When my brother and I envisioned Gallagher Performance, one of our primary objectives was to provide a system that truly identified the structural and functional limitations of athletes, thus addressing these issues properly before they became implicated in serious injury or potential surgery. We knew the perspectives and coordinated efforts of a strength coach, massage therapist, nutritionist, and chiropractor with advanced training in manual and rehabilitative techniques could provide athletes with the avenues needed for improving sport performance and health. After all, achieving high-end sport performance is a multi-faceted and complex process.
Among the approaches and individualized considerations that are made for each of our athletes and clients, a fundamental concept within our programming is the emphasis on proper breathing patterns through focused exercises to optimize breathing and its impact on sport-specific movements.
When we breathe, proper function of the diaphragm is the key and it should drive respiration. The question is, are you using it correctly when you breathe? To find out, simply place the web space in between your thumb and index finger firmly on each side of your abdomen in the area between your lowest ribs and your hip bones (or iliac crests). Now take a few normal breaths. What is happening? If you're using your diaphragm correctly, you should feel a "bulge" outward into your hands. Why? As you breathe in, the diaphragm pulls the lungs down and creates compression within your abdominal cavity. It is this compression that creates the bulge outward into your hands. You can also think out it as breathing into your waistband or belt. You should feel your abdomen expand in all directions with proper breathing and this should occur normally, not only with deep breathing.
Another area of focus is how much your shoulders elevate during inhalation. Commonly, when someone wants to take a deep breathe, they have the tendency to lift their shoulders up to get more air in. But this is the exact opposite of what we want. Lifting the shoulders during breathing pulls the lungs up, which prevents the diaphragm from pulling the lungs down and will reduce the amount of air we can breathe in. It's important to note that shoulder elevation is normal with intense physical exercise; however, during normal breathing and even moderate exercise, there should be no shoulder elevation.
Don't sweat it if you didn't pass the test? Breathing has more to do with poor habits than anything else, which opens to door to retraining. The retraining of proper breathing patterns is something we spend a lot of time focusing on at GP with our clients and athletes.
Breathing and Its Influence on Athletic Performance
Previously, the role breathing has in the promotion of a healthy spine, prevention of neck and back pain, and enhancement of muscular coordination was underappreciated by many in the world of sport performance and physical medicine. Nowadays, breathing patterns have gradually gained more and more attention for the critical role they play in spinal stabilization, movement efficiency and athletic performance. Now it’s time for us to get in on sharing the knowledge. Below are three simple ways that breathing can affect your performance as an athlete.
- Improve Joint Mechanics There is no question that movement and range of motion needed from specific joints throughout the body is always activity dependent. For example, hip internal rotation (IR) deficits have gained a lot of attention in regards to faulty lower extremity mechanics during movement, such as the squat. To address the deficit, the idea of performing internal rotation stretches has been popular to help improve the restriction. But it is interesting to observe that simply teaching an athlete proper breathing, abdominal and hip extension/external rotation activation through exercise can improve hip IR tremendously without the application of any static stretching. This raises the question of stretching and we addressed that in the article, Why Stretching Won't Solve Your Tight Muscles. Essentially, if range of motion was improved through breathing and stabilization techniques, the limitation was due to position of the spine, pelvis, and surrounding musculature, NOT because of a limitation in the hip. The same can be said of any joint in the body. Using specific breathing exercises can restore balance to the key joints of the body (i.e. spine, shoulders, and hips) by promoting normal expression of movement and range of motion.
- Optimize Movement Patterns If an athlete attempts to execute a sport or skill-specific movement from a non-neutral position, they are already set-up to be inefficient and will limit their performance to some degree. The result is compensatory movement patterns and athletes may or may not be aware of how they are compensating for poor movement quality. If you consider rotational sports such as baseball, hockey, golf, and throwing sports (i.e. shot put, hammer throw), it’s easy to see that spinal rotation is a key component to the execution of movements specific to each sport. If an athlete cannot rotate adequately through their spine, the first compensation becomes lateral bend. This will limit power and efficiency and predispose the athlete to overuse syndromes. Using breathing exercises to help restore a neutral spine will potentially help restore rotation to the spine. As spinal rotation improves, this new range of motion is then re-integrated into sport-specific movements with emphasis on quality and control. The outcome of focused breathing exercises becomes improved joint mechanics, more efficient technique, more power, and less risk of overuse injury. This is just one of the reasons we want coaches to understand that our job is to make their life easier.
- Decrease Injury Risk, Improve Recovery Injury prevention is a challenging task. There are several factors that play into specific athletic injuries, each carrying their own unique considerations and strategies to decreased risk. There are many factors that predispose athletes to injury and with targeted approaches, appropriate steps can be taken to reduce the risk of injury by focusing on improving joint/muscle function, reducing the impact of fatigue, and ensuring adequate recovery. We already discussed how breathing can improve joint and muscle function. Utilizing optimal breathing patterns can delay fatigue by assisting in maximum air/oxygen exchange, therefore delaying the point at which aerobic metabolism ceases and anaerobic processes kick in. This is especially important during high-intensity activity, when the demand for oxygen is critical to prevent accumulation of metabolic byproducts responsible for lowering pH levels and inducing fatigue. Ideal breathing will also accelerate the recovery process between intense bouts of exercise, therefore promoting recovery of the body’s energy systems. Following training and competition, the use of proper breathing patterns will help the body shift into more of a parasympathetic state. Returning to parasympathetic dominance is the essence of recovery and breathing is one tool that can be used to enhance recovery. More detail on the importance of recovery can be read in our article, Understanding The Role of Recovery in Health and Performance.
The importance of proper breathing patterns cannot be underestimated. Karel Lewit, MD, considered by many as the father of manual therapy and rehabilitation, stated, “If breathing is not normalized - no other movement pattern can be.” This statement demonstrates the concept of regional interdependence within the body, meaning all musculoskeletal function is interrelated. Regional interdependence helps to explain how simple breathing exercises can be used to improve joint mechanics, optimize muscle function, reduce injury risk, and enhance recovery.
1. Lewit, K. Manipulative Therapy: Musculoskeletal Medicine. 2010.
2. Lum, L. Hyperventilation Syndromes. In: Behavioral and Psychological Approaches to Breathing Disorders. 1994