Breathing Mechanics: Why Football Players Should Care

Breathing? Really? How could something as simple and common as breathing possibly affect football performance? If you're willing to spend about eight minutes to read this, you won't be sorry! Proper breathing mechanics are an aspect of sports performance that is a) largely ignored by a decent chunk of the athletic community (but is growing in exposure thanks to the PRI, Eric Cressey, Chalrie Weingrof, Kevin Neeld, Mike Robertson and a host of other smart coaches.) and b) are the 6 Degrees to Kevin Bacon of athletic movement. Everything connects back to breathing mechanics. Note- this is going to barely scratch the surface of all the breathing literature out there, so fitness nerds, don't get uptight about missing information. The point of this article is to explain the importance if breathing mechanics and provide some practical applications for coaches and players. If this post sparks your interest and you want to learn more, I recommend a search on the Posture Restoration Institute (from which I derived most of the information); all their articles are a good starting point.

A brief anatomy lesson is needed before we proceed.

The diaphragm is an umbrella shaped muscle and when it contracts, it pushes your organs down. This creates a large space in your lungs thus lowering the pressure. The one thing I remember from physics is that air moves from high pressure to low pressure. So, when there’s a lower pressure in your lungs, air whooshes in. (ha! And you that you sucked it in. Nope, it forces itself in. This blew my mind when I first learned the secrets of inhalation.)

Diaphragms are cool and important (understatement!) but breathing requires accessory muscles too.  Our intercostals (rib muscles) and scalenes and sternocleidomastoids (neck muscles) contribute to the life-giving act of breathing. We need to use ALL THREE areas.

You can test yourself to see what area you tend to rely on most often based on if you get a cramp during exercise. For example, my neck (scalenes and SCM) is hyperactive during exercise and I get neck cramps during sprint work. Got a stitch in your side? Probably relying more on intercostals than your diaphragm.

Think of it like this: Harry Potter is the diaphragm, Hermione is the intercostals, and Ron is the neck muscles (mainly because Ron is so temperamental and is easily irritated, much like the scalenes).

As a coach or player, here's a quick test of breathing mechanics. Lye supine with your knees bent at 90 degrees against a wall. Place your hands just beneath your rib cage (this helps determine if the abdomen is expanding 360 degrees during inhalation). Take a DEEEEEEEP breath and exhale.

Like this, minus the overhead reach.
Like this, minus the overhead reach.

If an athlete is breathing properly we should see three things:

1. Circumferential expansion of the the abdomen (front and back)

2. Rib expansion (front and back too)

3. Li'l bit of apical (upper ribs) elevation. Note: too often THIS is where you'll see the breathing take place. You can tell because the shoulders will rise up towards the ears.

It's when one of these areas is impaired that we see dysfunction (pain/injuries) occur. Harry Potter is awesome but he would never have defeated Voldemort if he didn’t have Ron and Hermione.

1. Breathing affects EVERYTHING. The average person takes roughly 20,000 breaths per day. That's a LOT of contractions of the diaphragm. Aberrant breathing patterns will not only alter the ability of the diaphragm to function efficiently but it creates hyperactivity and hypertonicity (high tone/tension in the muscle) of the accessory muscles AND of muscles down the line (believe it or not, it can affect hip mobility!).

2. Think about the accessory muscles (and their neighbors): scalenes, SCM, levator scapulae, pec minor, trapezius... if those guys are tight and irritated, that will wreck havoc on cervical posture and shoulder mobility and function. Why do you care about that? If the cervical posture is whacked out (aka, your neck)  those muscles are not going to function properly, it'll be harder to strengthen them in the way they need it and that puts you at a greater risk for concussions. Shoulder function/mobility is especially important for quarterbacks. If the shoulder isn't moving properly, say hello to rips, tears, and strains of the rotator cuff, bicep tendons, and labrums. Hooray.

