Breathe & Stay Tight at the Same Time?!?

Do you find yourself thinking/saying any of the following?

  • What do you mean when you say “keep your midline stable”
  • How the heck do I keep my midline tight and breathe….in addition to kicking butt in my workout
  • When I try to activate my midline, I feel like I just bear down (like going to the bathroom) and hold my breathe. Is that right?
  • When my midline is active I can’t breathe!
  • No matter how hard I try I can’t keep my back in a good position.
  • When I keep my midline stable and try to breathe, my neck and shoulders get really tight.

If that’s a yes, please read on….and if you don’t know what I mean by midline stabilization it is the act of using your “core” muscles to help stabilize your lower spine. You can read more about it here and here.

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Whenever I teach someone to activate their midline, I always end my instructions with “and make sure you breathe.” This always makes everyone laugh because it sounds silly to have to be reminded to breathe. But this is a very common fault! I’ve had a lot of comments from athletes at the gym, saying it’s so hard to keep their midline active and breathe at the same time. Especially during the WODs when you’re breathing hard. I just wanted to let you all know that you’re not alone. It’s really challenging, especially if you have mobility restrictions in your diaphragm, thoracic spine, neck, stomach, etc. And once those mobility restrictions are fixed, it takes practice to keep the midline active in different positions and during different movements. So I wanted to share some basic tips on how to get better at this.

Step 1: Fix your mobility

You can try for hours and hours to get your midline stabile, but if you’re fighting poor mobility you’re gonna lose. I’m sorry to break the news, but those tight muscles and stiff joints are way stronger than your focus and will power combined. Let’s use an deflated balloon as an example. You hold the balloon to try to blow it up, but your fingers are pinching off the top of the balloon (representing a mobility restriction). So when you breathe, air flows freely into the unrestricted space, but never into the restricted.

Areas to target for mobility:

* Some of the links above have videos from myself and other from Dr. Kelly Starrett’s Mobility WOD, which now requires a subscription to view most of them. So I’m sorry that they aren’t readily available, but I highly recommend the subscription! He’s does some phenomenal stuff and deserves some reimbursement for his hard work.

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Step 2: Learn how to breathe properly

We are all guilty of holding our breathe at times. And there are a few different techniques on how to breathe correctly. Check out this post here to learn about the diaphragm and learn breathing techniques.The main goal it to breathe equally into your chest, ribs and stomach. Think front AND back of your chest. Most people tend to breathe into their neck and stomach. Both of these are inefficient and make it almost impossible to keep your midline active during a workout. Keep your shoulders and neck relaxed! You’ll feel a huge release in your tight shoulders/neck throughout your day once you really get this down. And you may also find that the hard work you’re doing with mobilizing will actually carry over because you are using and expanding those areas with your breath, rather than keeping them closed off. If we go back to the balloon analogy, imagine that you’ve removed your fingers from the tip of the balloon so it’s not restricted anymore, but you aren’t used to breathing into this space. You have to retrain your body to access that new open area in order for it to expand and stay expanded.

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Step 3: Practice midline stability (while using the new breathing techniques)

We all know that practice makes perfect. You can’t expect to practice this challenging skill once and then jump into a workout where you’re breathing hard and throwing weight around. Make it easier on yourself and practice! To learn how, read here and watch the video at the end. Also read this to see how the glute-ham developer can help build your midline stability, if your gym has one. Don’t forget to practice when you are tired (i.e. at the end of a workout) and throughout your day as you move around. When we are tired we resort back to what our bodies are used to doing. So the more frequently you practice the easier it will be for your body to continue staying active while you are fatigued during a workout.

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Hopefully those of you who find yourself struggling with midline stability and breathing will find some of these tips helpful. Remember, it’s just another challenge that CrossFit gives you. And the reason we all do CrossFit is for the challenges! So practice some patience, keep working hard and don’t forget to have fun.

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