Category Archives: Breathing, Nasal and Abdominal

Beginning to Integrate Intra-Abdominal Pressure Generation into Movement

I recorded this video and never posted it here!

If you’ve been working through my drills to promote diaphragmatic breathing, you’ll want to explore this drill next. Otherwise, you may find yourself capable of breathing diaphragmatically but still find limitations when you try to move or add load and can only generate IAP when you are sitting, standing, or lying down. Time to work it into movement and reap the benefits of using IAP to stabilize versus clamping down with your muscles!

Breath Training for Intra-Abdominal Pressure from the Total Immersion Forums

I thought I’d repost this thread from the Total Immersion forums. It touches on some key points I’ve learned about IAP generation, and the context is for swimming. The full thread is entitled Reasons for the arched back and how to fix it?.
User sachintha writes:
In a recent underwater video I was surprised to see the amount of back arching happening
(by arching I mean my head and butt being relatively close to the surface while midsection is towards the bottom of the pool as in a banana shape). I think this obviously breaks the head-spine alignment.
So the question is what causes this and how can I fix this? I believe I could significantly reduce the drag and improve body position if I could sort this out.
My reply:
The most common reason for arching your back is lack of proper torso stabilization technique. The reason why you might do it more in the water is to attempt to lift your arms/head and butt/legs up to the surface, thus forming an arch with your body at both ends.
You will likely have an arched back while standing on dryland. Thus often the postural problem starts on dryland and is transferred to water.
The easy fix is to try Torpedo (stand tall like a statue and straight up with arms at sides), and then holding this position, lean forward like a tower falling, and fall into the water and attempt to hold your straight body position despite falling into the water and now you are not even standing any more. You will need to engage your core and figure out how to turn on stability up and down your spine to stop you from losing your shape even though you may be floating in the water.
The harder and longer but more proper way to do this, is to:
1) make sure you are diaphragmatically breathing.
2) once you can d-breathe, then learn how to generate intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) with each breath inhale.
Proper IAP generation will engage the correct internal torso stabilizing muscles which will not wipe out despite being used for long periods of time. They are designed to stabilize all day long but if you don’t d-breathe, they will stop engaging which is bad.
The torpedo leaning exercise can help with this, but you can hold a straight stiff body by using other core muscles. It is possible to do this while swimming, but you may find it hard to maintain this for long periods of time.
If you want a taste of d-breathing and IAP training, check out this post of mine:
How to Train for Abdominal Breathing and Generating Intra-Abdominal Pressure
This post may also be good for you to read, regarding d-breathing:
Optimal Breathing: The Case for Diaphragmatic Breathing
User sachintha replies:
Thanks David. You are spot on regarding my dry land posture. I tend to have anterior pelvic tilt which makes the back arch prominent. But I have worked on stretching (specially the hip flexors) and strengthening for some time and it is significantly less severe now.
When you say “harder and longer but more proper way to do this …”, do you mean harder to learn but easier to maintain for longer swims once learnt or harder to learn and also harder (more effort) to maintain?
My reply:
Sorry bad choice of words. harder = more time/difficulty to learn due to doing something for so long as habit, and to create a new habit while removing the old one.
However, if you do this, it will take MUCH LESS EFFORT and a LOT LESS ENERGY to maintain torso stability in the water using the internal torso stabilizers (ie. transverse abdominis) which were built for this, versus other torso muscles which are typically primary movers (ie. obliques, rectus abdominis) and aren’t built to maintain stability for long periods of time. You’ll likely wipe them out and lose stability once you tire.
You may also want to explore the dead bug:
Total Immersion: The Dead Bug
Note that i need to shoot that video again. one crucial point I did not describe in there was the importance of lifting your tailbone off the ground while doing this. This will engage your anterior core and give you feedback when it has let go (ie. tailbone touches the ground again).