3. All that tension spreads to the rest of the body. It increases the sympathetic state (flight or fight response) and thus not allowing the body to fully recover after workouts/practices/ games. This will eventually run down the athletes. The increased sympathetic state will increase anxiety, mess with sleep patterns, and can even decrease pain threshhold; all of these equal poopy workouts and even worse recovery.

Hopefully, after all that, I've convinced you that breathing patterns, make that PROPER breathing patterns, are extremely important and integral to athletic success. Again, if you truly want to improve performance, you should see a professional and get assessed and trained. (that was a shameless plug, I know, but it's true!)

But, run through 4 quick and simple things coaches and players can add to/be cognizant of to create a better breathing environment.

1. Posture Re-education:

Why? Three words: Zone of Apposition.

"Achieving the optimal ZOA really depends on the shape/orientation of your ribcage. If your lower anterior (front) ribcage tends to be elevated (as in picture on the left), it can alter the length-tension relationship of your diaphragm resulting in aberrant breathing pattern, lumbopelvic instability (hips and spine...BAD place for instability) and a cascade of movement dysfunctions." - Bill Hartman

Read about the Zone of Apposition on PRI's website.

2. Breathing Re-Education

As mentioned above in the "what you should see" part, we need to teach our athletes (and ourselves) how to

a) Achieve circumferential expansion. This does not mean just the belly sticking out during inhalation, but we need lateral expansion too (out to the sides and back of the body). A lot of people will "hollow" that is, draw in the belly and elevate the ribs and shoulders. This needs to stop. A drill like this will help.

b) Breathe with the abdomen and chest moving at the SAME TIME. The accessory muscles (notably the neck muscles) should be relaxed. Here's a video from Bill Hartman that encompasses both points:

c) Learn to get our ribs down with a neutral spine! Too often athletes have the mega arch (lordosis) in the lower back. This needs to stop! Compare the two pictures above, see how the lower portion of the ribcage is down on the "correct" picture? This is how we need to inhale and exhale. Exhalation should be active: the abs should be involved to help pull the ribs down.

3. Coaching Breathing

We need to teach athletes how to get to a neutral spine with the ribs down. The picture of the supine breathing above is a perfect drill for that. The floor gives feedback so the athlete can feel their spine and whether or not it's neutral. It's a great way to teach a "packed neck" too (meaning, no cranking on that neck into extension). The left hand can help monitor rib position to teach the athlete what "ribs down" feels like.  THIS MUST HAPPEN FIRST before we expect them to move well during more strenuous exercise. Have your athletes spend a few minutes before training breathing in proper position.

4. Breathing drills

Breathing "reps" should be 3-4 sec inhale through the nose, a 5-8 sec exhale through pursed lips with a 1-2 sec hold. A great drill is the supine 90/90 position from above. It's a low level drill that will help the athlete be successful. Here's another example:

And this one, especially for those who live in a more "extended" posture:

There are more advanced drills, but these should be enough to get your athletes rolling.

So to recap:

Breathing mechanics are important. It affects all aspects of athletic performance. Breath well.

Re-educate posture and patterns.

Breathing is important.

A Prerequisite to Lifting Heavy Things: Stability

In my last article, I talked about the need for correct mobility in your exercises and workout. Mobility is extremely important and should always be addressed early on to ensure good positioning and a full range of motion in your lift. Mobility, however is only one part of the puzzle. There’s another aspect that the yogis don’t like to talk about and many people get confused with a BOSU ball: Stability

Mobility and Stability are the two components that provide the frame-work of movement. Mobility is the ability of a joint to move through a given range of motion, whereas stability is the ability to resist being moved. From a biomechanics stand-point they are like yin and yang, positive and negative, peanut butter and jelly. One cannot exist without the other. They are both equally important in training, however the body will always choose stability over mobility for safety and compensations.

