The Foundational Muscle

Scientists say that the human body is made up of over 600 muscles. Among these hundreds of muscles there is one that could be considered to be even more valuable than our heart. Without its movement we wouldn’t survive birth, and yet many of us develop bad habits that de-condition it over the years as we age. Without control over this invaluable muscle we are risking neck and shoulder pain and/or injury during exercise such as interval training or running and even during our daily lives at work and at home.

This special muscle is known as our diaphragm. It separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity and is located at the top of our “core”. As it contracts, it lowers downward and draws air into the lungs and then relaxes upward pushing air out. It’s this drawing air in and out that supplies oxygen to our blood and body, ultimately ending up in our cells where it provides the powerhouse of our cells, the mitochondria, with the fuel it needs to provide energy to everything that the body does while we are alive, and I mean everything!

What’s perhaps most interesting is that breathing with our diaphragm becomes increasingly difficult with the following:

  • physical or mental stress.

  • breathing in or out through our mouths.

  • sitting in general, but especially while in poor or slouched posture.

Most people from late childhood on adopt all three of the above. Think about this for a second…

The very first muscle to move at birth, the most foundational movement by arguably the most valuable muscle is de-conditioned over our early lives and into adulthood. Then we spend the rest of our lives going to the gym, running, and exercising in whichever new fad is hot at the moment. All of which are done with weak core and a hope to get “pretty muscles” to appeal to others or “feel healthier”.

Some people even wear air restrictive breathing masks in the hope to “challenge” their breathing during exercise. How many of these people realize that just by focusing on breathing in through their nose and out through their nose during exercise they are naturally restricting air flow. This subtle change in breathing technique will in turn;

  • strengthen the diaphragm and core.

  • increase recovery after activity due to parasympathetic stimulation.

  • improve proper lifting biomechanics.

  • reduce straining of the accessory muscles in the neck and shoulders during exercise.

  • help athletes remain calm during competition.

  • reduce the impact of breathing conditions such as apnea, asthma, snoring, or shortness of breath.

Rarely, if ever, do I hear of someone starting their injury recovery exercise routine by reconditioning the diaphragm. It is no wonder that back and neck pain continue to rise with the increase in physical inactivity of daily life paired with the heavy exercise we all try to do to combat our sedentary lives.

Without our diaphragm we need to use our neck and shoulders to lift the rib cage up each and every breath. On average we take 20,000 breaths a day! That’s a lot of work for muscles that weren’t designed for that high of a workload.

From now on try to only breathe through your nose during exercise and try to focus on doing your exercise of choice until you need to breathe through the mouth. You’ll be surprised at the difference it makes in your overall health and how much more accomplished you’ll feel when you can run a little further or perform your workout a little longer after just a few weeks.