It is only through proper IAP generation that you will be able to sustain dead bug reps. Otherwise, you’ll start vibrating and shaking like crazy. But that’s ok in the beginning – that’s also your nervous system telling you it’s learning.
Good luck and let me know if you have other questions.
User bx then writes:
Regarding torso/core stabilization with 360-degree breathing (which I’m familiar with from weight training), is this compatible with the “tummy up” instruction from Richard Quick in his Posture, Line and Balance dryland exercises, where he gets Shelly Ripple to draw navel to spine?
To my mind, these seem like pushing out versus pulling in, if you get my drift.
I WAS a pusher-out, but when I saw the Quick video, I became a puller-in 🙂
My reply:
Note that a traditional PT/coaching technique was to create transverse abdominis activation via drawing in. While this DOES happen when you draw the navel to spine, it is conscious action, not a reflexive one. Also, you cannot breathe properly if you are trying to stabilize by drawing in the navel and trying to maintain it through the entire length of a training session or race. You will end up chest/clavicular breathing the whole time which is sub optimal. then you will wipe out either physically and/or mentally to hold your navel to spine the whole time.
See: How Are We Still Getting It Wrong: Abdominal Hollowing vs. Bracing
If you use d-breathing to activate the transverse abdominis (TA) through stabilization reflex, this is a much better and natural strategy. It is one that we are born with and happens when you are a baby – sadly we lose it through our 21st century lifestyle over the years. You will find that the TA and other torso stabilizers will activate naturally and sustain their activation with far less effort.
The idea for swimming is that you renew your d-breath and torso stabilization every time you take your breath. Then you hold it until the next breath. So a quick inhale drives the diaphragm down and activates stabilizers all the way down to your pelvis. this gives you an incredibly stable platform on which your muscles and limbs can perform from.
About pushing out – this is something i’ve learned which is that you should not be simply pushing out with your belly the whole time. I only use this part as a transition to proper d-breathing and IAP generation. It is however, really good as a way to retrain activation of the diaphragm WHILE removing activation of the chest and clavicular breathing muscles. So it is possible to d-breathe via belly in/out, but it may not generate much IAP at all. Most people, when they train for d-breathing, do this, but then do not proceed further.
This is why I move quickly to 3D/360 deg breathing so that it is less an in/out of the belly, but a pressing down of the diaphragm, which then becomes more of a pressure increase (hence intra-abdominal PRESSURE) in all directions in the area of torso that is the lumbar spine. Thus in/out is in all directions 360 deg and not just in front. So the feeling will be much different than you experienced before I’m sure.
User sachintha writes:
Does the IAP decrease when breathing “out”? The reason for asking this is, if we exhale (which we do) when our head is in the water and if that leads to a decrease in IAP wouldn’t the posture go back to that sagging form until you take the next breath?
My reply:
Good detail point –
The idea is to train yourself how to activate those muscles and maintain it even if you are exhaling. However, one thing to note is that you shouldn’t exhale completely. Thus IAP is maintained if you can keep some air in your and don’t blow it all out.
Note that ultimately when activity happens, you should always have some reflexive stabilization capability that just is there simply because your body knows it’s doing movement.
Also note that if you practice this a lot, you will find that you will be able to activate the stabilization strongly even without breathing in. essentially you can command some descent of the diaphragm to give you IAP but not be taking in air. this will happen over time.
If you analyze freestyle, there are really only moments when you need a lot of IAP. You need more IAP during the moment of rotation to the other side and maintaining body shape during that rotation as your spear and stroke with authority. Once you are in the recovery phase, you just need enough IAP to maintain a straight body line but not as much as for a body that is rotating strongly to the other side.
User jenson1a writes:
I watched the video regarding how to get IAP. I can do the belly and the sides, but the back part barely moves. More practice needed. The million dollar question is how do you do this in the water? Obviously if one makes this type of breathing an everyday practice, there is no problem. But how long does it take to make this IAP a reality?
How would one go about integrating this iap while in the water? A focal point?
