Nasal Respiration Part 1: The Impact Nasal Respiration has on Stabilization
Of late, nasal respiration (NR) has become all the rage. The research supporting its utility continues to grow. There are countless research articles, books such as the Oxygen Advantage, and organizations like the Health & Human Performance Foundation, all who tout the benefits of using NR to improve health and performance. For me, the journey into NR started in early 2020 after reading James Nestor’s book Breath. Having interest in improving my health and performance, after reading the book, I decided to give NR a try. In the vast majority of cases, NR and the benefits thereof applied to metabolic exercise (walking, cycling, running, etc.). My “training”, however, tends to be biased toward strength training. I do a good deal of cycling, but most of my fitnessing centers around traditional strength training and CrossFit-like workouts (aka lifting weights with an elevated heart rate). It turns out, applying NR to complex movements like kettlebell swings, squats, and snatches is quite difficult. More on that topic at a later time.
I started using NR on my cycling rides, which vary in length from 30 minutes to 2+ hours. In the beginning, it didn’t occur to me to apply it to my other training modalities since all of the information I was consuming on NR only mentioned more traditional “cardio” like exercise. For several months, I worked on NR any time I was doing what I will call traditional aerobic work (lower intensity, longer, continuous exercise). It was uncomfortable at first, but after a few weeks, I got it down. One day I tried NR while doing a rowing workout. Unlike cycling, rowing is what I call “undulating”, in that the force output is not continuous. There are portions of the stroke cycle where you are generating more force (drive phase) followed by periods of relative relaxation (recovery phase). I found applying NR here to be more challenging than it was with cycling - the relevant difference being undulating force production vs. continuous force production.
As an undulating exercise, rowing more closely resembled strength training. From here, I started applying it to my metabolic strength training (e.g. 5 rounds 20 calories on the bike + 15 kettlebell swings + 10 push-ups, + 5 strict pull-ups - rest 1 minute between rounds) . Even more challenging than the rower, I persisted to work on applying NR to my favorite exercise modality. The purpose was to achieve the metabolic benefits of NR touted in the outlets aforementioned in hopes of improving performance. What I discovered along the way is the topic of today’s article.
While ironically I did not ever notice any aerobic or metabolic benefits to NR, I discovered that maintaining NR made it much easier for me to stabilize my spine with what I consider a proper pattern (more on that below). The intensity of my brace - a brace being a conscious stabilizing effort - to meet the demands of the task, be it pull a heavy barbell off the ground or execute a kettlebell snatch with a 24Kg bell, dropped dramatically. I just didn’t have to work as hard to achieve the necessary spinal stiffness. Huh? Not only did my bracing effort drop, but I noticed that it was much easier to generate pressure into my lower abdominal wall and pelvic floor - what I call intra-pelvic pressure. Increasing the intra-pelvic pressure massively reduced the amount of posterior chain (more specifically lower erector spinae) I was contracting to brace. And this why NR is so beneficial, mechanically that is. It reduces the amount of spinal extensor activity necessary to achieve the requisite spinal stiffness for the task - whatever the task may be.
As I have said many times, how we stabilize has a profound effect on how we move. It also has an effect on the health of the spine itself, the thing we are trying to protect during a bracing/stabilizing effort - be it conscious or otherwise. Optimal stability maximally leverages intra-abdominal pressure, whilst using the spinal extensors as little as possible. I know that for many of you this sets off an alarm in your brain. You have heard (perhaps been brainwashed) that having a crazy strong posterior chain (PC) is essential for performance. I bet more times than you can count you heard an athlete, coach, or medical provider say “you gotta have a strong poster chain” or something to that effect. Yes, the PC is important, but over development/activity of the PC causes all kinds of problems; most significantly, it applies a massive axial compression force to the spine. Definitely a topic for another time.
Stabilizing with excessive PC, which is far more common than you might think, results in what I call an Extension/Compression Stabilizing Strategy (ECSS). In this postural strategy, the over-activity of the PC hyper-loads the posterior aspect of the spine (aka the neural arch) and massively increases the pressure within the intervertebral discs. In my medical opinion, both mechanisms account for the vast majority of lower back pain and injury, particularly in the strength training populations.
This is why NR is so essential; it combats the presentation/development of the ECSS. Because NR promotes or enables more efficient generation of intra-pelvic pressure, less spinal extensor activity is necessary to stabilize and stiffen the spine. This means that one who is using NR is able to stabilize the spine without the pathological compressive forces that come with using the erector spinae. Reducing the compressive forces applied to the spine might not sound all that valuable, but I can assure you that axial compression of the spine secondary to hyperactivity of the erector spinae (aka the posterior chain) is, without question, the most under appreciated and insidious force contributing to lower back pain and injury.
For me personally, NR has had a profound effect on my lower back pain and function. I am quite certain that I would not be able to handle the training load I am currently under as I prepare for Sinister (a famous kettlebell workout written by Pavel Tsatsouline of StrongFirst), which involves hundreds of kettlebell swings and dozens of Turkish Get-Ups per week with 48Kg bells and heavier. I have also found it to be not just useful with the patients I treat, but essential. After over 2 years of “testing”, I am now using NR with all of my patients. Every time I teach respiration or bracing, I am having the patients use NR. I have used NR with hundreds of patients over the last 2 years and the effects have been game changing.
So while the research and effects NR has on metabolism continues to grow, I thought it important to get out there that NR has significant utility in stabilization. Without question, more research is needed in the area. For me, however, the utility of NR in the stabilizing process cannot be denied. Research just needs to catch up.
- Dr. Richard Ulm