Matthew Varca, PT, DPT, PRC
Part 1: The Role of the Diaphragm
If you have been a patient of mine or have spent time in the clinic you know I am all about breathing! You may have seen me use tools such as balloons or straws and wondered what I am doing. In this article series I am not only going to explain the method to my madness but describe how breathing is the key to improving performance in sport. From improved range of motion to increased throwing speed there are many ways breathing can impact an athlete. To understand the connection between breathing and performance we must begin with the basics and understand the role of the diaphragm.
The respiratory diaphragm is a dome shaped muscle that is located in the center of your body, attaching right behind the ribs and wrapping itself all the way back to your spine. You want to think of this muscle as a plunger. During a state of exhalation your diaphragm looks like the picture above (figure 1), that is when your diaphragm is in a dome position. As you inhale your diaphragm contracts, flattens out and “sucks” in air to your lungs. Movement of the diaphragm between inhalation and exhalation is what makes it possible to keep our body supplied with oxygen and keep us moving. But, did you know your diaphragm can get stuck?
For a moment, perform a quick experiment. Laying on your back observe and feel your lower ribs. You may notice that one or both sides of the rib cage has tendencies to flare up and out. When this happens the following occurs:
- The diaphragm becomes flattened and tight like the top of a drum.
- When flat, the diaphragm can’t get back into a dome shape and be used as a breathing muscle.
- The tight diaphragm will pull your low back into excessive extension (see athlete photo above left).
- Your body will start to use neck, upper trap, and low back muscles to breathe.
- Your ability to fully exhale will become impaired and shallow, limiting oxygen delivery.
Overtime poor breathing strategies can lead to excessive muscle tension, limited range of motion through the arms and legs, decreased rotational ability, and burnout in athletes. These compensations increase an athlete’s risk of injury during performance and can limit long term athletic development.
Part 2 discusses how breathing dysfunction can impact sport and performance. If you feel your breathing can be improved upon, please call Positive Energy. We can help you reach your performance goals!