The Shoulder: What every coach/swimmer should know – Breathing

Previously we covered the topic of shoulder stretching. Continuing on with some information on the shoulder we have:

Breathing Impairments

Breathing is an often over looked subject matter that can pertain to healthy shoulder performance.  The way in which an athlete actually takes each breath can affect function at this critical joint. Breathing is easily over looked as it is mostly an involentary organ function -requiring no conscious thought by the athlete. However, we do have control over breathing, making it partially voluntary.

For various reasons, some rather complex, athletes sometimes rely on less effecient breathing mechanics. Many factors could play into why these altered patterns arise (less than ideal posture, pain, muscular amnesia, anxiety, stress).  Consider that a adult or teen at rest has an average respiratory rate  of between 17,000- 28,000 breaths per day.  You can imagine the cascade of compensations that must occur when those breathes are less authentic.

Respiration and core stabilization are both functions that are performed by the relatively large dome shaped muscle known as the diaphragm.  During normal breathing, it descends as it contracts and ascends as it relaxes to facilitate inhalation and exhalation.

Pretty straight forward, right?   I’ll continue to  keep this simple, but if you like extra geeky details on breathing check out Postural Restoration Institutes work. A good place to start is their concept of creating a Zone Of Apposition. Here is a taste of what you’ll find if you’re inclined to dig further.

Essentially the ribs and abdominal wall create an optimal zone in which the diapragm can most effectively move up and down. Additionally, because the diapgram attaches to the ribs, sterum and spine it forms a relationship with ..well…just about everything.

“If breathing is not normalized no other movement pattern can be” – Lewit

Poor breathing mechanics have the potential to effect full body alignment. It just so happens that poor body alignment in turn can effect breathing. Today we’ll focus our attention on the implications that can arise at the shoulder as a result of poor breathing mechanics. For starters, If an individual does not use their diaphragm well, and instead compensates with the upper chest and neck muscles to breath, the shoulder is in inadvertently effected. You’ll likely see the shoulders and chest subtly elevate with each breath with this form of breathing.  This inspiratory pattern  is referred to as apical breathing. It’s important to note that during periods of elevated heart rates, apical breathing is perfectly normal.  With constant apical breathing occurring at rest, however,  accessory respiratory muscles have to work overtime to elevate the rib cage; A function otherwise performed by the diaphragm.  These accessory muscles (including but not limited to: the subclavius , levator scapulae, sterno-cleidomastoid, and the scalene muscles) tend to present with overuse symptoms such as trigger points, and sometimes increased muscle tone. (recall the daily respiratory rate from above resulting in 1000s of contractions). Relative increases in stiffness in these muscles can perpetuate problematic postural deviations at the shoulder and the neck.

Forward Head Posture is one example.  Looking forward down the pool as one swims , pulling on the neck with sit ups, and sitting slumped over a computer screen isn’t doing a swimmer any favors in this regard. Just think how often you see an athlete protrude their head and neck forward durring planks, push ups, pull ups, and rowing exercises.

Retraining proper diaphragm function can take some stress off these overused accessory muscles.  One way to do this is with some simple breathing drills. There are several ways to accomplish a focus on lateral and posterior expansion of the lower ribs. In the video example below, if you look closely, you can see the ribs moving out to the side and up — think expansion like an umbrella. Because swimmers often exhibit highly dominant latisimus and superficial abdominal muscles, rib expansion can become limited.  It’s important to stress the lateral and posterior rib expansion. The expansion of the ribs  provides the added bonus of facilitating scapulo-thoracic mobility.

A simple drill

A complex drill

Once an athlete understands the mechanics of each breath, you can begin to replace duration of time during isometric exercise with an allotted number of breaths. It may be worth considering that breathing while swimming tends to occur primarily by inhaling in through the mouth and out through the nose.   A simple guideline to follow is having an athlete exhale as long as or longer than each deep inhale.  Be on the look out for athletes that hold their breath excessively and inappropriately in an effort to achieve stability.

If poor breathing mechanics and forward head posture persist, the levetor scapulae muscle in particular can remain in a position of stretch -> creating unnecessary stiffness -> which in turn can hinder the scapula’s ability to upwardly rotate during overhead movement. This brings us to our next topic…..Scapular Rotation.

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