My reply:
Great question.
It depends on the individual as you might guess. Habit change can take months or seem incredibly long (and frustrating). Think about how long you have ingrained your current breathing habits – decades maybe?
As a case study of one (myself), it took me about 2-3 months to switch from my chest breathing to belly breathing. However, I noticed that under certain circumstances I would still go back to chest breathing, like during a reflexive yawn or cough. At the time I didn’t know about 3D breathing until I took a Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization course whose basis for rehabilitation is to make sure breathing happens properly and is used for good IAP generation and torso stabilization. I immediately started practicing 3D breathing and a few months later, I took my first yawn with my diaphragm descending versus via my chest.
I think the first thing to do is to make sure you are just breathing naturally using d-breathing on dryland. After all, we spend the other 23 hours of the day on dryland and only 1 in the pool, right? The more time this becomes habitual, the better results you’ll have in the pool.
The water provides a new environment, with new sensory experiences which can interfere with transference of dryland practice to the water. How many times have we practiced the swinging arm recovery on dryland and then returned to the pool to swim a few laps with our videocam on, and then upon playback we are doing not a swinging arm recovery!
I would say that the next stages for IAP practice is to:
1. Practice driving IAP way down to the pelvis on every breath. Instead of just pushing out the belly, make the diaphragm descend until you feel a “quickening” way down in your private parts. Make this natural on every one of these breaths, breathe in and way down and don’t stop inhaling into you feel it way down at the bottom. Then exhale and repeat.
You can start with doing a set number of reps, like 5 and then taking a break. Then you can build up from there. I once did this practice sitting in a theater for the entire length of a 2 hour movie. You learn a lot about breathing when you do that!
2. Once you get 1., then practice taking in a quick breath and being able to feel IAP generation in the lower torso all the way down to the pelvis. On every quick inhale, practice to generate IAP quickly and reflexively down there.
While I’m an advocate of nasal breathing, swimming is pretty much done via mouth breathing. So in this case you may want to try a few inhales with the mouth instead of through the nose. The change in intake methods may make IAP generation difficult and need to be reinforced in the other method.
3. In the pool, practice your basic drills with IAP generation and holding it. As you prepare to launch off into SG, take a breath in and generate IAP. You can use your fingers on your sides to feel them pressing out. Hold IAP and your breath, then launch off into SG. Were you able to hold IAP? You may notice that the touch of the water and how it suspends you may all of a sudden cause you to release IAP. Practice holding the IAP despite launching off into SG.
Once you get this, then try holding IAP and launching into SG and then Skate.
Then try holding IAP while taking one stroke. Could you perform a complex movement like one stroke without letting go of IAP? Once you get this, try a few strokes but without breathing.
The next step on this is reinforcing IAP upon every breath. This can feel hard, but if you are practicing on dryland the reflexive, quick generation of IAP via a quick breath in, I believe this will come quickly.
A quick note on IAP and being relaxed:
Remember that we in Total Immersion like to tell people to relax. However, this is a cue. Most often it is used on people who hold too much tension because of unfamiliarity with the water, nervousness, fear, etc. But we have also seen people take that too far, where people are way too relaxed in the water like a piece of loose spaghetti. So great job in working on that cue, but bad because we didn’t tell you at what level of tension you should have stopped relaxing!
This relaxation extends to IAP generation. You need to maintain the minimum level of tension necessary to hold body shape and adjust it based on the need to perform movements. IAP will need to rise during that moment of stroking – when the limbs have a stable base to perform from, they will perform optimally. You don’t want the limbs stroking as if attached to a bag of jello right?
So yes, relaxed down from a lot of tension, but not so relaxed that you are like a loose piece of spaghetti and have lost IAP.
Give this a try and let us know how it goes. Be patient, it can take many months to develop this new breathing habit. Diligent, mindful, consistent, and constant attention to it will make progress faster.

