Part 1: Can your posture affect your breathing, and how should you breathe?

Breathing mechanics - in other words HOW you breathe - can affect everything from your stress level, to your balance, to your posture. I will admit I am no breathing expert, but, as a strength and conditioning and exercise physiology professional, breathing plays a huge part in the way we train, and the way we recover. We studied the physiology of gas exchange heavily in University and during my Masters of Kinesiology, but one thing has become apparent to me in my last few years of practice with clients and elite athletes....

...HOW you breathe is as important as your posture. And, if you've ever seen us for an assessment, you would know that we put a heavy emphasis on posture - for reasons that our clients are constantly educated on. If you want to know some more about posture, check THIS out, and follow THESE cues to help develop a better posture.

OK - back to the task at hand. We must answer these two questions:

1) How should you breathe?

2) Can posture affect your breathing?

There are three different types of breathing: the quiet (or normal) breathing, the forced breathing (corresponding to an important physical activity) and the assisted breathing (general anesthesia and intubation) (Hostettler, 2010). During the quiet breathing, the inspiration movement is an active phase involving muscles, while the expiration movement is a relaxation phase of the muscles. The inspiration movement, increasing the lung volume is mainly caused by two sets of muscles: the intercostals and the diaphragm. Those muscles simultaneously move the thorax (contents of the upper torso) and the abdomen.

Firstly, intercostals induce a rib rotation around the vertebrae, making the thorax and lung volume increase. Secondly, the diaphragm contraction moves down and compresses the abdominal viscera, changing the abdomen’s shape (Hostettler, 2010).

Notice the anatomy of breathing in the picture below. Of particular interest for the purpose of this blog post, is the angle of the ribcage, and the position of the diaphragm (moved downwards in Inhalation, and moved upwards in Exhalation). Also, of note, is that the image below fails to include the low back, which could be important, as discussed later.

In normal breathing, as depicted by the image we discussed above this text, the ribs go from a more "horizontal" orientation during Inhalation, and then go to a more "vertical" orientation during Exhalation. The ribs, which have attachment points at the spinal column, mobilize to help produce this movement.

Shown in another image with the low back "fixed" (see below, Fig. "C"), on Inspiration, we should see the ribcage rising up to become more horizontal in orientation, while we should see them dropping down to become more vertical on expiration.

Now, what if for a second, we decide to add back in the low back and lower body portion of these images.

Scientific papers are notorious for studying pieces of the body. They love to analyze what happens at the foot or ankle when you stand up (hi arch compression studies), but sometimes lack the whole-body affects of this change. Some papers study "knee genu valgum" (knees coming in towards the midline), but when you dig a little deeper, you realize they aren't taking into account the hip or ankle, which could completely change the their definition of valgum in the first place.

Anyways, when we add back the "low back and upper leg" portion via the image below, and assume that this person has exhaled and is in a resting posture in both instances...

..... we begin to see why having poor posture could affect the resting length of the inspiratory muscles, and furthermore, how one might mistake inability to get a full, proper inhale, with the inability to get into a good posterior pelvic tilt (moving pelvis more towards neutral as in the person on the left).

Furthermore, standing up and lying down may have an affect on your diaphragm's ability to contract properly, as shown in this drawing from the Sharp et al (1975) paper (Fig 4). This is problematic knowing that most people practice breathing drills while on their back (think: yoga, lying on a physio/chiro table, or while they lie down to sleep at night), while never standing up to transfer what they've learned to functional positions.

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And, stay tuned for PART 2!


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