My hope with this article to explain the critical role that respiratory muscles play in movement, especially during complex, powerful movements, where bracing and fatigue play a role. I will set the stage for practical applications by first covering the physiology involved. The goal is to change the way you think about movement and allow these changes to manifest in improving your fitness levels.
The Importance of Respiratory Musculature
The respiratory muscles are the unsung hero of breathing. Everyone loves talking about the lungs, but all they do is take on the air from the low pressure void that the respiratory muscles generate. Therefore, without strong respiratory muscles you can’t breathe effectively. ‘Respiratory musculature’ is the collective term for two sets of muscle groups, one responsible for inhalation and the other exhiliation.
Inspiratory & Expiratory Musculature
Inspiratory muscles have the responsibility of expanding the space of the torso to create low pressure and fill the lungs. This includes the diaphragm, intercostals and scalene. The diaphragm contractions and flattens to create space in the lower abdomen (belly rises). The intercostals are a series of little muscles between your ribs that pull up like a bucket handle to lift the rib cage (chest expands). Lastly, the scalene attaches near your ears and attaches to the top of the ribcage pulling it up (shoulders lift).
Expiratory muscles have the responsibility of compressing the space in the torso to create high pressure and push the air out of the lungs. This includes the abdominal muscles (a collection of four muscles), a different set of intercostal muscles that compress the ribcage and finally, gravity pulls the shoulders back down compressing the upper ribs.
Respiratory Musculature & Movement
Those were the roles of the muscles if all you were doing was breathing. That doesn’t take movement into account. The reality is respiratory musculature is responsible for both breathing & movement. However, most people aren’t aware of the dualistic demands of this musculature. The four main categories of movement where the respiratory muscles have an important role includes: 1) the brace, 2) rotation & anti-rotation, 3) spinal flexion & extension and 4) fundamental positions like hang and support.
When teaching a beginner to brace, I like to use an analogy of standing on an inner tube. If the inner tube is half-inflated the mass above it (in this case your body) is unbalanced and wobbles back and forth. However, if you fill up the inner tube so the pressure is high, it becomes a stable platform.
The same is true for your core. If you have low pressure, you must be working at lower relative loads to resist unwanted movement (e.g. caving, rounding, instability) above or below the core.
Many beginners are unable to brace properly. However, once the athlete has developed this tool, call it a hammer, every situation becomes a nail. It is not until the athlete can combine breathing and bracing that they can become as efficient as possible, but it is a skill that takes time to develop.
Breathing and bracing are two actions of the core that must happen concurrently. For those who experience uncharacteristically quick fatigue in high tension activities (e.g. heavy squat cleans) it’s likely due to weaknesses in your inspiratory respiratory musculature. Exhaling usually isn’t an issue because the series of abdominal muscles that make up the gut are already tense. However, inhaling is much more labored because the respiratory muscles must work against the expiratory muscles. Instead of the more seesaw effect that happens at rest, this resembles more of a tug-of-war.
Rotation & Anti-Rotation
First, rotation and anti-rotation are both generated from the core and are very similar actions. Since all power is generated proximal-distal (near to far), the core moves very little even during dynamic movements. Therefore, rotation and power generation for movement requires a stable core just like anti-rotation. Because this movement category is often neglected in functional fitness training, when it does sneak its way into movements it often causes issues for athletes. For example, the Dumbbell Snatch caused a D.O.M.S. (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) epidemic in Open workout 17.1 because most people did not alternate reps in the air. The result was a rare twisting of the trunk, which caused wide-spread low back soreness.
However, even in more benign ways this category slows athletes by increasing the respiratory load. An appropriate example would be a sprint on the air bike. To generate maximal power, the athlete takes advantage of tri-directional power output: pedal, push and pull. Since the push and pull occur opposite of each other (unlike a power clean & push press) the core must work hard to create a stable platform for movement. This is the reason why athletes will brace (often without breathing) during an Air Bike sprint. It is the same reason why it is a bad recommendation for a coach to recommend an athlete pushes and pulls on the bike handles during sustainable efforts.
Transitioning to bi-directional power output (pedal and push) reduces the core demands, which simultaneously reduces muscular input from expiratory and inspiratory muscles. Not only does this make breathing easier, but it reduces total metabolism which means you just became more efficient (use less energy) at the same wattage.
Spinal Flexion & Extension
Not to be confused with hip extension, spinal flexion is the rounding and unrounding of the spine. However, hip flexion (closing) and extension (opening) are closely tied with the spinal movements, they just tend to be associated with the resistance of flexion or extension. Both flexion and extension can be loaded or unloaded.
Sandbag-over-Shoulder: Loaded spinal extension, Unloaded spinal flexion (bending back over the next rep, bodyweight only)
Toes-to-Bar: Loaded spinal flexion, Unloaded spinal extension (largely speaking, you are working with gravity)
As a general principle (that for today I won’t debate) you want to exhale during the concentric (lifting phase) and exhale during the eccentric (lowering phase). This results in conflicting respiratory demands for spinal extension and complementary respiratory demands for spinal flexion.
Movement with loaded spinal extension (any sort of lifting) is by far the most common movement category within functional fitness. Initiating an exhale during the lifting phase activates the series of abdominal muscles, which aid in flexing (rounding) the spine. Therefore, when lifting an object your extensors must work even harder to overcome both the external load and the input of your abs. This is why concentric spinal extension has conflicting respiratory demands.
