Sunday, September 29, 2013
Some quick thoughts on high intensity exercise, breathing, and a potential philosophy shift
Let me start by saying I love hard exercise. I always have- there is nothing quite like a hard workout, where all of your muscles are fatigued, you feel physically tired, and like you can conquer the world because nothing is quite as challenging as the 40 minutes you just spent killing yourself in the gym. Whether it's circuit training, spinning, intervals of some sort, or HIIT, there are many different ways to effectively accomplish this, and I think it has a place. However, what I have come to realize in the last two years is that if we can't shut our sympathetic nervous system off and bring it to a place of calm, we are inevitably setting ourselves up for injury.
We live in a high stress world. We are always on the go, we multi-task, our brains are constantly being exposed to stimulation. We don't get outside enough to enjoy our natural surroundings, we don't play enough, and we rarely relax and breathe. In fact, our breathing often feeds into this inability to calm down. We breathe into our chests, following a more "fight or flight" type of pattern, with our ribs up and our mouths open. I ask clients to take a deep breath and I see their chests rise high towards the sky and their bellies not move, or sometimes cave in. These same clients have upper trap tightness, "tight hips," and low back pain. There is a general sense of fatigue that follows them, although they aren't sure why. For these clients, I am going to argue that stimulating their sympathetic nervous more by having them perform high intensity exercise would be a mistake. It would feed into this pattern of hyperactivity and chronic tightness. These clients have to learn how to shut their superficial muscles off, find a state of calm, and learn how to breathe. This is going to benefit them far more than further activating their sympathetic nervous system. Once they learn how to come down, how to breathe, how to activate their deep stabilizers to keep them upright rather than hold on for dear life with their prime movers, then they can benefit from higher intensity exercise. However, it is critical to make sure they have returned to a state of calm, with ribs that aren't flared, a sternum that's not lifted, and a breathing pattern that's not feeding into a hyperactive state, both mentally and physically before they walk out the door. I strongly believe that people should be able to alternate from a state of hard physical work and physical ease seamlessly, with little fanfare. If you watch the good movers move, you will notice this is what they do. Watch Ido Portal or Erwan LeCorre, or Kino MacGregor, and you will see an easiness to their movements. Continue to watch them move and you will see their breath is even, their mediastinum is open, their diaphragm is fully functional. This is what we should want in our own movement practices and for our clients. On occasion someone who has been doing lots of high intensity work shows up in my studio. It could be someone practicing for TacFit, someone participating in Crossfit, or someone who loves HIIT classes at the gym. All of the individuals want to get back to their respective activity and the one thing they have all had in common is faulty breathing patterns. I encourage all of these individuals to practice breathing before and after their workouts in an effort to get them out of this pattern that is doing them harm. I am not suggesting that learning how to breathe will prevent injuries; however, I believe it is a good place to start.
Yours in health and wellness,