Dr. Perry of Stop Chasing Pain is known for his saying, “stability rules the road.” What he means by that is that your body will always give up mobility in whatever joint it needs to create a stable environment if there is dysfunction(muscles not working properly). Will that cause pain and compensation patterns? Probably, but not always. If muscles aren’t working right, then they will not be able to control the motions in joints, and your body doesn’t trust that, so it will lock it down. It’s very similar to walking on ice. When you’re on the ice, you naturally stiffen up, and you consciously will keep your legs in and tight, not using big strides.

So essentially, if you lose stability, you will lose mobility somewhere else. It follows the joint by joint approach just as mobility did in my last article. This is why it doesn’t make sense to just stretch or just to weight train. When I talked about how to create proper mobility, step 4 was ACTIVATE. This is where stability is created, in the hopes that it will start to become automatic when used with movement.

The Misconceptions:

Stiffness is the Same as Stability

Many people confuse this notion of creating stability with creating stiffness. For an area to be stable, you want it to be tense/active during the appropriate movement and yet supple when not in use.

If you’re doing 50 reverse hyperextensions a day to keep your low back, “stable,” then you’re just creating stiffness by overusing the muscles and there for doing it wrong. If you want to create true stability in a particular area, then you must train that muscle/area as a stabilizer.

Stability training is done on bosus and wobble boards

Creating true stability in a joint DOES NOT need to be done on an unstable surface. It is done by creating mobility and then using a particular area as a stabilizer to hold a particular position. This is not to say that using a BOSU or wobble-board is always wrong. They do have their time and place for rehab, but that’s another topic for a blog post.

Anyway, an example of using a muscle as a stabilizer that I like is using the ½ knealing position for variations on exercises to help create some glute stability and open up the front of the hips. What about the guy doing the 50 hyperextensions? Well how about just try some simple plank variations or maybe even a kettlebell halo instead.

A Prerequisite to Lifting Heavy Weights

Ahhh how exciting, my first blog post as a coach at SAPT. I’ve got my cup of coffee, The Best Around playing on loop and I’ll be doing hip mobilities throughout writing this blog entry. Why? Because The Best Around was originally supposed to be for a Rocky III montage, but was replaced by Eye of the Tiger and I think Joe Esposito deserves more credit for the inspiration it brings…. Why am I doing the hip mobilities every 30 minutes while at a desk? Easy, because I want to squat later. Mobility: A Prerequisite to Lifting Heavy Weights

If you’re reading this blog, then it’s obvious you want to get strong, build muscle, and improve fitness in each and everyone of your workouts. You’re the type of person who sees exercises like deficit deadlifts, deep squats and overhead presses and gets as giddy as a little schoolgirl at the thought of trying it in your next workout. You look up the technique, take a few mental notes, begin with light weight for a warm-up, and then finally drop butt-to-heels into that heavy squat.

But what happened? You thought you would drive up out of the hole like superman initiating his flight takeoff, but instead you feel your lower back light up like Iron Man’s arc reactor.

You didn’t check your mobility prerequisites for that exercise did you?

Position is Power

Every exercise requires a certain degree of mobility in particular joints in order to execute the movement safely. If the mobility is not there, then the body will look for a way around it to accomplish that movement. By doing this you are putting yourself into a compromised position, and what’s worse is that if you’re doing it with training, you are reinforcing a compromised motor pattern. Practice doesn’t make perfect; practice makes permanent.

Not only are you actually weaker in these compromised positions, but you are more likely to injure yourself. This needs to be fixed before you can get strong. You can only squat so much weight with a Hyena Butt. You must work on gaining enough mobility to get into whatever position a given exercise/movement requires, WITHOUT compromise, and then you can become strong.

I’m sure you’re probably wishing I’d just shut up and tell you how to get mobile, right? Well too bad! Because first it is more important to understand WHAT needs to be mobile.

Understanding Mobility

Joint mobility is the degree to which a joint can move through a range of motion. When a joint becomes less mobile, it becomes more stable as it can’t move. (Note: Stability is not a bad thing! You just need it in the right places.)

