I then talked about the role of the diaphragm for core control, and how improper use of it may have a ripple effect to other areas of the body. There was quite a buzz around Part 1, and it was awesome to see how many people read/shared it. Here are a few more important ideas I think about related to the benefits of training and using proper breathing patterns.
3. Chill Out! Tap Into The Nervous System
Proper breathing patterns can make quite a substantial effect on the nervous system. Generally speaking the autonomic nervous system has a ramped up aspect (sympathetic) and ramped down aspect (parasympathetic). Between the stress of training, anxiety about fearful skills, upcoming competitions, other external life stresses, and more it’s very easy for an athlete to constantly be in this amped sympathetic state. A variety of problems can come up when athlete’s are stuck in the ramped up side of things and the body is constantly being flooded with stress chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol. They can be physical (remember the Ripple Effect idea from Part 1), emotional, neurological, and biochemical.
If someone is showing a more rapid, upper chest pattern all the time (even mildly) it may suggest more of a ramped up sympathetic state. Slow controlled breathing with proper rib expansion, nasal breathing, and diaphragm usage can help shift someone more parasympathetic into a calmer state. Now certainly when a gymnast is working out, chasing a big skill, or going through energy systems training they’re naturally going to go down this path. Always living in this sympathetic state however, or showing signs of high stress constantly with all parts of training, can be problematic.
I tell many gymnasts I work with about the my stereo metaphor. If the stereo has an intensity dial ranging from 0-10, and your always living at 7/10, thats pretty exhausting. This can be a big factor in a gymnast constantly feeling drained of energy or being in a chronic fatigued state, which has huge implications to injury and decreased performance. Also if the athlete is constantly at a 7/10 on the intensity dial, there isn’t much more room available to get “amped up” to 10/10 for big skills or routines. If you can teach someone to shift in and out of relaxed and excited states, they may be able to tap into a huge potential when it’s needed. In the stereo example they can really turn it on when needed and crank the dial from 2/10 – 9/10.
On the other side of the coin, being able to dial their system back down after training to boost recovery through parasympathetic states is equally as important. Dr. Sands is one of the leading experts in recovery and there is a great talk on Gymanst Care here. Dr Eldridge also has a great podcast/lecture on recovery here. I think utilizing breathing drills as an addition to these strategies can really help, especially for higher level gymnastics that train multiple hours/days per week. Dr. Seth Oberst has a great article on the role of breathing in recovery work which people can find here to learn more. I think this concept is very important for coaches, gymnasts, and healthcare to understand as many gymnasts struggle with the psychological, emotional, and physical demands of training in gymnastics. I feel a gymnast should be aware of this and know the importance of being able to shift in and out of sympathetic/parasympathetic states during training. Being aware of overly stressed states and using breathing drills to change it can be one of a few tools to help with this issue.
4. Enhance Your Mobility
Being mobile is a hallmark quest of many gymnasts. Being able to move joints safely though full ranges of motion, and then gain full control over these ranges for skills, is crucial to gymnastics performance and injury prevention. On a global level, poor breathing patterns and being in a constant ramped up sympathetic state like noted above may lead to increased tone through the body. Think about what happens when a person jumps out and scares someone, or what happens to a gymnast before a big skill/routine. They tend to get into a more heightened state with increased muscle tone. This increased muscular activity can be beneficial for that performance situation, but that same concept be working against a gymnast if they are trying to relax and focus on enhancing mobility work. Being able to tap into parasympathetic states with breathing is a great way to set the stage to optimize mobility/flexibility work at a global level. There is also a lot of support going into the idea that quick improvements in mobility from self soft tissue work (like with foam rollers) may work due to neural and parasympathetic influences.
From a more biomechanical approach, there is literature to suggest that the diaphragm has multiple fascial connections and attachments to various structures in the body. This includes some muscles of the lower back, hip flexors, chest wall, and more. Improper breathing patterns may have a more direct link to commonly overactive muscles in these areas through lines of connection. Whether positive effects of breathing on mobility is more due to direct connections and the “ripple effect” concept, a more local neurological influence, or a global effect through the high tone/ nervous system concept, or just a placebo, is up in the air. It’s hard for me to prove one versus the other. All I can say is I have seen good success in using breathing drills and light self soft tissue work before I do mobility with with gymnastics athletes/patients I work with. It seems to set up a good window of opportunity to keep moving down the spectrum and change movement patterns.
The diaphragm does have direct connections to various ribs through facet joints, which directly influences thoracic spine mobility. If a gymnast has spent many years training in a constant upper back “hollow”, is compensating for lower back hyper extension by excessively rounding their upper back forward to stay balanced, or just has limited thoracic mobility, there are some great breathing drills to help mobilize the ribs. Sue Falsone’s work is a great resource for exploring this idea more. I use a ton of her breathing drills and thoracic mobility work for gymnasts that need it.
Especially during stretching, proper breathing patterns and using the core to act as a stable base can enhance movement in the arms and legs. Keeping the core stable can help fixate one end of the tissue trying to be mobilized, and breathing goes right along with this. As noted with the earlier parts of the post, it may also help to assist in relaxation for the nervous system rather than pushing hard and possible inducing a perception of threat. Last year I wrote a very popular article on why I tend to not aggressively push my gymnasts down in splits (Part 1 and Part 2) if readers are interested. I think our nervous system is much more intelligent than we give it credit for when working mobility. I’m not sure cranking on tissues for a temporary change in motion is the best long term functional solution to changing movement and enhancing gymnastics skill performance. I think we have to dig deeper into the entire system to find better alternatives, but that discussion is for another time.
The practical applications of this are every time we do mobility work or isolated stretching with our gymnasts I’m always cueing them to be “active” in their stretch with their core turned on and tell them to focus on proper breathing in their stretch. I also want them to utilize other areas of the body to maintain stiffness for enhanced motion elsewhere, and try to make sure their positioning is set up to target the area being worked on. People should definitely check out Dr. Charlie Weingroff’s thoughts inLateralizations and Regressions for more on this. We also very commonly use the number of breaths they take as a measure for their time. Although there is much more complexity to it, the take away is that rehearsing and using proper breathing is a great tool to help optimize mobility work for gymnasts on a few different platforms.
That’s All For Part 2!
So that finishes up 2 more reasons reasons behind why I think breathing is so important for gymnasts to work on. Next week in the final Part 3 of this series I’m going to offer my last point, give some thoughts one when to use breathing concepts during training, and a then post bunch of really helpful breathing drills I use with our gymnasts. Have a great week!