While the largest expansion during breathing occurs in the abdomen during relaxed breathing, the expansion of the ribcage is also very important, particularly during more active breathing. This expansion is primarily controlled by the intercostal muscles. There are three layers of these small intercostals muscles which sit between the ribs. The layers of muscle lie with their fibres facing in different directions to each other, so that by contracting in different combinations and in different ways these muscles can cause the ribs to flex and expand or contract.
The action of these muscles is not as efficient as the soft dome shaped muscles of the Diaphragm and Transversus Abdominus. It is estimated that the Intercostal muscles use about 15% of available energy to accomplish the breathing function, much more than the 3% the abdominal muscles use, but for physically strenuous activity there are actually advantages to using the Ribs for breathing that leads to greater energy efficiency overall. You see to efficiently propel your body through space it needs a certain stiffness. You can compare this to trying to throw a stick and trying to throw a piece of rope of the same length and weight as the stick. The stiffness of the stick will make it easier to transmit force effectively through it in order to throw it. The same goes for lifting and moving other objects. So when we engage in strenuous activity our body should (if everything is healthy) activate the abdominal muscles strongly to brace the middle of the body and help us to hold our shape better. This makes the movement of the body more energy efficient and also protects the lower back from injury which could occur if the abdomen was moving around while the body is under significant load. But this bracing of the abdomen means that it cannot expand and contract to the same degree as when it is relaxed. So being able expand and contract our ribs allows us to continue to breathe effectively under conditions of stress and physical exertion such as when running fast, lifting heavy objects, or even just climbing stairs.
Because of the complex interaction between the different layers of the intercostals muscles some of these muscles will be contracting and others relaxing during the inhalation and expansion of the ribcage and others will contract and relax during the exhalation and contraction of the ribcage. Overall for simplicity of mental focus it is best to think of the muscles relaxing on the inhalation allowing the expansion, and contracting on the exhalation to draw the ribs back in.
To help you improve the strength, flexibility and co-ordination of your rib muscles there are two exercises for you to practice.
Sitting in a comfortable position, place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen, about where your belly button is. Breathe out through your mouth all the way so that your belly draws in; hold your belly in as you breathe in through your nose causing your ribs and chest to expand outwards. Breathe out through your mouth still holding your belly in, but internally pushing outwards against your belly so that your ribs contract back inwards. There should be very little movement of the hand on your belly through this exercise; most of the movement should be of the hand on your chest.
Repeat for ten or more breaths.
Most people will find that this breathing feels physically more strenuous than abdominal breathing (it is due to the flexing of the ribs that must take place), some may also feel that this is an energising breath. By practicing this type of breathing with awareness you will find it becomes easier to naturally use these muscles effectively in physically demanding situations. You might also like to try an experiment – try walking up a flight of stairs breathing normally, and then try walking up the same flight of stairs while consciously focusing on ribcage breathing. Compare how you feel after each time climbing the stairs.
Eagle Spreads it’s Wings and Soars
In a standing position, raise your hands to chest level in front of your body, palms towards the chest. Inhale through your nose as you reach your hands as far in front of you as you can. Hold your breath and clap behind you then in front of you as many times as you comfortably can on that one breath, then bring your hands back in front of your chest and push your hands forwards, palms away from the body as you exhale fully through your mouth.
Repeat three to ten times.
This exercise will help to lengthen and strengthen the intercostals muscles and the forward and backward movement of the arms while clapping causes alternating expansion and compression of the front and back of the ribcage. Over time this will make the whole ribcage stronger, more flexible and easier to expand and contract with the breath. There are also some other interesting benefits from this exercise that will be discussed later in this course.
The last space in the torso we will look at is the shoulders. When people begin to learn about breathing they commonly learn how ‘bad’ it is to breath with your shoulders. It is true that if you habitually breathe primarily with your shoulders this will be bad for your health and wellbeing, but this does not mean that you should not breathe with your shoulders at all. It is completely natural for the shoulders to be engaged in the breathing process, and they will ideally rise and fall with each breath. If you try to restrict the movement of your shoulders while you breath you will create unnatural tension patterns which will create further problems. If you have a habit of shoulder breathing, it is better to embrace this natural movement of your shoulders while also learning to have the other parts of your body engage in the breathing process as well. Little by little the expansion and contraction in the different parts of your body will balance out and become natural again. If your shoulders are not moving as you breathe, you are missing out on some significant benefits.
The specific muscles used for this raising movement are the scalenes, pectoralis minor and the trapezius muscle along with an assortment of smaller muscles.
The raising of the shoulders during breathing raises the top two ribs, creating just a small amount of space for expansion of the lungs. It takes quite a lot of energy to raise the shoulders to accomplish this expansion, but this movement and expansion helps to activate the muscles of the upper back and neck keeping these muscles healthy and maintaining motion and flexibility in these important regions of the spine.
Shoulder Breathing Exercise
In a comfortable sitting position, breathe in through your nose as you raise your shoulders up as high as you can then breathe out through your mouth as you allow your shoulders to lower comfortably.
Repeat for ten or more breaths.
If you have stiff or sore shoulders it is likely that you will find that regular practice of this exercise relieves any discomfort greatly. Stiffness or soreness is generally caused by holding the shoulders still in a contracted position all the time. Getting the shoulders moving will break this habit and allowing regular natural movement of the shoulders while breathing will help stop the soreness or stiffness returning.
This is one exercise that is particularly likely to make you feel lightheaded until you get used to it, so just do a little of it at a time until it becomes easy and comfortable for you.
Practice Sessions This Week:
This week we will continue to develop skill with our abdominal breathing muscles while also working on the muscles of the ribs and shoulders.
- Abdominal breathing – 5 minute
- Strengthening the diaphragm – 5 minutes
- Exhaling in three stages to strengthen the Transversus Abdominsu – 5 minutes
- Ribcage breathing – 5 minutes
- Shoulder breathing – 5 minutes (or less if this makes you light headed)
- Eagle spread’s its wings and soars – 5 minutes