Breathe better to move better: Train to breathe like a pro athlete

Story highlights

  • Breathing is natural, but there are ways to breathe better
  • Many pro athletes train in techniques to increase mobility and prevent tension
Dana Santas is the creator of Radius Yoga Conditioning, a yoga style designed to help athletes move, breathe and focus better. She's the yoga trainer for the Atlanta Braves, the Philadelphia Phillies, the Tampa Bay Rays, Tampa Bay Lightning, Orlando Magic and dozens of pros in the National Football League, National Hockey League, National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball.

(CNN)From an early age, we're taught that breathing is part of our autonomic nervous system, like digesting food, so unless there's a problem, it's not something we need to think about. But, unlike digestion, we actually have the ability to control our respiration -- and for good reason. Arguably, the way we breathe has the power to impact every aspect of our health and wellness, from how we think and feel to how we move.

Many of us recognize the link between breathing and physiology, particularly during times of stress, but most don't realize its reciprocal impact on our overall posture and mobility. Bad breathing creates tension and immobility, and immobility and tension prevent good breathing. That's why teaching proper breathing biomechanics is the foundation of all my work with professional athletes.

How bad breathing hurts us

    The quality of our breathing is governed by our ability to access the primary muscle of respiration: the diaphragm. It's a misconception that diaphragmatic breathing is reserved for deep breathing. It's actually fundamental to all functional breathing. And, the diaphragm's function, in simplest terms, is dictated by the position of your ribcage and spine and vice versa.
    If, like most people, your breathing is primarily chest oriented and shallow, your ribcage will get pulled into a lifted and flared state that compromises diaphragm function, requiring chest, neck, and upper back muscles to act as "accessory" breathing muscles. This causes chronic tension that locks you into poor -- often painful -- posture with shoulders slumped forward, shoulder blades humped and your mid-back flattened.
    What's more, when the diaphragm isn't being used properly for respiration, it becomes dysfunctional in its postural role, too, pulling into its attachments to your lumbar spine, causing disc compression. This chain reaction of tension from improper breathing doesn't just hurt and make it harder to move, it increases your risk of back, neck and shoulder injury.
    You could spend multiple hours a day stretching and practicing "good" posture, but, because we take almost 1,000 breaths an hour, 24 hours per day, relief would only be temporary without correcting your breathing.

    How to breathe better

    "Just take long, deep breaths."
    This is a common directive given by well-intentioned therapists, coaches, yoga instructors and the like. However, its effectiveness is predicated on actually knowing how to breathe properly.
    Personally and professionally, my life -- and breathing -- changed dramatically four years ago when I took a "Postural Respiration" course through the Postural Restoration Institute. Previously, I had assumed I knew how to teach breathing, decrease tension and correct dysfunctional movement -- I was a yoga instructor, after all. But the course opened my eyes to proper breathing biomechanics as our most fundamental movement pattern and its ability to impact all other movement patterns.
    According to the institute's creator, physical therapist Ron Hruska, "proper diaphragmatic breathing restores everything from alternating mechanics of dynamic movement and posture, like arm swing during gait, to our ability to handle sensory input."
    With this knowledge, my breath work with clients evolved from a focus on relaxation to leveraging breathing for better movement, such as increasing pitchers' shoulder mobility, enhancing golfers' swing rotation and improving hockey players' shoulder girdle stability.
    Consequently, I empower all my clients to understand how to breathe properly. This starts with a basic comprehension of the anatomy and action of the diaphragm, a dome-shaped muscle that attaches to your ribcage and lumbar spine. Upon inhalation, the diaphragm contracts and descends in the abdomen to increase intra-abdominal pressure, pulling air into the lungs. With exhalation, the diaphragm domes inside the ribcage, emptying the lungs. None of this can occur without proper position and movement of the ribcage.
    When inhaling, your entire ribcage, including your chest, should expand without any lift from neck and shoulder muscles. What many people don't realize is that the most substantial movement, during inhalation, should occur in your lower ribs as they externally rotate (open out) and expand out to the sides. When exhaling, your lower ribs should internally rotate (close in), creating the necessary space for your diaphragm to dome inside your ribcage. If you place your hands on your low ribs while you take a breath, you should feel your hands move out and in.
    Overcoming the effects of "bad" breathing takes training. You can experience results in as little as a few minutes, but, for a functional breathing pattern to hold, you need to train it. Here are five ways I train breathing for better movement. As you practice these exercises, keep in mind all of the mechanics of breathing explained above.

    Seated fingertip breathing

    Facilitates proper seated posture during breathing while also integrating a meditative focus
    Sit upright on a stool or stability ball, trying to maintain the natural curves of your spine. Keep both feet on the floor hip-distance apart with toes pointing forward. With your hands together at the center of your chest, close your eyes and activate the muscles below your shoulder blades (lower trapezius) to pull them downward. You should feel the uppermost back muscles that run into your neck (upper trapezius) relax. When you inhale, gently push the pads of your fingers into each other in sequence, starting at your pinkies, for a count of five. Repeat on exhale. Pause after exhaling without taking another breath for another five count. Focus your attention on the movement of your ribcage as you breathe. Inhale and expand your ribcage, especially at its base. Exhale as you internally rotate your low ribs and drop your ribcage toward your waist. During the pause, keep your side waist muscles (obliques) and low, deep core (transverse abdominus) engaged to keep the ribcage down. Avoid vertical movement as you inhale -- no shoulder shrugging or collarbones lifting. Repeat for 10 breaths. Note: If you find you can continue exhaling after a five count, increase your exhalation time as much as necessary to completely empty your lungs before pausing