Movements with concentric spinal flexion have complementary respiratory roles. While folding the body and rounding the spine under tension, you are simultaneously exhaling. This is less common in functional fitness, but some examples are Toes-to-Bar, GHDs, Ski Erg, Rope Climbs, Med-ball Slams, the Muscle-Up Transition & Dip and Sledgehammer Hits. As you exhale and fold the body, the abs complete both actions making them complimentary. Although the abdominals tend to tire quicker in these movements, it doesn’t pose an issue to breathing very often because exhalation during sub-maximal ventilation is largely a passive process.
Lastly, we will take a look at key positions within the Sport of Fitness that pose unique challenges to the respiratory musculature. The best way to find your proficiency in a given position is to put yourself in that position and see if you can breathe normally. Rarely will this be pass-fail.
Hang: Hanging from a pull-up bar or set of rings pulls the shoulders upward, which mimics a person shrugging their shoulders. It is the exaggerated finish position of an inhale, and as a result inhaling in a hang is easy, unless the hips are pulled out of alignment. Typically inhaling is harder in a hang.
Support: Think of this as the top of a bar or ring muscle-up, where the arms are at the sides and pushing down. Pushing down requires a compression of the core, which aids exhalation and restricts inhiliation.
Farmers Carry, Deadlift Lockout, Front Rack: All of these movements have an external load which pulls the shoulders and ribcage downward. Because inhaling requires the ribcage to be lifted, the respiratory musculature must work much harder.
Sandbag Carries & Weight Vests: In any instance where you are carrying an object that is resting on your belly or chest, it becomes much harder to breathe. Hugging a D-Ball or Sandbag against your body makes breathing difficult, just like a tight weight vest does. However, be careful when thinking about movements not just to ponder how you can reduce the respiratory demands, but also how challenging the breath can lead to positive change. Adapt in training: optimize for competition.
Practical Applications | Building Sustainable Movement
1) Breath Timing
One implication from the analysis of this article is the importance of syncing the breath with your movement. Breath timing is critical for all movement, but the importance becomes even more obvious as tension increases. When loading approaches an athlete’s max brief breath holds can be executed during key moments within a movement to resist unwanted micro-movements. This could be the takeoff in a box jump, the bottom half of a squat, the aggressive change in direction in the dip of a jerk, or the knee pump (momentum transfer) in the bar muscle-up. As soon as you pass that key position, you breathe again.
This momentary breath hold normally happens whenever a movement involves transitioning from a position of high stability to another position of high stability. For example, the front rack to overhead.
Most athletes are foreign to the skill timing the breath, especially during a variety of complex movements. It is common to be polished in one movement but not others. A select few can do it universally for all movements. Fewer still are literate in this skill and know why and how they are literate. This rarity is because the ability to articulate an unconsciously competent skill in language requires an analysis and sort of a reverse engineering. It is the reason why top athletes (unconsciously competent individuals) often don’t make great coaches: they struggle to explain in language (a conscious process) why or how they do what they do.
Likewise, it is the reason why a coach who is great for other reasons (e.g. relationships, mindset, nutrition) but has never experienced conscious competence in Tier II skills (e.g. breathing during complex, high-tension movements) will never be able to completely understand some of the finer points in play, which are necessary to take their athletes to the next level.
The best way to get an athlete to gain an understanding of when and how to breathe in the many movements in the Sport of Fitness is through the use of Breath Ratios, which I talk about in this article.
Listen to how Nasal Breathing can improve your performance: Nasal Breathing [The Fitness Movement Podcast #004]
2) Training the Core
One of the things that should have been obvious from this article is the importance of the core. Even the name is reminiscent of its critical nature. All movement is generated from the core, so without a strong core there cannot be strong movement. Think of strong prime movers and a weak core as firing a cannon from a canoe. The movement won’t be strong, predictable or effective.
As a principle, train the core isometrically before you train it dynamically. Start with variations of planks, positional holds and carries. These are the fundamentals of core training, or as I call it MFA (Midline-Focused Accessory). I give some examples of MFA at the end of this article.
It really comes down to the ability to maintain postural alignment through speed, load and fatigue because that alignment is what allows for effective breathing patterns.
3) Training the Breath
Since MFA mainly addresses expiratory musculature, it is importance we specifically address inhalation musculature. This is best achieved through simply breathing and over time adding layers of movement complexity. Just like the core, the best place to start is isometrically. Hold a position that demands focus on the breath for success and then hold it. As the athlete progresses, layers will be added. Start with simple movements and slowly progress to ones that are more complex. Start with low tension movements and over time move to high tension ones. Tension is highly correlated with load.
Lastly, begin to combine elements in environments which produce fatigue and novel movement experiences (aka CrossFit®). This is well down the road of development and while anyone can technically do CrossFit®, it takes years of focused, intentional work to turn chaotic, disorganized movement and breathing patterns into a composed, efficient, well-oil machine.
Breathing is the most fundamental skill to movement, yet very few athletes know how to breathe to maximize their performance.
Do you get drained too early in workouts despite having excellent conditioning?
Do you find yourself resting between movements to catch your breath?
If so, you are who I wrote this book for. Let me help you plug the holes in your fitness revealing your untapped potential.
Related Read: Breath Ratios | Developing Movement Economy