Though it’s not black and white, many of our joints are meant to be mobile while others are stable. Sometimes, due to activities (or lack thereof) in our daily life, injuries or even the shoes we wear, joints that should be mobile become stable and throw off our body’s movements. When these joints that should be mobile are then locked down, joints that are stable then become mobile to compensate for the lost motion. This relationship is constant throughout the entire body and it’s the reason you will see lots of errors in movements that can’t be fixed with simple queues.

The Joint-by-Joint Approach outlines this mobility-stability relationship between the joints and how it could affect movement. Essentially it conveys that the following joints need more mobility or stability:

Arch of Foot – Stability

Ankle- Mobility

Knee- Stability

Hips- Mobility

Lumbar spine- Stability

Thoracic spine- Mobility

Scapula- Stability

Gleno-humeral(shoulder) joint- Mobility

Does anyone else see the pattern here? Our body alternates the needs of our joints from head to toe. So what do you think happens if one of these is thrown off? Then the pattern is broken and they all get thrown off to some extent. If someone is flat footed, they will probably have poor foot stability and it will cause their feet to collapse in movement. This results in a loss of ankle mobility over time, and their knees will almost always cave in when they squat. The reason for this is because their knees are now looking for mobility. The same can be true for losing stability. Lets say Yoga Sue starts stretching out her lower back more and more because she’s been having back pain. By creating more mobility in her lumbar spine through stretching, she is reinforcing her body to move through her lower back rather than hips and will eventually lose hip mobility. I’ll touch more on the stability component in my next post.

If the stability/mobility pattern is thrown off, then it will compromise your movements and thus jeopardize the intended benefits of lifting heavy things and your training sessions will look like poop.

Fix It!

So I’m sure you’ve spent the past few minutes form checking your squat depth in a mirror and are now begging for the answer of how to become a mobility master. Have patience grasshopper; first you must find your weakness.

Step 1. Find your limiting factor

This step will most likely need a coach or knowledgable training partner. You must determine what joint is immobile and causing the issue in your movement. You can use a movement screen for this or you can informally just breakdown the movement to see when the poop hits the fan.

Step 2. Determine WHY it’s your limiting factor

Joints can become immobile for several reasons. More often then not it is because your joint is stuck in one position for a long period of time due to your lifestyle. If you find this to be the culprit you’re going to need to make some changes before you can start seeing results. You may have to stop wearing those 5 inch heels or you may have to start getting up and walking from your desk every 20 minutes.

Sometimes a joint can become immobile due to overuse in a certain range of motion. You will see this a lot in runners or any other athlete that goes through repetitive motion. If this were the finding, you would just go straight to step 3.

Occasionally you may find that a joint is immobile because it is protecting something. This will take a more educated diagnosis, but if that is the case, then DO NOT MOBILIZE IT. If muscles aren’t firing right or there is a structural issue causing instability, the body’s natural response is to lock that joint down to keep it from being unstable and causing more damage.

Step 3. Soft Tissue Work

You now know what’s immobile and why. You’re about to start training, now it’s time to mobilize it. Foam rolling is one of the fastest ways to increase mobility of a certain joint. Simply roll on the muscles that influence that joint and try to workout the super-happy-fun knots you find. If you’re new to this use a foam roller, if you’re one bad dude, try a PVC pipe or lax balls. If it’s your thoracic spine, try using a t-spine peanut.

Step 4. Mobilities

You’re going to have to lengthen the tissues holding down the joint at some point. I find it most effective to do in the warm up, right after foam rolling and even throw a few into the workouts. If it’s pre or intra-workout, then you will want to use dynamic movements to accomplish this. Otherwise feel free to do the good ol’ fashioned static holds.

