Since my time learning about breathing, there has been the notion that you should count how long someone can hold a plank in breaths, not seconds. But how? If you understand the principles behind the breathing exercises, you know that they are centered around getting air out, not necessarily drawing more air in, although I would consider inhalation essential to client retention….and human life.
It is without a doubt very important to always breathe in through your nose. “Mouth-breathing” is considered a sign that your heart rate is too high and causing your body to enter into (or continue) an excitatory state. Mouth-breathing is also considered a precursor to exercise-induced asthma. When you breathe in through your mouth rapidly and excessively, you are developing the accessory breathing muscles of the neck, shoulders, intercostals and traps. When these muscles develop, they can become dominant over deep core muscles that help you get air out passively.
Hyperventilation, or excessive intake of oxygen is a big problem among Americans. Why? It means we rarely enter a state of complete exhalation. Why do you think yoga is so popular? Putting emphasis on breathing decreases neurological tone and makes you feel relaxed, a feeling all too unfamiliar in this chronic-stress induced environment. In order to breathe properly, you need to exhale every ounce of air you have. To do this you have to turn on your external obliques, these muscles will bring your ribs down towards your hips and help your diaphragm push the air out.
If you manage to turn your rectus abdominis (6 pack muscles) on during a state of exhalation, you will not be able to fully contract and utilize your external obliques.
So What Do You Do?
Recently, instead of planks, we have been using PRI’s Modified Belly Lifts or a PRI Wall Squat that is tailored for people who find the MBL to be too challenging. These exercises, learned from PT Scott Kosola from The Point Physical Therapy, keep the abdominals soft, engage the external obliques, flex the thoracic spine, and turn on your lower traps. It’s important to note that if you can’t turn on your external obliques, all of those lower trap and scapular exercises are useless.
When done correctly, this exercise can have an immediate influence on an individual’s shoulder flexion, horizontal abduction (tight pecs) and shoulder blade function. It is time we start to recognize them importance of the external obliques in function of walking gait, standing and overall human movement.
This doesn’t mean we have completely abandoned the plank, it’s that we developed a different way of teaching it. Over the past couple of years, with little measurable success, I have been trying to get my clients to breathe their way through a plank. It is very typical to get long inhales, and loud, short exhales. I’ve tried coaching the “in through the nose, out through the mouth” technique, but it lacks a self limiting feature. Too often, clients just want to get through the plank and be done with it.
A trip to Drucker Pain and Performance Solutions exposed me to a different type of breathing. Noah Drucker, a Massage Therapist who is trained in NKT, SFMA, and ART taught me about silent nose breathing. Silent breathing, inhaling and exhaling through the nose, allows a person to demonstrate control over their abdominal muscles and breathing rate. This technique allows the coach to know whether they are reaping full benefits and gives the client a standard with which to control their breathing. If you’re not sold, drop to the floor and silently breathe all the way in and exhale every ounce of air you have through the nose, silently. It cut my plank time in half.