I recently had the opportunity to join Christopher Kelly of NourishBalanceThrive.com on his podcast. Christopher and his partners are doing some really cool holistic, functional wellness testing and programs, not to mention the yeoman's work they're doing in curating some innovative nutrition and movement minds for their podcast (Kelly Starrett preceded me). Needless to say I was stoked to be asked on his show. Below are a few of the topics we discussed as well as links to the audio and transcript.
Our conversation went thru a wide array of topics including:
Here's the audio link
Here's the iTunes link
Here is the link to the full transcript of my chat with Christopher.
I highly recommend listening to this podcast and huge thanks to Nourish, Balance, Thrive for having me on their show.
As we discussed in my previous post, hyperinflation (over-breathing) causes system-wide excitation which may be useful in short bouts of exercise, but over time can be a rate-limiter to adaptation and resilience. By getting air out (exhalation/flexion) we can better achieve a balanced, neutral state. The diaphragm can achieve a more normalized resting position rather than being pulled into a more horizontal, tonic position. Perhaps high resting tension in the diaphragm is an indicator of system-wide tension - those guys/gals that are always tight and fatigue-out early in high-rep schemes. Now I do think that balance is a moving target and the sum/goal should be a balanced system of managing the extremes even if it's not achieved in the moment.
So how do we swing the pendulum back towards neutral? By getting air out. Here are a couple ways:
1) Recognition is the first step. Does you or your athlete's ribcage look like this, even at rest?
If so, c'mon man. It may not become apparent until higher level movements, typically ones involving arm and leg movements (such as overhead movements) in which exhalation and the ribcage-pelvic relationship is even further challenged. And that's a main thought here: we have to challenge competency with progressive demands - if all you do is blow up a balloon (despite its effectiveness) and give no further thought to breathing, the boat is missed. Let's suppose you can breathe at rest - a tall order for most - can you maintain neutral under load, with speed, changing targets? And even more appropriate for this topic - can you reclaim neutrality at rest?
2) Forced exhalation - this effectively recruits the abdominals and pelvic floor in a coordinated fashion providing centration to the ribcage and pelvis (reduces rib flare). The active contraction of the abdominals during resisted exhalation resists the action of the diaphragm and increases parasympathetic tone helping to decrease resting muscle tension. There are a ton of exercises out there using this principle (PRI being the foremost).
Here are some I like:
From my guy Dr. Quinn Henoch:
I will typically use these more on the cool-down, post-work side but, again, that depends:
3) Use breathing to maintain neutral: this goes along with forced exhalation but I will have clients actively exhale during the extension part of a movement as I have found that having them just brace down hard often stimulates breath-holding which is typically not beneficial during high-rep movements. Adding in the breathing component seems to centrate the core and recruit globally better than telling athletes to just "get tight".
By swinging the pendulum more towards exhalation and getting air out, we can achieve both mechanical neutral (spinal position) and neurophysiologic neutral (autonomic nervous system balance) and reduce excessive tension/excitation from the system.
As followers of my blog (now in 110 countries — waiting on you, Greenland) have surely begun to appreciate - I have a thing for breathing. Watching clients and athletes breathe, it becomes apparent that one's breathing pattern is just such an important indicator of system readiness and neutrality. Charlie Weingroff calls breathing a keyhole into the nervous system which I think is perfect. Without a normalized and balanced breathing system, movement variability suffers typically causing loss of adaptability - a rigid system - and movement patterns default to high-tension strategies (more on that later).
One of the most common breathing patterns we see is the hyperinflated pattern. Essentially, the athlete is in a state of excessive inhalation - breathing on top of breathing - with inadequate exhalation. They just can't get air out efficiently. This hyperinflated pattern of breathing can be asymmetric (typically see the left rib-cage flared more than the right) or symmetric (both rib cages flared) as described by the Postural Restoration Institute. While these differences are important, particularly to the physio, hyperinflation has consequences regardless of symmetry.
Given the anatomic link between the ribcage, diaphragm, and thoracolumbar spine it's important to think of this like an SAT analogy: Inhalation is to lumbar extension as exhalation is to lumbar flexion. In the hyperinflated state inhalation/extension >> exhalation/flexion contributing to system-wide issues in performance and loss of variability. Without access to the diaphragm (and the pelvic floor), the deep abdominals, and ultimately full spinal range (flexion), movements become rigid and "stuck": the athlete is the classic overextended, powerful but stiff dude who lacks sustainable movement (think spondy, pelvic floor dysfunction, neural tension, the list goes on and on...)
Taking it a step further: inhalation is to excitation and tension (sympathetic-dominance) as exhalation is to relaxation and inhibition (parasympathetic dominance). Inhalation yields excitation - why heart rate increases with inhalation and decreases with exhalation. The dominance of this fight-or-flight response is essential in short bouts of performance, but is pretty much awful if maintained for long periods of time as it prevents recovery and relaxation - both of which are important for system neutrality. As my dad always said, everything in moderation. With this hyperinflated state inhibition of muscles, particularly the extensors, is difficult and the athlete cannot get into and sustain a variety of movements because the nervous system is under constant threat. The increased pH of the blood due to decreased CO2 levels also contributes to a sensitive peripheral nervous system. No wonder people with persistent/chronic pain display this hyperinflated, stressed-out state - a threatened nervous system is often a painful one!
This hyperinflated state is a big culprit, in my opinion, for the high tension strategies I see so often in athletes. They just don't know how to dim or inhibit the muscles that aren't necessary for the movement. Ever walk on ice? Every muscle is tensioned to limit joint motion and decrease the risk you might fall - yeah, it's exhausting. Defaulting to these high tension strategies, when they aren't necessary, is like walking on ice. The system is rigid and movements are more taxing - everything other than max effort is typically a struggle in this state and they fatigue out early. These people always feel tight, though they probably have plenty of muscle excursion.
Clearly, exhalation needs to be emphasized for a balanced, efficient system. By emphasizing flexion-biased breathing patterns, the system can approach a balance. pH levels can be normalized and beneficial training effects can be realized without adding rigidity to the system. By facilitating ribcage over pelvis mechanics, the diaphragm and pelvic floor can return to their normal resting length and function allowing the diaphragm to act like the diaphragm. I think many of our barbell-based strength training systems lend us towards this hyperinflated state so some reset movements likely need to be thrown into programming.
So what to do about this? That's coming in a near future post but - spoiler alert - it involves forced exhalation, flexion and developmental patterns, and some recovery strategies. In the meantime here's my earlier post on diaphragmatic breathing for recovery.