What is a squat? It is the distribution of lower body force to a load supported by the upper body.
The question I always propose goes, “is it easier to push a plate across the ground with a metal rod or a wet noodle?”
Obviously we all know the answer, but this logic gets passed up in training.
Now, I’m not saying you are not training your core when you squat; you without a doubt are stabilizing and supporting the load — but could it be your weak link? Could it be holding you back more than all the squats and hamstring work in the world could do for you? More importantly, what if the way you breathe was the whole problem in the first place? Learn to breathe and you’ll learn to squat more weight. It’s not your training in the gym that’s holding you back; it’s what you are doing right now that’s killing your lifts: breathing.
I’m Breathing Wrong? Seems to Me Like I’m Still Alive
Core stability and strength are directly related to force production (2). There is evidence that diaphragmatic control is vital for core stabilization and control (3). Any exercise that optimizes diaphragmatic control is going to have a profound effect on core strength and ultimately stronger lifts (3). Diaphragmatic breathing or proper breathing mechanics transfers directly to better lifts. When the concept was first pitched to me, I was highly skeptical, too. I had a hard time grasping that I was breathing wrong, and that it could have any effect on my lifting ability. After a little homework and a couple of Postural Restoration Institute (PRI) courses, I was wrong. Our breathing patterns are affecting a long list of aches and pains and are limiting our ability to produce force. Learning and working on correcting your breathing patterns, not only helps alleviate these aches and pains it carries over to more stable lifts. Being able to properly align your spine into a true neutral spinal position was the link I was missing. My thinking was that I was lifting with a neutral spine; however, the issue was that my neutral was not true neutral. I was lifting with the best position I had at the time. My core strength had adapted to a lousy breathing pattern and was strong in a suboptimal spinal position.
Signs You Are a Dysfunctional Breather There is no universally accepted assessment for a standard breathing pattern (3). But, there are widely accepted aspects of normal breathing. From that, we can see common signs of dysfunctional breathing patterns (3). The list of common signs includes:
- Inhalation being initiated with lifting the chest and rig cage
- Limited lateral expansion of the rib cage on one or both sides
- Forward head posture
- Resting Breathing rate above 12-14 breaths
- Elevated shoulder girdle
- Frequent sighing
- Constant mouth breathing
- Tight anterior cervical muscles (sternocleidomastoid and scalenes)
This is far from a thorough assessment but without the help of a trained professional present or equipment, this is the best way to identify any breathing abnormalities. The two main ones that I see on a daily basis with clientele are lifting of the chest first and limited lateral rib cage expansion. Try to identify those first. Simply, take a breath while looking in the mirror. It isn’t hard to notice if you chest moves before your belly expands.
Quickest Way to Get Started I have selected the easiest way I learned to get you breathing in the right position while limiting learned compensation patterns. This will seem completely foreign, but the effects can be felt immediately. The exercise is easy to feel and when practiced on a daily basis will lead to a stronger, more aligned core. This exercise was taken directly from the PRI course Postural Respiration manual (4).
- Lie on your back with your feet on a wall with your knees bent at 90-degrees.
- Place a small towel or ball that is roughly 6” in between your legs.
- Place your right arm over your head as flat to the ground as you can make it.
- Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth lifting your tailbone off the floor as your exhale.
- Push your right knee slightly higher than your left without taking your feet off the wall.
- Act as if you are trying to slide your left foot down the wall again without moving it (you should feel your left hamstring tighten up).
- Hold this position while you take 4-5 deep breaths.
- Follow the pattern of inhaling through your nose and exhaling out your mouth.
- Exhale forcefully: the more so, the better.
- Relax and repeat four times.