Could your pain, injuries, impaired movement quality or inconsistent sport performance stem from your breathing patterns?
Breathing is something we take for granted. We do it tens of thousands of times a day, we need it to survive, often thinking nothing of it, but can it be causing your pain, injuries or performance to be subpar? Breathing pattern disorders have been shown to contribute to pain and motor control deficits which can result in dysfunctional movement patterns. The mechanics you’ve spent endless hours critiquing with pitching and hitting coaches may be going to the wayside because of something as simple as the way you breathe. While playing you must maintain an adequate balance of mobility and stability to unleash power, all the while being accurate and efficient with your mechanics. Normal breathing requires a synchronized motion from the rib cage and abdomen with adequate use of the diaphragm. Abnormal breathing patterns in baseball players can vary, but often involve significant upper chest movement compared to the abdomen. This abnormal breathing pattern uses muscles such as your pecs (pectoralis major and minor), lats (latissimus dorsi), traps (trapezius) and other neck muscles to draw the shoulders and rib cage upwards to breathe air in, often inhibiting the diaphragm from doing its job and stabilizing the core. Want to try it out? Stand up, place your arms by your side and take a deep inhale. Did your shoulder move towards your ears? Did your abdomen draw inwards? If so, you may have some improper breathing mechanics.
Breathing pattern disorders have been shown to cause pain symptoms and movement dysfunction without any other apparent cause. But how does this effect our performance on the field? Let’s start with the neck and work our way down.
Abnormal breathing, like we stated earlier, uses accessory muscles to take air in. These accessory muscles for breathing are typically reserved for extreme circumstances when your diaphragm has fatigued, like at the end of a long run, after grueling vigorous activity or maybe, after pitching 6 innings in the afternoon heat during the dead of summer. These accessory muscles attach to the rib cage and scapula. For our mechanics to be repeatable and efficient the scapula must be stable and move properly around the rib cage so that the arm can deliver the ball. Increased muscle activity during breathing will expand the upper part of your rib cage, altering the base from which the scapula should move. Coincidentally, increased upper trap activity will elevate the scapula instead of allowing it to protract and upwardly rotate around the rib cage. Mechanics will become difficult to repeat if there isn’t a stable base for the shoulder blade to move on, especially when combined with altered movement patterns of the shoulder girdle.
Patterns and uses of other muscles can also affect your performance on the field. Look at other accessory muscles. Specifically, the muscles that attach to the arm. The pecs are responsible to move the arm across the body. When overactive due to improper breathing patterns, these muscles stabilize from the arm to expand the rib cage and allow increased amount of air to enter the lungs. The body is going to prioritize breathing over almost every other activity. As these muscles are stabilizing the arm to allow sufficient inhalation and expansion of the rib cage it is going to significantly decrease the amount of mobility at the shoulder joint.
As improper breathing patterns continue to occur the diaphragm will continue to function less and less optimally. The diaphragm is responsible for creating stability throughout your core and lower back. Stability at the core, lumbar spine and pelvic area allows for mobility at adjacent joints such as the thoracic spine and hips. Without this stability, these joints cannot achieve the adequate ranges of motion needed to hit, throw and run. The diaphragm, and overall core stability plays an intricate part in the organization of optimal movement.
Additionally, upper chest or thoracic breathing can also have short term effects on the chemicals in the blood stream. The change in the pH state associated with this abnormal breathing can result in negative neuronal, physiological, and psychological changes.
When planning a physical therapy, strength and conditioning or performance program often a basic breathing program can make all the difference and have meaningful long term effects. These exercises can take less than a few minutes will prepare the body for the task ahead, whether it be on the field or in the weight room. Often, times I will program them at the very beginning of the physical therapy program, one or two exercises at most, and continue to progress them as part of a warmup when the player transitions to their performance program. Below are the three most basic exercises I use to promote proper breathing mechanics. These basic exercises can have many increasingly complex progressions but overall, they are a fantastic place to start. It may be best to implement them prior to your active warm up, they shouldn’t take more than 5 minutes in total.
“The first step to moving efficiently, is breathing efficiently”
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