Rob Wilson, CMT
Breathing is primarily an autonomic function (controlled unconsciously) that often easily escapes our awareness. Postural compensation, poor respiratory and movement mechanics, and even psychological distress can result in the stiffness and atrophy of larger respiratory muscles like the diaphragm (that’s right your diaphragm can be weak) and consequentially smaller secondary respiratory muscles are emburdened and the negative feedback loop of compromised breathing, poor posture, and ineffective movement begins.
Learning to develop a deeper awareness of our respiratory mechanics and how to alleviate hindrances can not only lead to all the fruits of better breathing but in the process we may also positively affect symptoms, issues, and dysfunctions that are seemingly unrelated.
Primary Respiratory Muscles (PRM)
Our primary respiratory muscles are the diaphragm and the intercostals. These muscles are adapted to effectively expand the rib cage to allow for maximum lung volume and then to contract to evacuate the lungs as well.
We can see by how broad the attachment site it is to the rib cage that the diaphragm has the greatest potential to transmit force through the ribs to create space for the lungs.
Additionally the intercostals are located between the ribs and attach in a crisscross pattern in both directions allowing for maximal movement between each individual set of ribs.
These primary respiratory muscles are best fit to manage the muscular burden of rib cage movements to allow for effective respiration and when moving properly maximize our breathing which can positively effect everything from sports performance to mood in general.
Secondary Respiratory Musculature (SRM)
Our secondary respiratory muscles are comprised of generally smaller muscles most of which have another function altogether to which their respiratory duty is completely ancillary.
The scalenes, pectoralis minor, trapezius, and the sternocleidomastoid all subtly attach to the rib cage and offer little purchase there compared to their PRM counterparts. The primary role for these muscles is to allow for both mobility and stability of the cervical spine, scapula, and serve as a scaffolding to support our mainframe housing (cranium).
These muscles have tremendous purchase on the cervical spine and the cranium and when a part of a maladaptive respiratory pattern they can contribute to pain and dysfunction including but not limited to neck and shoulder pain and loss of ROM, arm pain, headaches, migraines, and much more. This is often exacerbated at times of intense physical and/or psychological exertion and stress.
Mechanical Ventilation Test and Tidal Volume
Let’s start with a simple test or two. Use one or both of the videos below to develop a baseline for your breath capacity. The mechanical ventilation test offers a more subjective, feeling based comparative while the tidal volume test uses an objective visual comparison. The PRM and SRM release sequences can be performed together or as separate test/retest practices. Compare the results and see where you make the most difference.
TEST 1: Mechanical Ventilation Test
Test 2: Tidal Volume Test
Primary Respiratory Muscle Release Videos
10 breaths per side
Cat/Cow + hold
5 breaths moving dynamically
5 breaths in each position
Secondary Respiratory Muscle Release Videos
Neck Peel / 2 min on each side
1st rib/Scalene Release / 20-30 oscillations per side
Pec Minor / 20-30 oscillations per side
After you perform the above sequences be sure to retest and compare how you feel. Use the same test as in the beginning as right afterwards in order to get a good comparison.
Overuse of the SRM is strongly correlated to being stuck in a sympathetic (fight/flight/freeze) autonomic state. Being stiff and overactive in these muscles can contribute to being in a sympathetic state just as much as being in a sympathetic state can make these muscles tight and overactive. Like many processes in the human body this is multifactorial and we cannot always tell if the chicken or the egg came first. Ultimately this can become a circle of behavior that can severely limit a positive adaptation process in the long term. The most important thing is to enhance our awareness and interrupt this cycle as soon as we know it’s taking place.
Performing the above mobilization sequence on a regular can go a long way improve your breath mechanics and enhance your existing breath practice. If you don’t already have a breathing practice you’re behind the 8 ball!
Learning to breathe on purpose is an important component of life and training that cannot be overstated. For more information on getting started with your breathing practice start here: BREATHING ROUTINES