PT on the Net Research

Breathing for Flexibility


I recently attended a seminar on functional training and movement-based flexibility. The presenter, Jason Anderson, made a brief comment about flexibility saying, "...a client’s flexibility will not improve if they are not breathing correctly." He didn't go into detail as to why this is the case, and I was wondering if there is any research supporting this statement. Also, can you provide information to give me an idea how I could apply this "correct breathing" to increase my own clients' flexibility?


The statement about inflexibility and breathing was, of course, based upon the teachings and principles from many of today's great educators (Chek, Gray, Cook and Dalcourt). It is hard to get away from the fact that thanks to these pioneers, we as an industry have never been so close to understanding the body and the impact that dysfunction in one area, whether it be physical, chemical or even emotional, has on the rest of this wonderful body suit that we occupy as mere tenants.

However, it was also based upon the application and experimentation of this knowledge in a series of "logical" thought processes that only became possible as a result of education.

The major muscle of respiration is the diaphragm. In the process of breathing, the diaphragm pushes the abdominal contents downward, creating tension in the pelvic floor and TvA and therefore subsequent tension in the multifidus (intra-abdominal pressure or IAP). Now we can generate force safe in the knowledge that we have stabilized our lumbo-pelvic hip complex.

Now imagine that the diaphragm doesn’t come down, and the occupier of this particular body suit is a chest breather. This not only creates tension in the accessory muscles of respiration (SCM, scalenes, etc.) and throws the head forward, it also creates a stability deficit by not creating the distension forces essential to IAP and spinal stability.

The only way to reproduce IAP and create a compressed abdominal cylinder is to draw the sternum closer to the pubis. You have seen this many times in a client who is asked to perform a cable push; his head shoots forward, his shoulders elevate, his trunk flexes and pelvis rotates posteriorly.

As we know, this can create problems as the thoracic rotation is now reduced, which leads to the stress being increased on the lumbar spine, shoulders, hips, knees… well, the rest of the body!

So stretching the hamstrings, in this case to reduce the amount of pelvic rotation, will do little to correct this faulty generalized motor program. We will need to address the diaphragmatic inhibition that is the fundamental spark to stability, which allows the exerciser to remain in a more bio-mechanically advantageous position for force generation.

Teaching Breathing

There are several ways to get your client to diaphragmatically breathe. You can use lying, box, seated or standing, all of which have different stability demands and subsequent varying levels of TvA activation. This alters what should happen at the abdomen and is probably the main cause for confusion.

To get my clients breathing correctly, I initially sit them on a ball to emphasize the breathing mechanism without having the distraction of trying to stand in neutral. Sit them on the apex of the ball and place a pole down their backs to identify neutral (or ask them to try and make themselves taller by taking the crown of their heads to the ceiling).

To create an awareness of lateral ribcage expansion, I ask them to place their hands across their ribcage just under the chest with their middle fingers touching. As they inhale through the nose, I get them to imagine that the expansion is "pulling" their middle fingers apart, while keeping the shoulders depressed. Tension should be maintained up to the naval, and the expansion should occur from above, with little or no shoulder elevation. If lying, the abdomen should be allowed to fully distend, as there is no stability demand.

I get them to inhale progressively for up to five seconds, hold for five seconds and then exhale for five seconds.

Once they can achieve this comfortably, they can place their arms into the Brüggers relief position (skydiver) depress, retract and laterally rotate their shoulders while breathing in for the same tempos. Then you can progress them to the standing position. To save time, this can be performed in between your normal sets.

To increase flexibility, all you have to do is to develop strength over a progressively fuller range. Split deadlifts are a great example for the hamstrings.