How to Train for Abdominal Breathing and Generating Intra-Abdominal Pressure

I’ve gone through the importance of abdominal breathing in Optimal Breathing: The Case for Diaphragmatic Breathing. In this post, I’ll talk about how to train for it, and then a basic method for training for using your diaphragm and abdomen breathing to generate intra-abdominal pressure (IAP), the optimal way for stabilizing your torso for movements.
First, how do you know if you are already breathing with your abdomen or not? It’s easy. Right now, without thinking much, take a deep breath, then let it out. How did you take in your breath? Was it via your upper chest, or maybe your shoulders? Or did neither of those move and only your abdomen?
If you didn’t move your chest or shoulders – congratulations you already breathe with your abdomen! Likely, this was not the case. You probably expanded your chest to take air in, or even lifted up on your shoulders to do it.
The real test to know if you are breathing with your abdomen fully is to spontaneously perform this test without thinking and see what happens. A higher level test is to see what happens during a yawn or cough; those are really subconscious actions and if you take in air during either of those two events, you know you have burned in abdominal breathing.
In the following videos, I show some simple exercises that I learned to encourage and imprint abdominal breathing. First, practice the first 3 videos whenever you can during the day, and every day if possible:

These exercises are designed primarily to teach you to turn off use of the chest and clavicular muscles to breathe, while encouraging use of your lower abdomen muscles instead. However, you should know that this is not the endgame. Abdominal breathing is merely the first step.
Proper posture and alignment is critical to gain the full benefits of abdominal breathing. You can breathe with your belly and still have poor alignment. Here is an example – below is a “before” picture of me at a Gokhale Method seminar. I was told to stand up straight. It was right during the time I was working on abdominal breathing:

This was my natural “stand up straight” stance at this time. Notice that my hips are pushed forward into what is called “sway back” or overextended lower back. I also have my chin tilted up, resulting in my neck/cervical spine also being overextended. But also notice the protruding belly as evidence that i was working on belly breathing.
Often, people reject using their belly to breathe because they are afraid of looking like they have a beer belly – a cultural nod to vanity. So they contract their belly muscles to hold it all in. This causes people to use the wrong muscles to brace their torso – they contract muscles that are needed for breathing and realize that when they need to stabilize they have to hold their breath to do so, and then when they let air back out, their stabilization disappears!
It wasn’t until I took Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization (DNS) that I could understand what was really going on in the torso during stabilization. Once you learn how to use the diaphragm correctly to create IAP, it turns out that your “beer belly” will disappear.
After the seminar, I looked like this:

Note that good posture is defined as the lining up vertically of your earhole, the center of your shoulder, the center of your elbow, the center of your hips, the center of your knee, and last the ankle bone. I’m much better in the second picture, right? However, I was using Gokhale Method’s cues on activating the “inner corset” – it worked better than what I was doing, but they did not work on abdominal breathing nor IAP generation.
At DNS, I learned this simple technique of taking your abdominal breathing to the next level, which is the use of the diaphragm to create IAP:

Once I learned and imprinted this, I realized that it was an incorrect assumption that abdominal breathing leads always to a beer belly. When breathing this way, it caused activation of my transverse abdominis, this hidden sheet of muscle in the lower torso that is critical to stabilization of the entire body. I could thus remain stable AND breathe at the same time. Amazing! And…my beer belly disappeared because the transverse abdominals were activated all day long, holding my beer belly in check.
When you learn these basics, you have thus laid the foundation for bringing proper breathing methodology and IAP generation to athletics.

Optimal Breathing: The Case for Diaphragmatic Breathing

What is optimal breathing? It is much more than just standing around and sucking air in and pushing it out. In my research regarding breathing, western medicine has little to offer about breathing as a solution to health problems. However, it seems that all the knowledge and research comes out of Europe and through the yogis of India.
Leon Chaitow, an osteopath/naturopath based in London, is one of my favorite authors on the subject of breathing. In his book Recognizing and Treating Breathing Disorders, on Pg 26 is a description of optimal breathing:

Optimal breathing involves:

