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  • Richard Ulm

Nasal Respiration Part 2: Challenges to implementing nasal respiration (stiffness demand)

Last week I discussed the benefits of nasal respiration (NR) in the stabilizing process. Essentially, NR helps promote an optimal stabilizing strategy - more specifically, NR allows one to stabilize in a way that maximally leverages intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) whilst utilizing as little spinal extensor activity as possible. If you recall, over-activity of the spinal extensors applies a massive axial compression force to the spine that causes all kinds of problems from a tight lower back after training to full blow disc herniation with sequestration. The pathological expression of this pattern is known as an Extension/Compression Stabilizing Strategy (ECSS). The benefit of NR as it pertains to stabilization is that by reducing the amount of spinal extensor activity necessary to execute a given task, it minimizes this compressive load applied to the spine, resulting in healthy, safe, optimal movement of the spine.

The topic for today’s discussion are the challenges of mastering NR and being able to apply it to more difficult tasks - namely, training and sport. The two main challenges one will encounter as they work on applying NR to their training are stabilization and respiration; respiration being the more challenging of the two. Today, I will tackle stabilization. Next week will be all about respiration.

I use the term stabilization here with its common meaning. What I specifically mean by stabilization, is stiffening - stiffening being resistance to bending. The stiffer one’s torso, the harder it is to bend or, to be more biomechanically precise, the greater the magnitude of the resistance necessary to bend the spine (e.g. heavier the weight on the bar = more “resistance”). Stiffening the spine results from increased contractile force of the muscles involved. The stronger the contraction strength of a muscle, the harder it is to lengthen.

While there are dozens of ways to stabilize the spine, if you are stabilizing properly, you are maximally leveraging IAP whilst using as little spinal extensors as possible. With a proper stabilizing pattern, the muscles doing the lion’s share of the work are the diaphragm, abdominal wall, & pelvic floor, which directly stabilize the spine via their contractile force and indirectly via generation of IAP. Yes, other muscles are/can be involved to varying degrees depending on the load and the movement (e.g. psoas, erector spinae, latissimus dorsi, etc. etc.), but the foundational muscles of the “core” are these. Let’s call this group of muscles the primary muscles of stabilization.

You might notice that these muscles also play a crucial roll in proper respiration (aka diaphragmatic breathing). Herein lies the challenge of applying NR to stabilization. The greater the bending force applied to the spine, the greater the contractile strength of the primary muscles of stabilization necessary to resist this bending force. Said more plainly, the greater resistance, the harder one has to brace. The more strongly these muscles contact, the more difficult it is to assist with respiration. At some point, sustaining both processes is not possible. Take, for example, executing a max deadlift. Here, the magnitude of the brace necessary to pull this off (pun intended) is so high that one holds their breath - aka a valsalva maneuver. In this case, holding one’s breath is really no big deal because the respiratory demand for a 1RM deadlift is quite low, so the athlete can afford to hold their breath for the 3-8 seconds it takes to execute the lift. Where it becomes a problem are in situations where holding your breath is not an option.

The muscle that gets challenged the most in moments where one must simultaneously brace and breathe (what I call loaded respiration) is the diaphragm, which plays a crucial roll in both processes. It is a primary muscle of both stabilization and respiration. Loaded respiration is an important skill to train/master, especially if it is required for the “sport” for which one is training. Examples of such situations would be in Brazilian Ju-Jitsu when you have someone in guard; carrying a heavy back of sand to the back of the house where the work is being done; doing overhead walking lunges in CrossFit. In each of these examples, holing your breath is simply not an option.

What often happens in these situations is the brain separates the two tasks (respiration and stabilization). It gives the responsibility of stabilization to the spinal extensors (thereby perpetuating the ECSS) and the responsibility of respiration to the diaphragm. By separating these responsibilities, the athlete is able to execute the task, but with the cost of using a pathological stabilizing strategy, the ECSS. Watch any CrossFit competition and you will see a magnificent expression of this. Pay attention to how they are breathing and you will notice that the vast majority of them are mouth breathing.

Mouth breathing, or mouth respiration (MR), perpetuates both chest breathing (pathological) and the ECSS (also pathological). NR, on the other hand, perpetuates diaphragmatic breathing and optimal stabilization. Try it for yourself. Lay on your back, put your feet flat on the floor with your knees bent, open your mouth slightly, and take a few breaths in. Pay attention to where the breath goes and which muscles are involved. You will notice that most of the breath happens in the chest. If you pay close attention, you might even feel your lumbar extensors activating during inspiration. It is not widely known, but the spinal extensors are accessory muscles of respiration. This is why MR perpetuates the ECSS. Now close your mouth and take a few breaths in and out through your nose. You will notice that the breath moves more into your abdomen and that the activity of the spinal extensors reduces considerably. This is why NR is necessary for sustained optimal stabilization.

Back to loaded respiration. Loaded respiration is a necessary skill for many sports. But as we just discussed, this can be done with a proper pattern (done with NR) or with a pathological one (done with MR). We want to ensure that the athletes we train can maintain proper movement patterns as often as possible in their sport. This means that we need to train the ability to maintain NR with increasingly higher magnitudes of a brace - loaded respiration. Early in the process, many athletes cannot execute loaded respiration even at extremely light loads. Any brace (conscious or sub-conscious) forces them to hold their breath. This is a common cause of exertion asthma. These are the athletes that struggle to execute higher intensity, high rep sets such as heavy sets of the 10 in the back squat. You have to pay close attention to their breathing, but you will notice that they struggle to breathe because they are unable to breathe and brace simultaneously.

So, the first step in the process, is to teach the athlete loaded respiration. Initially, the athlete will need to mouth breath. As they continue to work on this essential skill, they will be able to maintain NR at lower intensities. Once they master this skill, they will be able to maintain NR and high intensities of a brace. Remember, the reason we want to train NR at high intensities of a brace is so the athlete is able to maintain optimal movement strategies the vast majority of the time. The longer they are able to maintain optimal movement strategies, the better their performance and the less likely they will get injured.

So how do you train this essential skill - progressive loading of course. First, you must teach the athlete to use NR in unloaded situations such as a supported 3 month position (see image below). You will then slowly increase the intensity of the brace through which the athlete must use NR. An easy place to start is in the supported 3 month position. Instead of performing relaxed respiration, have the athlete maintain increasingly higher levels of IAP during both inspiration and expiration. From here, I would suggest programming asymmetrical, static holds such as suitcase holds, or kettlebell front rack holds. With static holds, the athlete is able to focus on their breathing. Once they have have this down, you now need to increase the complexity of the movement. Start with slow movements with lighter weight and slowly increase the speed and the load (not necessarily at the same time). Here, I like to use tempo such as 3:0:3:0 (3 seconds concentric and 3 seconds eccentric). A great exercise for this are front loaded squat - goblet, double kettlebell front rack, or sandbag tombstone holds are my preferred variations. After the athlete has learned this important skill, now they have to apply it to all their other movements. This takes time and awareness of the breathing pattern the athlete is using.

Another factor that makes this challenging is the topic of next week’s article, respiration rate. To get an athlete to master NR, you will need to address both loaded respiration and NR in scenarios with high respiratory demand. Be sure to check out next week’s article to learn more.

- Dr. Richard Ulm




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