Friday, April 23, 2010

Relax and Breathe (and Win)

There's been a lot of discussion lately (nothing new it's been around for 1,000's of years, just more if it) regarding breathing patterns. In particular, the importance of diaphragmatic breathing and its role in postural function by means of improving the "inner unit" activity.

The idea is to work specifically on diaphragmatic breathing by way of focusing on the intake of air and the expansion of the entire abdominal region (anterior/posterior/lateral). Patrick Ward and Carson Boddicker have been going into great detail the specific mechanics of this form of breathing. I suggest checking out their blogs if interested in more detail, they both have great information.

Here's a blog post I had from a couple years ago regarding breathing:

Breathing and the Spine

To add to some of the concepts, my thinking is that focusing directly on breathing might not be the best route to take when trying to improve a breathing pattern dysfunction. The reason being, is that breathing is an autonomic process and in the history of human kind is not really "natural" as something to have to worry about. Of course we are in a day and age where everything is a little 'screwed', but I think it's might be more effective to work with the sensorimotor system with which we have greater voluntary control over. Obviously we have, or we can develop great control, of firing specific muscles or muscle groups, and in the case of an altered breathing pattern we tend to use an 'upper-chest' technique, utilizing the muscles of the chest, shoulders and upper back. I have found it to be fairly successful in working on just relaxation of those muscles. If these 'upper-chest' breathing muscles are neurologically quiet, then what other option do we have than to resort to diaphragmatic breathing? ... plus the skill of muscle relaxation will go a long ways in improving motor control and potentially skill; not to mention the potential effects of reduced anxiety, etc... If one can truly relax, breathing usually falls into a normal, healthy rhythm; brain waves, heart beat, all of physiology falls into a more coherent state.

So much goes into muscle activation these days, but so many coaches miss the point that it is equally important to have the skill to relax muscles. But to take this even further... what's the root cause of excessive muscle tension and abnormal breathing patterns? What's the cause of the anxiety that causes the excessive muscle tension and abnormal breathing patterns? What's being done about those causes? The key is to keep asking questions? All those things need to be considered and dealt with. Dealing on one end, just the mechanical, may or may not, stop the leak while it is still "pouring rain outside"... and even then it's still just one small piece of a puzzle (cliche... I know), not the magic bullet. ... AND it's just another symptom, but I digress.

Some specific techniques:

Progressive muscle relaxation

Autogenic training

... or a classic, "Relax and Win" by Lloyd 'Bud' Winter, if you can find a copy... (or for a great overview of Bud Winter and "Speed City" email Carl Valle ( about his the mediacast he recently put together)

.... or any Relaxation Technique... which could just lead back into working specifically on breathing... so then, I guess, just find what works best for you or each individual. Have options and keep asking questions.



Patrick Ward said...


As always, thank you for your insights and forward thinking. You are a true asset to our field.

I think what you are saying is correct, working on relaxation, and finding out why there is so much stress in the first place, is the important thing here. Having someone working on diaphgramatic breathing is about teaching them to relax! While those techniques in the videos are "cueing" the proper movement of the diaphgram, one of the main things to coach is just to have the individual to relax the cervical and upper chest muscles.

I think we are saying similar things, just saying them in a different way. If you teach someone to relax, which helps them decrease the tone in their neck, and decrease their upper chest breathing pattern, I don't see it being much different than me cueing someone to relax and breath into their belly. Whatever cue works for that individual, to help get them relax, is what should be applied. Yoga and pilates instructors may cue it a different way, but no matter how you slice it, we are all going for the same thing - relaxation. We may just be taking different routes to get there or to make that happen.

As far as some of the additional movements I am showing, as you alluded to, it isn't about the activation of any one muscle (in this case the diaphgram), as much as it is about how it plays well with everything else. The exercises that I am going over in the video are to help allow the client/athlete to learn how to integrate that proper breathing pattern or relaxation (whatever you want to call it) into an actual movement task. There is no point in helping them relax, only to have them go into anxiety when they have to stand up and are confronted with an exercise or a drill.


jleeger said...

Great post Aaron, and good thoughts.

Relaxation is key, but there's a skill to develop that lies slightly beyond relaxation, that, I think, provides greater benefits - listening.

Get into your relaxed state using Autogenics or other methods, but once you're there, really try to listen. Not for anything in particular, rather, for everything at once. Listen intently.

Some people need to be coached on how to breathe again...just like they need to be coached on how to decelerate, or land, or move, after too much time spent sedentary.

But if you can get them to listen at the same time, you'll be doing them that much more of a favor...

Aaron Schwenzfeier said...

Well stated Patrick.

It very well could be semantics. Basically I am looking at it from a cognitive perspective of teaching relaxation skills to be worked on at all times; but you're right, just a different angle. I am just thinking of the 'easier' or more naturally volitional aspect in which to integrate during movement(s) and that would most likely involve the parts of the sensorimotor system. Whereas trying to focus on breathing, an autonomic process, while try to perform motor skills might be more challenging. But as I said, MAY be more challenging, and this is just another possibility. Either/or... whatever is most effective for the individual.

Again, I appreciate your insights. Your an asset as well.

Aaron Schwenzfeier said...

Great points Josh.

Carson Boddicker said...


Great thoughts as usual.

I definitely can respect the points you've made with respect to limiting anxiety and identifying the root causes of dysfunction. We know that there are many things that can lead to breathing dysfunction, including anxiety, and without those taken out, we may be a bit short-handed in "fixing" the poor patterns.

You mention that breathing is under autonomic control, which is definitely the case, but it is also under high brain control as well, so it's not entirely ineffective to make the athlete aware of movement dysfunction.

Regardless of method, though, there is no doubt that we are seeking the same end. You say emphasize relaxation of the cervical musculature, whereas I am coaching athletes into breathing while simultaneously maintaining minimal tone of accessory musculature. In essence, it is akin to coaching a glute bridge with minimal contribution from the hamstrings.

I think this all may be, as PW and yourself have suggested, an issue of semantics. I believe we all recognize breathing well as a very important piece of the equation as, not only does poor breathing negatively impact musculoskeletal movement, but also has dramatic visceral impacts.

Best regards,
Carson Boddicker

Aaron Schwenzfeier said...

Thanks for the comments Carson.

Good points.

Yes, breathing does have huge affects throughout; musculoskeletally, vicerally, and especially biochemically. Basically every physiological or, better yet, human aspect.

Considering the "age" we are in culturally, breathing techniques can be an effective skill to hone, which is part of relaxation skills.