Breathing For Performance

A year ago we posted an article about breathing as the most fundamental movement pattern . We mainly focused on how breathing can affect many of your major muscles and movements and cause pain. This time, we will look at how breathing can improve your training and performance.

For those of us who have done any form resistance training, we know when we lift heavy weights, we should take a breath in and hold your breath before you lift. This creates better activation and tension of the core and allows for stronger and safer lifts. However, in the sporting and athletic environment, we know you can’t always hold your breath before you jump for that ball, or sprint into a cut, or get tackled and going down. It’s not always practical to hold your breath every time. That means for those of us who do sports of that nature, but if we always train while holding our breaths, that tackle that we didn’t hold our breath, that cut that I had to breathe, that jump that you had to breathe out – that could make the difference between a good performance or an injury.

On that topic, we can generally classify most exercises into 2 categories based on your breathing strategies: high-threshold and low-threshold.

High-threshold exercises requiring a lot of force/speed and usually done with high-threshold breathing techniques: holding your breath, exhaling during the lift/pull/push. This results in recruitment of high-threshold motor units that are associated with higher forces and speed but fatigues quickly.

Low-threshold exercises generally don’t require a lot force/speed but is more sustained over a longer time while you breathe normally (e.g. walking, postural control, cooking, cleaning). They recruit motor units that do not produce a lot of force and speed but also do not fatigue easily.

Motor units are not exactly muscle groups by name or location but rather arranged by different muscle fibers that are governed together by the nervous system. The high-threshold system can compensate for the low-threshold system, especially when there is pain. However, as mentioned before the high-threshold system fatigues quickly compared to the low-threshold system. If you have sustained an injury and/or pain, this compensation is good, but there is no guarantee that the low-threshold system would return to normal function after recovery. Addressing this low-threshold system is a vital part of rehab following an injury, otherwise there could a whole system of muscles that is inactive and act as a barrier to improving your performance in sports or keeping your risk for injury elevated.

How do we look at the low-threshold system? By doing a low-threshold movement.

For example: standing with feet together or standing on 1 leg for 10 seconds shouldn’t require you to hold your breath. You stand on 1 leg most of the time when you’re walking, if you need to hold your breath to stand on 1 leg, something is forcing you to use your high-threshold system and breath to compensate – this could be a mobility or a strength/control issue.

If you’re deadlifting a 100 kg bar then yes, please do use breathing techniques to help you – that is a high-threshold movement. If standing on 1 leg already requires you to compensate, its likely that there are compensations present in your other activities such as running that requires you to stand on 1 leg all the time while pushing off at higher speeds.

How do we do low threshold movements? In our clinic we follow the SFMA and they have a system to classify movements, including low threshold movements from the most basic to the most advanced: supported, suspended, stacked, standing.

Supported implies that the spine is supported by the ground (e.g. lying face up/down/side).

Suspended is when the spine is not supported but not weight-bearing (horizontal) (e.g. quadruped).

Stacked is when the spine is upright but you’re not standing yet (e.g. half kneeling/tall kneeling).

Standing is simply variations of exercise where you’re standing.

All exercises would fall under one of these categories. As you may notice, standing is the most advanced position because it requires our whole body to coordinate and keep balance while doing the movement, and yet most of the time this is the position we all would like to start in when we exercise. However, just because we can do things in standing, we cannot assume we can do movements in the less advanced positions. The same principle as the threshold movements: just because you can do a high-threshold movement, doesn’t mean you can do low-threshold movements.

What are some low-threshold movements we can do in each position?

A very good example of a low-threshold movement in the first supported position is rolling or quadrant rolling some would call it. We have a blogpost that details it (http://www.focusphysio.co.nz/blog/2017/10/12/rolling). Rolling (or quadrant rolling) is basically a movement that requires control over a quarter of the body while the other ¾ should not need to contribute to the movement – to roll forward or backward. This should be a relatively simple movement with minimum load – you shouldn’t need to brace/hold your breath for this.

The next progression to this movement can be a quadruped bird dog. In this position 2 opposite quarters of your body are loaded in flexion (e.g. left shoulder and right hip) and stabilizing your body while the other opposite quarters (e.g. right shoulder and left hip) are unloaded but stabilizing in extension. In this position, the spine is still unloaded. Once again, there is no load to “lift” in this position and shoulder only require your low-threshold postural muscles and not needing high-threshold breathing.

From quadruped bird dog, we can then move onto kneeling position where there is weight through the hips and spine while you are upright. Some progressions in this position include the half-kneeling setup where you just trying to maintain a static stable position (posture), progressing into a half-kneeling chops/lifts where your hips and core tries to maintain a static stable position while your upper quarter moves dynamically. Once again, it does not need a lot of load, which means these should use your postural and low-threshold system: you’re just trying to stay still.

Finally - in the last position, we involve the whole body: standing. All the SFMA top tier movements are done in this position while being low threshold: e.g. neck movements, putting your hand behind your back, turning around, touching your toes, and standing on one leg. These can all serve as low-threshold movement and exercises. Yes, standing on one leg is a low threshold movement that should not require you to hold your breath – though some people will. To put it into perspective: a high threshold movement of single leg stance variation is running: requires you to stand and push using one leg while the other one moves forward and your trunk rotates to maintain straight propulsion and readies the body for the next step of single leg stance and propulsion.

Which begs the question: if you know someone who can’t stand with one leg, or finds it difficult to – how are they running? In half-kneeling position, your hips and spine are in the same position as to when you are running; if you can’t maintain that statically, how does it look like dynamically when running with impact and speed and the legs/feet involved? In half-kneeling, the spine is loaded (stacked vertical) and the load goes through hips and spine, in quadruped bird dog, the spine is unloaded (horizontal) and the load goes through hips and shoulders (change the foot for the hand) which once again should have less load. Quadruped bird dog requires all 4 quarters of the body to work together while the spine is unloaded but not supported, the rolling only requires 1 quarter of your body to work while everything else is supported and not taking any load. How are you running if you can’t roll?

To sum it up, we’ve tried to give some insight to some basic movements and build into our more complicated movements (e.g. running). These basic simple movements (low-threshold) should not require huge amount of breath-holds or strategies. As part of rehab (recovery from injury) and prehab (preventing injury), these movements play a huge role as they build up into your more complex movements. These are just some examples and there are many more low-threshold movements that work together to form your more complex activities.

Being able to perform these low-threshold movements with low-threshold breathing prevents injuries, but by the same principle as they serve as building blocks for your more complicated sports movements running, lifting etc. which means they also serve as a foundation for performance to do better in your sports. Therefore, if you ever feel like you’ve run into a roadblock in your sports/game/performance/training, maybe its time to take a step back, check your foundations, are there any missing pieces? Maybe that’s what you need to get stronger, faster, longer – as always, ask help from a professional if in doubt – be it your coach, your trainer, your therapist!