What is the number one thing that we do subconsciously in order to survive?
If you guessed breathing, you’re correct!
Breathing is extremely important as it helps you to exercise better, reduces stress, become a better tactical athlete and it can even hinder your posture if you breathe wrong.
In this article I’m going to discuss why breathing is important, how to breathe correctly and exercises that you can do in order to breath better for you to experience the full benefits.
Breathing is essential to life, and it is also one of the most important mechanisms of the human body. It is the first thing we do when we are born and it is the last thing we do on this earth. The average amount of breaths per day is 15,000 times!
In order to understand breathing we need to understand the diaphragm. This is the most important muscle in the body bar-none! If you think your chest or your arms are you are mistaken, because if you can’t breathe then you will have no chest or arms.
Eighty per cent of the work of breathing comes from the diaphragm. Other muscles that help with breathing are the external intercostals, intercostalis and subcostals on expiration.
The diaphragm is a thin wide sheet of muscle separating the rib cage from the abdomen. It is found in the lower portion of the ribcage attached to ribs 7-12 the xiphoid process off of the sternum and the first three lumbar vertebrae, L1, 2, and 3. It also has a connection to muscles that are important in lumbar and pelvic stability including the psoas (think hip flexor) and quadratus lumborum (rib and pelvic stabiliser).
When we breathe normally the diaphragm contracts and pushes the abdomen and viscera down and out. This draws air into the lungs during which the lower abdomen and rib cage will expand. This expansion of the abdomen explains why diaphragmatic breathing is often referred to as abdominal breathing.
When we breathe in (inhalation) this activates the sympathetic nervous system. Breathing in using your neck and chest muscles which most people do, strongly activates your flight or fight sympathetic system. This makes sense when you are running away from a bear- you will take in huge gulps of air by using your chest and neck muscles to assist your diaphragm. This helps your muscles get the maximum amount of oxygen during the physical stress of a fight or flight situation. The brain associates “chest and neck breathing” with the fight or flight response and increases sympathetic nervous system activation.
Many people under chronic stress breathe like this without the presence of actual danger and this is really bad because down the road this can actually cause disease or death, because of the constant high levels of sympathetic nervous system activation and your brain doesn’t know the difference if you are in danger or if you are just in a traffic jam. According to your brain stress is stress, which is one major reason why you should do diaphragm breathing.
Breathing out (exhalation) activates the parasympathetic nervous system. I want you to breathe with slow exhalations that are longer than the inhalation phase because this has anti-inflammatory and calming effects on your body.
In fact soldiers during combat to fight with their nervousness and excitement, they bring their heart rate down by doing this one simple breathing exercise.
Slowly count to 5 when you breathe in, hold your breath for 5 seconds and exhale for 5 seconds.
When I was in the Canadian Forces in basic training we learned how to shoot the C7 rifle properly in sync with your own breathing! Once you found your target you are supposed to watch the “wave” notice how the target slowly bounces up and down while you breath and once you felt comfortable you were supposed to hold your breath and when you shoot -slowly exhale at the same time so you didn’t go off of your target. By doing it this way you were literally guaranteed to hit the center mass every time.
So you’ve heard that breathing the right way is great if you want to reduce stress and for soldiers but what about exercise?
Breathing correctly is critical for all the things I have mentioned and exercise is no different. Breathing correctly could be the difference in beating a personal record with a press or squat of some sort or it can be the start of your form deteriorating quickly.
There is a term in the exercise world called “breathing behind the shield” and this basically means having air in your stomach while you are still breathing (imagine you are pushing air DOWN while you exhale- you will feel a lot stronger in your core and while you perform your exercises you will feel more powerful and stable, this is a good thing)
Now breathing inefficiently has a whole new set of problems like when you breath using your chest muscles(like I stated most people do) it will cause neck and shoulder pain as, in order to lift your rib cage to open up the chest for breath, the sternocleidomastoid and scalnes, and occasionally the pectoralis minor, have to be recruited. These muscles are not designed for breathing long term and as such will start to shorten and fatigue while bringing pain into the head, neck and shoulders.
Now here are some exercises that you can do a part of your warm up and or cool down. Doing these exercises will help you bring your heart rate down and also help you breath more effectively. if you are experiencing back pain right now try the following exercises:
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