Breathing, DNA & Exercise: Why breathing affects your movement
25 Sep

Breathing, DNA & Exercise: Why breathing affects your movement

You’re at the gym… a fitness class. Sweat beading on your forehead while the artful sounds of Skrillex poor from the speaker overhead. You’re following the attractive and energetic instructor's directions to the letter.

“Lift - Jump - Throw - Push - Pull - DIG DEEP!”

And then...

“Activate your core!”


“Engage your core!”

Uh… What?

Activate/Engage Your Core?

     Most movements you’re asked to do in gyms make intuitive sense. Lifting a weight is simple: Reach out, grab the object, pick it up. Simple. You do it hundreds of times a day with everything from salt shakers to children. Activating your core was intuitive when you were younger, but it probably isn’t any more.

     Instruction can help, but if your instruction isn’t focused and doesn’t involve breathing -- that’s right *breathing* -- your instruction is incomplete.

     And even if you’re doing it right when instructed, if you’re not doing it reflexively - without having to think about it or be cued to do it - there’s still room for improvement.

Just to (briefly) cover our bases…

     We all need to breathe - duh. But since this article isn’t a Biology 101 course, I’ll simply include two links that cover basic O2-CO2 transport and cellular respiration.

Now that that’s covered... how much movement is involved in a single breath. You do this 17,000 times per day. And as a movement specialist, you quickly learn how all movement is linked - movement (or a lack of it) in the ankle can affect your knee, hip, spine, shoulder, neck or even your wrist.

     If you’re now thinking, “with that much movement occuring every day from the day you’re born, breathing must naturally affect other movements,” you’re more right than you realize.

In the Beginning…

      A newborn baby has no other way to survive other than to cry in order to attract the attention of their caregiver. This requires control of the muscles that allow a baby to breathe: AKA “core” muscles.

     If you watch a baby breathe, you’ll see that their chest barely moves while their cute little belly pump away. That’s because babies reflexively use their deepest abdominal muscles (namely diaphragm, transverse abdominis, and pelvic floor) to breathe. But those deep abdominal muscles also squeeze a baby’s abdominal cavity like a balloon which stabilizes the torso through intra-abdominal pressure. That stabilization allows babies and toddlers to unite the efforts of their upper and lower limbs to help them move: And boy do they need the help. Without this stabilization, a baby or toddler - whose head is disproportionately large in comparison to their body - would have a lot more trouble moving around.

     This means that the first movement that babies learn to control (i.e. breathing) also allows them to learn how to control their abdominal muscles (i.e. core activation). And this learning forms the foundation of all of their movement development for the next 3 years of their lives as they learn to control their bodies. They’ll learn how to roll, reach, crawl, sit, stand, walk and squat all based on their innate, unconscious understanding of breathing and core activation.

     Along with way, we become adults that aren’t as physically restricted as children. We develop bigger bodies, longer bones, stronger muscles, and a more manageable cranium-to-body ratio. When this happens, we no longer NEED properly functioning abdominal muscles to get by, but there’s a catch...

Run for your life & breathe for your DNA

     To understand why suboptimal breathing causes movement issues - and also why breathing is important to your movement - I’d like you to try thinking about your body from the level of your DNA.

     Your DNA only has one priority: Build a survival machine (AKA a body) that will allow it to reproduce. When it comes to movement, your genes don’t know the difference between reaching for a salt shaker and reaching for a limb while falling out of a tree. How could they, right? So, what has your DNA done to foster survival through movement? It’s built a body that treats every movement as a matter of life and death.

     The result is that your body, if necessary, will tear itself apart to do what it’s told to by the brain. As a matter of survival, that’s a good thing, because the result of not taking a signal (like “run away from that lion!”) seriously, could be removal from the gene pool: AKA death. From the perspective of living a long healthy life, it’s far from ideal.

     Where breathing and abdominal/core musculature come in is the same as babies - a means of transferring force between upper and lower extremities of the body as we move around by stabilizing the torso and the spine. But unlike babies, who wouldn’t be able to move much at all without reflexive core activation, the consequences are more subtle for adults.

Notice how all of these fascial lines cross either the abdomen or lower back?
This is basically a visual of a/your force transfer system.

      When adults breathe inefficiently, our DNA’s “built for survival” system kicks in. Your body naturally adapts for the lack of stability in one area by recruiting muscles from another to make up for the deficiency. This situation is ok for a while, but if it happens repeatedly - as it must when you breathe in a suboptimal way - you pay the price: Knots in your shoulders, neck pain, hip pain, bicep tendonitis, rotator cuff tears and lower back injuries can all result from inefficient breathing. And while these things may make your life harder, they don’t remove you from the gene pool and so aren’t important to your DNA.

     So… If we’ve all been efficiently breathing and moving babies at one time or another, and it’s so essential to our movement in daily life - why do so many of us (myself included) have problems with breathing and “core activation?”

Where we go Wrong

     Life happens. Whether you realize it or not, you breathe in different ways at different times for different reasons. Think about these different scenarios:

  • Calm vs excited
  • Angry vs pleased
  • Broken hearted vs in love
  • Working out vs meditating
  • Cooking a meal vs having sex
  • Slouching to hide vs standing up straight

           All of those factors (and many more) can have an effect on the way you breathe in one way or another. The issue with adults vs babies and children is that once those states change, breathing may or may not return completely “normal” for the current state that you’re in. You may have unconsciously adopted a behavior or posture based on something that happened earlier in the day, week, month, year, or even all the way back in your childhood that changed the way you breathe - and therefore how you move.

           Fortunately, this situation can be fixed. You can not only consciously intervene and improve your movement by retraining yourself to breathe in a way that’s more functional, but you can also use breathing to become aware of and address the fundamental reasons underlying the suboptimal breathing pattern. We’ll cover both topics in the next installments on breathing.

      Note to the reader: This article is the 2nd in a series on the broader topic of breathing. You can find the articles linked below.

      1. Understanding breathing as a continuum (3 min)
      3. How to change your breathing (9 min)
      4. Breathing, therapy and spirituality (to be released)

      About the Author:

           Adam is an OPEX CCP coach at OPEX Baltimore South with 15 years of fitness experience ranging from Yoga to CrossFit. He’s also a Certified Nutrition Coach (PN1), specializes in corrective exercise (FMSC) and is a parkour trainer/practitioner.

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