Breathing Mechanics and Posture

Written by Ryan Maron, BHK

Active and dynamic posture is everything. When looking at how the body functions, it is pretty clear that poor posture can lead to chronic pain and dysfunctional movement; however, an often overlooked consequence of being in bad positions day after day is the affect it has on one’s breathing. That’s right: posture and breathing are inextricably linked.

Just as movement patterns (colloquially known as “muscle memory”) are learned by your neuromuscular system, breathing patterns are ingrained into movements in much the same way. These preferred movement and breathing strategies will continue, unless a conscious effort to correct them is made. Interestingly, the majority of muscles that drive breathing have a dual function in postural maintenance. While there are many muscles that are involved in the process of inspiration and expiration, the main focus for this article is the Diaphragm. What is the Diaphragm you may ask?  This dome-shaped muscular sheet lines the bottom of the ribs and separates the thoracic (lungs) and abdominal cavities (abdominal organs). When the diaphragm contracts, it pulls downwards and creates negative pressure in order to inflate the lungs.

In a perfect world, everyone would breathe using predominantly their Diaphragm. However, this is not the case; the ‘chest breather’ is more common than you think. Take a minute and shift your focus to your breath. Where is it originating from? Your stomach? Your chest? Your shoulders or neck? If you observed any of the last three examples you may not be breathing as efficiently as possible. Initiation of breathing should be at the abdominal region (i.e. diaphragmatic breathing) and not the chest as your diaphragm is the most efficient respiratory muscle. If you notice your chest, shoulders or neck rise when you breathe, this could indicate overactive sternocleidomastoid, scalene and upper trapezius muscles (typical signs of upper cross syndrome – more on this later) and inhibited or underused diaphragmatic activity. Basically this means that you are likely using less effective muscles to breath, which will ultimately deplete energy sources sooner, especially during physically demanding activity.

So what does posture have to do with this? Excess pressure on the diaphragm and intercostals (think BBQ rib meat) alter the ability of those muscles to contract and lengthen optimally. What’s even more concerning is that a chest breather’s poor posture will shift over time in order to accommodate altered breathing, and poor posture will oftentimes lead to further dysfunction. This negative cyclic effect is a difficult hole to get out of. That being said, properly prescribed corrective exercise and voluntary breathing practice is a good place to start.

Due to high levels of inactivity and the prevalence of desk jobs, upper and lower cross syndromes are becoming more and more common. Upper cross syndrome presents with a head forward position, rolled forward shoulders, and a kyphotic (hump) back. Look familiar? What’s interesting is that this same position can result in up to a 30% loss of vital capacity (maximum expiration that comes after a max inspiration) when breathing. This can have huge implications, especially if you are immobilized for 8 hours a day sitting at a computer desk. As well, head forward posture results in a loss of cervical lordosis (natural curve in your neck) which can block the action of surrounding muscles that operate to lift the first rib out of the way during inspiration.

Lower cross syndrome presents with an anterior (forward) pelvic tilt and a hyperlordotic (excess curve) in the low back. This doesn’t necessary have an obvious effect on breathing, however your pelvic floor muscles are inhibited and do not function to their full mechanical advantage in this position. This can end up having negative effects on your ability to brace or co-contract your core to its fullest extent.

So what can we do about this? Kelly Starrett, a leading physical therapist based out of San Francisco, has developed a systematic bracing technique that not only aligns your body into a stable, mechanically advantageous position, but also optimizes your breathing mechanics. Without getting into too much detail (read his book “Becoming a Supple Leopard”) here are a few easy steps to go about aligning your posture:

  1. Screw your feet into the floor as you squeeze your glutes as hard as you can (sets your pelvis into a neutral position; think of your pelvis and ribcage as bowls of water)
  2. Balance your ribcage into a neutral position
  3. Still squeezing your glutes, take a big belly breath (diaphragmatic breath); as you exhale, “tighten your belt” by bracing your spine with your abdominal muscles
  4. Externally rotate your shoulders, tucking your shoulder blades back and down
  5. Retract and slightly tuck chin

When looking at the process of breathing itself, there are many exercises aimed at supporting correct mechanics; here is one that I find particularly useful in practice. Taking all things into consideration, poor posture will more often than not result in restricted, shallow breathing which leads to ineffective perfusion of the tissues. So next time you are slumping, sit up straight! You may be doing your body more of a disservice than you think.