There was a time not too long ago when strength and conditioning coaches were taught that the proper breathing pattern when exercising consisted of two steps; inhale on the way down (eccentric contractions) and exhale on the way up (concentric contractions). Today, however, we know that it’s not as simple as that. Recent research indicates that breathing patterns and the function of the muscles responsible for breathing can affect many things in our bodies that can influence posture alignment, inhibit performance and increase the risk of injury. We now know that faulty breathing patterns can cause the accessory muscles to compensate for improper diaphragm positioning and lead to hypertonic neck muscles, neck pain, headaches and referred pain in the shoulder. Faulty breathing has also been shown to contribute to improper hip positioning which, in turn, can lead to pain and dysfunction in the femur, tibia and foot.
The purpose of this post is to present two breathing exercises that can help athletes prevent and recovery from hamstring injury by developing breathing patterns that will help restore the body to a “neutral alignment”.
Alternating exhalations with reach. The first exercise is a contralateral reach with exhalation. The exercise starts from a supine position with knees bent and the heels of both feet on the floor, toes up. From this position, there are three parts: 1) gently exhale through your mouth and leave your breath out for a 2 count, moving your ribs towards your sacrum. Then inhale through your nose; 2) then dig the left heel into the ground raise the right leg up as high as possible while scooping your hips towards the ceiling while trying not let your low back lose contact with the ground. This will activate the hamstrings of the foot on the ground; 3) with the right leg pointed at the ceiling reach up with the left arm and try to get your left hand as close to the toes of your left foot as possible. In this position while you are gently breathing, inhale and exhale 5 times trying not to lose any of your reach height. Think about reaching a bit further with each exhale. This will help drive your ribs towards your sacrum. Return to the starting position and repeat on the opposite side. Perform 5 reps on each side. Try to breathe as relaxed as possible 5 times while not letting your shoulder sneak back to the ground. The execution of the exhale while in this “rotated and reached” position is the key to this exercise. Do not rush. The amount of time your muscles hold you in this position while breathing ensures that the diaphragm and external oblique muscles have enough time to build some work capacity.
Knee Marching. The second exercise is designed to help athletes to learn to keep the ribs down in the exhale position. The setup is pretty important. The exercise starts from a supine position with the body in front of a band anchor point to which a 3-4 foot piece of elastic tubing or resistance band is attached. With knees bent and both heels on the floor (toes up), reach back and grasp the tubing or band with both hands and pull it forward until the arms are straight up and perpendicular to the floor. From this position, exhale and drive the ribs down and back towards your sacrum. While maintaining this southern position of your ribs, inhale into an imaginary weight belt and create some solid outward pressure. This pressure is as if you were bracing to take a Mike Tyson gut punch. While maintaining the pressure breathe gently, exhaling and inhaling. Keep the head, shoulders, and low back on the floor. Scoop your tail bone slightly towards the ceiling. This will further activate your oblique musculature. Now alternate lifting your knees towards your face to just past 90 degrees or perpendicular to the floor. Do not let your foot touch the floor on the downward marching movement. Be sure to keep tension on the band throughout the exercise. Keeping tension on the band will help ensure a large contracture of the obliques during the marching movements.
Nate Shaw, ATC, RSCC, is the Major League Strength and Conditioning Coordinator, Arizona Diamondbacks.