these stuck positions the more movement variability we give our body to move optimally from.

Three movements to effectively target combatting chronic pain are the front foot elevated split squat, kickstand romanian deadlift and a short-seated squat with reach exercise. The foot elevated split squat is an effective loaded stretch that biases internal rotation of the lead hip. This movement of the hips is shut off when sitting for extended periods of time. Kickstand romanian deadlifts favor the same affect but on opposite sides of the leg (posterior chain muscles). Finally, the short-seated squat with a reach is a helpful strategy for pushing air into the posterior cavity of the ribcage which inhibits chronically tight traps. Exhalation relates to inhibition/relaxation with muscles groups that are otherwise turned on (i.e. low back relaxes when in 90/90 position; traps relax when more air is pushed into posterior cavity of upper back). Checkout this video for a full description of how to implement these movements into your routine.

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