  • Since the objective of breathing is to meet the metabolic demands of the body, oxygen (O 2 ) and carbon dioxide (CO 2 ) need to be efficiently moved into and out of the lungs ( Abernethy et al 1996 ).
  • During quiet breathing, respiratory efficiency is achieved as the diaphragm descends into the abdominal cavity during inhalation, increasing the vertical dimensions of the thorax as the ribs rise and move laterally, to expand the transverse dimensions of the thorax.
  • The diaphragm relaxing, and returning to its domed position on exhalation follows this sequence, as the abdomen and chest wall return to their starting positions.
  • In good health, meeting the metabolic demands of the body optimally requires a steady, rhythmical pattern with a respiratory rate of 10-14 breaths per minute; involving a ratio of inspiration to expiration of 1 : 1.5-2.
  • Ideally the least amount of mechanical effort from the respiratory musculature should be involved ( Jones et al 2003 ).
  • If such an optimal pattern is disrupted, abnormal and potentially inefficient respiratory mechanics may become the new norm – with the emergence of a breathing pattern disorder.

There are actually four ways to breathe according to the yogis of India. In Light on Pranayama by B. K. S. Iyengar, on pg. 21:

Respiration may be classified into four types:
(a) High or clavicular breathing, where the relevant muscles in the neck mainly activate the top parts of the lungs.
(b) Intercostal or midbreathing, where only the central parts of lungs are activated.
(c) Low or diaphragmatic breathing, where the lower portions of the lungs are activated chiefly, while the top and central portions remain less active.
(d) In total or pranayamic breathing, the entire lungs are used to their fullest capacity.

You’d think that we all knew how to breathe correctly since we do it all day long. However, it seems that over time, we have developed a ton of faulty breathing patterns. In Karl Lewit’s Manipulative Therapy, pg. 31:

The most important faulty respiratory stereotype, seen from the point of view of the locomotor system, is that in which the thorax is lifted during inhalation ( Parow 1954 ). In this pattern the thorax is lifted in the cranial direction by the scalene and sternocleidomastoid muscles and the superior fixator muscles of the shoulder girdle, but without expansion of the chest.
Termed ‘clavicular breathing,’ it involves a reversal of the normal respiratory mechanism, since the scalene muscles, which normally only fix the thorax, raise the lung; resistance is offered by the diaphragm. This is inefficient, not only from the respiratory point of view, in that the volume of the chest increases very little, but also for the locomotor system, because of the chronic overload that this causes to the cervical spine.
A further effect is that fixation of the thorax to the pelvis no longer occurs, causing instability of the lumbar spine. The pattern of lifting the thorax during inhalation, or clavicular breathing, can be asymmetric, if one shoulder is raised more than the other. The stress on the cervical spine is then greater on this side. Clavicular breathing is the disturbance that typically occurs when sitting but not maintaining a straight posture, because this makes expansion of the thorax difficult.

and then on pg. 156, what can happen if you exhibit faulty breathing patterns:

Lifting the thorax during inhalation (clavicular breathing)

Tension Superior parts of abdominal muscles, pectoralis, scalene, diaphragm, sternocleidomastoid muscles, short craniocervical extensors, levator scapulae, superior part of trapezius
Painful points of attachment Posterior arch and transverse processes of atlas, spinous process of C2, nuchal line, sternal end of clavicle, superior border of scapula, sternocostal joints and upper ribs
Joint dysfunction (restrictions) Atlanto- occipital and atlanto- axial joints, cervicothoracic junction, upper ribs, thoracic spine

Many things can cause these poor breathing patterns to establish themselves: physical (ie. injury) and emotional (ie. fear, stress) – even intellectual (ie. watching others breathe as models for their own breathing). Over the decades of life, all of these add up to developing poor patterns, certainly poor for performance much less quality of life. So it is important to get back to activating the diaphragm for breathing, where we can get to optimal breathing (as described previously).
Activating the diaphragm has function beyond just that of breathing. For performance, the diaphragm is critical in proper stabilization of the torso. As stated in Manipulative Therapy pg. 30, “The diaphragm is a respiratory muscle with a postural function, and the abdominal muscles are postural muscles with a respiratory function.” Maintaining proper posture and retaining that shape during movement is VERY HARD without the diaphragm helping.
From Recognizing and Treating Breathing Disorders, pg. 17:

A number of studies document coordinated synergy of the diaphragm, transverse abdominis, pelvic floor and the multifidus muscles during postural activity ( Hodges & Gandevia 2000b ). However, this synergy is not under full volitional control and modifiable. Therefore, the diaphragm, controlled by the CNS, assists in ensuring postural body control. The activity of motor neurons of the phrenic nerve is organized in such a way that the diaphragm simultaneously contributes to respiration as well as body stabilization and other nonventilatory behaviours ( Mantilla & Sieck 2008 ).