Step 5. Activate

If you take one thing away from this process, I want it to be this: Mobility will not stick, unless stability is created somewhere else. If you’re trying to loosen up your hip flexors, do some glute work after you stretch them. If you’re trying to improve ankle mobility, do some dorsiflexion exercises after you stretch the calf. If you’re trying to improve adductor length, do some core stabilization exercises right after loosening up the adductors. I think you get the picture.

Step 6. Use It

In order to keep your joints mobile, you must consistently use the full range of motion in them when you train. This means going to full depth in a squat, locking out that deadlift and overhead press and really grinding the lateral lunges. If you want to get fancy with it, you can even use exercises that are known for creating excessive range of motion like Bulgarian split squats, windmills and arm bars. Whatever you decide to do, don’t cheat yourself and use the full range.

Step 7. Dominate

If you consistently follow the previous steps, you should be in a good position to rip some weight off the floor. Some issues will take longer to fix then others, but be religious with your mobility work and it will pay off to help you feel and perform better.

Back to School, Back to Awful Mobility

It’s back to school time which means it’s time to sit at a desk for long periods of time shortening your hip flexors and putting yourself into a kyphotic posture; ever so slightly changing you into Quasimodo. This is mainly for my high school kids who think that this unnatural posture is an inevitability rather than something they can fix. I’m reminded of the weirdness of Steve Reed when I think about sitting for long periods of time. For those of you who don’t know, and sorry Stevo for putting you on blast, but Steve does the majority of office work at a local coffee shop. Steve has set a reminder on his computer that lets him know when he has been sitting for too long. Once this reminder goes off he proceeds to do a series of exercises to counteract his kyphotic upper back position and his shortened hip flexor position, think band pullaparts and spider-mans with overhead reaches. I remember when Stevo first told me he did this and I thought what a weirdo. But is it really that weird? Or is it weirder that we are forced to be in this unnatural position all day long? Is the sky really blue or do we just perceive it to be that way? What if reality is a dream and our dreams are reality? Whoa, sorry about that; my inner Mike Boyle came out of me on that one. Anyways back to my point, I think Stevo is on to something here and I think it’s something our high school kids should consider, embrace the weirdness in between periods. Do these same type of exercises in between your periods throughout the day in order to stay long and strong. In fact because I’m so generous I’ll give you a workout you can do twice a day. Do the following workout after your first period of the day and then one more time after another period of your choice.

A1) No Money’s against Locker

1-2x6, hold 2 seconds

A2) Half-kneeling Hip Flexor Mob

1-2x5/side, hold 3 seconds

A3) Standing Y’s (thumbs face away)


A4) Spiderman with OH Reach


There you go something quick and easy to counteract the horrible posture of the day.  As a side note to this don’t be “that guy/girl” and cause a big scene when you do this.  The last thing I want or need is for an administrator to call me and tell me you all made a big spectacle out of yourself between 5th and 6th period.  And let this be a lesson to all of us, just when you think Stevo is being weird for the sake of being weird he’s actually just being smart!

It All Starts With the Grip


I decided to give my on camera prowess a go today and talk about an awesome squat grip.  It’s a thumbless, pinkyless grip that I’ve seen great results with.  I learned this from a strength coach that I used to work under who currently trains at Tampa Barbell.  I suggest giving this a shot if your shoulder and t-spine mobility is as bad as a T-Rex. Lay off me about my on camera ridiculousness; I felt like Ricky Bobby, wasn’t quite sure what to do with my hands. 

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 On another note, I am preparing for my first geared (single-ply) meet in April.  In all my other competitions I have competed raw and really had no idea how different lifting in gear would be.  I got my bench shirt in the mail the other day and decided to try it out.  Needless to say, it was rough.  And after trying it out I don’t want to ever hear people say using gear is easier, it’s not.  Out of all the things I’ve done in the weight room it was by far the hardest and most taxing.  My bench shirt repeated yelled at me, “I PWN NOOBS”.  Check out the video of my epic fail; couldn’t even get it to my chest.

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