Thursday, November 15, 2012

Is Sitting All Day Impeding Your Ability to Breathe Efficiently?

As a personal trainer working with the general population, I'm not going to lie to is difficult to "re-teach" people how to breathe more efficiently. I know there is alot of hoopla regarding breathing patterns and how they affect everything from posture, walking gait, and which re-run of The Cosby Show will air tonight--but breathing is for the most part controlled unconsciously. It is an involuntary act that begins as soon as we are pulled from the womb. The first gasp of air and cry from a just-born infant is amazing. From there, our body begins this mechanism of breathing and as time goes on, we learn to also control it consciously. 

Speaking of the general population---you desk sitters out there. You people that sit in your cubicles all day scanning Facebook when you should be punching in the day's numbers for the boss. You are the ones that are causing damage to not only your waistline, but also affecting how efficiently your body breathes in oxygen.

Most desk-sitting clients come to me with the same signs of wear and tear. Overly developed neck muscles, protracted shoulders, concave chests, and forward head. They also complain of the same symptoms including  neck pain, low back pain, mid-back (shoulder blade region) pain, and regular headaches. On most of these clients, if there is not an over-abundance of fat mass, you can observe well-developed anterior neck muscles. The neck musculature is overly defined and looks similar to an anatomy model: 
Along with the neck muscles you have a few other muscles that are inherently affected by poor sitting posture including the diaphragm, pec minor, sternocleidomastoid, intercoastals, serratus anterior, scalenes, upper trapezius, subclavis, levator scapulae, and the abdominals. There are a total of 18 muscles involved with breathing. Many of these muscles are directly affected by how you sit; and more specifically the position of your head. The ones that can really cause you problems are the scalenes and the subclavis. These muscles are small, tubular and when they become over-active,  they can wreak havoc on how you feel, see, and how you move your neck. With the neck and trapezius muscles affected by this repetitive micro trauma, the typical desk-sitter begins to breathe with more shallow breaths--which results in lower oxygen uptake and decreased energy levels. Poor seated posture affects breathing in more ways than one. With the mid-morning slump behind the computer monitor, the thorasic spine "freezes" in a flexion position--putting pressure on  the chest cavity, pressure on the sternum and ribs. With the combined muscular tension and poor respiratory mechanism, the typical client experiences neck pain, back pain, low energy levels and your typical 2 o'clock headache.

Teaching a young athlete how to breathe more efficiently may be easier to do than teaching a 55-year old insurance salesman. However, I have found in my facility that repetition is the key. My clients perform the Deep Breath Rib Cage Stretch. This drill is performed simply using a bench or table to lie the elbows on and  a mat for the knees. This drill is excellent for expanding the rib cage and surrounding muscles.

Have the client get into a position kneeling down in front of  a bench and prop the elbows. Next, position the elbows out to the side as if you are forming a "box" around your head. Overlap your hands and position your head so that you are looking down. Next, take 4 to 10 DEEP breathes controlled and forcefully. The air should hit the floor noticeably. With each expiration, drive your chest downwards.  With  the arms propped to create rigidity, this will enable a nice stretch through the pec minor, scalenes, and serratus anterior. Keeping the elbows "pinned" onto the bench really enables extension in the throasic spine with each heavy breath. Most clients feel a "tightness" in their mid-back when they perform this drill the first time, so each breath will be "light" and "shallow". The tightness they feel is lengthening of chronically shortened tonic muscles of the back/spine. This will subside with a combined effort of foam rolling, flexibility and good 'ol fashioned consistency.

For my general clients, I like this drill performed quickly between sets or at the end of a workout as part of the cool-down. I like to throw it in during some flexibility drills at the end of  a hard workout. For my more advanced clients, I like this drill in between exercises that elicit heavy breathing--like squats, walking lunges, or heavy step-ups. I propose that your desk-sitting clients should perform this drill daily--even at their office desk. With repeated effort,  those neck muscles will relax a bit and the diaphragm can at least start pitching in more.


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