How does this stabilization work? From Manipulative Therapy pg. 30-31:

The way this is understood today is as follows: the diaphragm attaches dorsally to the spinal column and laterally to the inferior costal arch, while ventrally the fixed point is provided by the abdominal wall. Here, the co- contraction of the deep layer of the abdominal muscles has a key role. Kolar (2006) showed radiographically that the diaphragm was angled downward in the ventral to dorsal direction if the abdominal muscles were weak. If the abdominal muscles are functioning normally, contraction of the diaphragm during inhalation is accompanied by eccentric contraction of the deep abdominal muscles. This can be clearly palpated laterally above the iliac crest. The effect is not only to enable the diaphragm to function in the most efficient way and, as shown by Kapandji (1974) , to expand the thorax, but also to fix the thorax to the pelvis and so stabilize the lumbar spine. The activation of the abdominal muscles during inhalation was also described by Campbell (1978) and Basmajian (1978) .

Beyond the postural and stabilization function of the diaphragm, it also has other important functions relating to digestion (Recognizing and Treating Breathing Disorders, pg. 20):

During a breathing cycle, a rhythmic compression of the abdominal cavity occurs and leads to a cyclical movement of the internal organs. During inspiration, almost all internal organs of the abdominal and retroperitoneal areas shift several centimetres in a caudal direction ( Xi et al 2009 ). This organ movement and the pressure activity of the diaphragm partially contribute to the transport of food and digestive juices. In this way, the diaphragm assists in digestive processes and significantly contributes to peristalsis and food propulsion.

Removing faulty breathing patterns and re-activating diaphragmatic breathing, thus, has many benefits beyond just getting more air into your body.

About Nasal Breathing

I’ve finally decided to write about what I’ve learned about proper breathing. Starting here with nasal breathing, I’ve dug into the importance and ramifications of breathing via the nose:
Today I plowed through some books I had on breathing mechanics and have some references. The best book i found so far is “Recognizing and Treating Breathing Disorders” by Leon Chaitow. It is a clinician’s guide, but I read this stuff to gain clues into helping my swimmers. Some quotes and references:
“Finally there is a common association of mouth breathing with chest breathing.” pp. 83
Cites Barelli, Nasapulmonary Physiology, in Behaviorial psychological approaches to breathing disorders. 1994.
This quote basically says that you see mouth breathing as a symptom of chest breathing, which is not a desirable breathing pattern. When you breathe correctly via the diaphragm, you should not need to use your mouth to breathe. But chest breathing results in less air taken in, and therefore you reflexively open your mouth to get more air in.
“Nasal breathing is involuntary. Mouth or voluntary breathing occurs when there is difficulty breathing through the nose, such as in exertion, under stress, and in particular when cardiac, pulmonary, or other illness hampers supply of oxygen to the tissues.”
Again from Barelli above.
These next two quotes are most interesting:
“The nasal route adds at least 50% more resistance to air flow, so one might think that lowered resistance by bypassing the nostrils is a good thing. But pressure rise in the lungs during exhalation makes the air denser, simulating a lower attitude where the air is richer in oxygen per unit volume, and this improves perfusion into the alveoli. Also the increased resistance introduced into the system by nasal inhibition increases the vacuum in the lungs, resulting in a 10-20% increase in oxygen transported.”
“…slowing down the expiratory phase of respiration and ventilation, and the interposing of resistance to both inspiration and expiration which in turn helps to maintain the normal elasticity of the lungs, thus assuring optimal conditions for providing oxygen and good heart function.”
Citing Cottle, The work, ways, positions and patterns of nasal breathing (relevance in heart and lung illness), 1987.
so good things come from nasal breathing both inhalation and exhalation!