Proper Breathing Can Help Kansas City Have Less Stress
Can You Really Breathe Wrong?
Right now you’re probably saying, “Really? An article about breathing? What’s next, an article about watching paint dry?” While a little harsh, those are pretty fair questions. After all, if you’re reading this article, you’re obviously able to breathe, so what else do you need to know about breathing? Air in… air out. Done and done, right? Well, there’s actually quite a bit more to breathing than just the air movement. What muscles do you use to breathe? Do you use them correctly? What does breathing have to do with core stabilization, low back pain or athletic performance? Interested now? Well read on then!
Muscles of Breathing
So, what muscles do humans use to breathe? Well, there are quite a few of them actually. We use the diaphragm (the muscle that pulls the lungs down), the deep intrinsic muscles of the spine (the muscles that make up our “core”), muscles in the neck, muscles in between our ribs, and muscles of the pelvic floor.
Some of these muscles are more important than others. For instance, the diaphragm is utilized with every breath we take, while the upper trapezius (muscle that connects shoulder blade to neck) is only activated when we need a high level of ventilation, such as after a hard workout.
As mentioned above, the diaphragm is the muscle that is always active during breathing. It is the key respiratory muscle in our body. So, are you using it correctly when you breathe? Try this: place the web space in between your thumbs and index fingers firmly on your flanks (area between your lower ribs and your large “hip bones” / iliac crests). Now take a few normal breaths. What is happening? If you’re correctly using your diaphragm, then as you breathe IN, the diaphragm pulls the lungs down and compresses your abdominal cavity.
So as your abdominal cavity is being compressed, it should “bulge” outward into your hands. Confused? Think of this way: Imagine you are wearing your favorite pair of sweatpants. Every time you breathe in, the waistband of your sweatpants should expand in all directions. It is important to know that this is during normal breathing, not just deep breaths.
Another important item to focus on is how much your shoulders elevate when you breathe in. If someone tells you to take a deep breathe, we all want to lift our shoulders up to get all that air in, right? Well, if we lift our shoulders, this pulls the lungs up, which prevents the diaphragm from pulling the lungs down.
Obviously, if we’re absolutely spent from a tough workout, we need to get in air any way we can. But, during normal breathing and even with moderate exercise, we shouldn’t be elevating our shoulders at all!
So did you pass the test? If not, don’t worry as most people that walk into our office don’t pass either. Why do so many people breathe wrong? Well Dr. Lum may have said it best when he stated that, “In many instances, altered breathing patterns, whatever their origins, are maintained by nothing more sinister than pure habit1.” In order to have the expansion of our waistband, we need to relax our abdominal muscles.
If you let your abdominals relax, your belly hangs out. So there goes that perfectly flat stomach you worked so hard for! But is a flat stomach ideal? Picture a two year-old toddler. At this age, their muscle activation is due to their development, it hasn’t been changed with bad habits or poor workout routines. And do they have flat stomachs? NO! They basically have the opposite: a full and round abdomen!
So what’s the big deal?
Most people are probably going to choose a flat stomach over breathing correctly. Who cares if you breathe “correctly” as long as you’re still alive, right? Well, you should care! Basically, everything we do starts with breathing. Karel Lewit, MD, who is considered by many to be the father of manual medicine and rehabilitation, said “If breathing is not normalized – no other movement pattern can be2.” How is this so? Well, the diaphragm isn’t just for breathing. It is also a key stabilization muscle.
For example, if you try to move your arm or leg against resistance, your diaphragm contracts significantly in order to stabilize your core3. This is because you core needs to be stabilized before any arm or leg movements. Muscles that move your arms and legs attach to your torso, and these muscles require a stable point to pull from. We call this stable point a “punctum fixum,” and that is what the diaphragm is trying to create when it contracts. Another study showed how the diaphragm contracts during repetitive arm motions4.
Researchers took measurements of the diaphragm’s muscle activity and showed that the diaphragm was “firing” in two distinct patterns. The first pattern was in line with respiratory rhythm, and the second was in line with the rapid arm movements. This article, like many others, confirmed that the diaphragm works as a respiratory muscle AND as a core stabilizer. Finally, there’s an unpublished (as of now) study that will shake the rehabilitation world5. It took two groups of people: those with low back pain and those without low back pain and looked at diaphragm activity. As you can guess, those without low back pain had great diaphragm activation. Those who had low back pain had poor diaphragm activity.
To bring it all together, if you hold in your abs all the time, you prevent the diaphragm from contracting and dropping as you inhale. It’s like flexing your bicep and thinking you can straighten your arm. As you continue to breathe in this pattern, your diaphragm gets weaker and weaker, which, as shown above, may lead to low back pain. Not only that, but now you have to recruit your neck muscles to breathe, so say hello to more neck tension and pain!
Hopefully by now you realize the importance of proper breathing. Re-training yourself to breathe correctly can be hard though. A trick we use in our office is to get 3-4 small stickers and place them in spots you see regularly (cell phone, TV, rear view mirror, computer, etc). Every time you see the sticker, it’s a reminder to relax your abs and allow your abdomen to expand as you inhale. That should put you on the right track. On a final note, we will allow you to flatten your stomach on only two occasions: for pictures and the beach! Other than those two, breathe normally and enjoy a better functioning body!