Category Archives: Technique

OMG Literally Dead

I have seen a lot of social media posts from movement educators (yoga teachers, physical therapists, and others) about various cues being inaccurate. Taking issues with cues is a distraction. The cue isn’t the problem. The cue is a description or a direction but it is not a literal/factual/actual definition. If I cue you not to judge someone until you walk a mile in their shoes some uppity movement teacher would chastise me for telling people to steal shoes and blame me for the shin splints and plantar fasciitis resulting from excessive walking in ill-fitting footwear. It’s a power move where the internet coach tries to position themself as an expert by criticizing the way others are doing something and presumably set them straight. Classic. Perhaps that’s what I’m doing to some degree. Regardless, it’s a waste of time and energy and ultimately not advancing the cause of movement education. For example, the one that comes up a lot lately is the “breathe into your belly” cue that is popular with yoga teachers. It’s only been the last decade that movement educators outside of the yoga space have taken any interest in breathing and suddenly they come rushing onto the scene to tell yoga teachers how they are doing it wrong. These newly minted anatomists are quick to point out that we do not have lungs in our bellies and that the cue is woefully inaccurate and misleading. Please!

A “Cue” is a directive from coach or teacher to athlete or student to get them to move or position themselves better. A cue is often a shorthand for a much bigger concept or set of instructions. Some cues are “terms of art” which are words or phrases that have a precise, specialized meaning within a particular field. If I shout “hooks!” at my jiu-jitsu athlete during a training session, he should understand, that I want him to position his feet on the inside of his opponent’s thighs. It is important to understand that the cue is only as good as the result that it gets. The best cue is the one that works. While an anatomically more accurate cue might be less subject to criticism it is useless if it does not get your student into a better position.

If you have been teaching movement for any length of time you will start to realize that talking more does not lead to better movement from your students. Your students move better by moving more. Nobody needs to hear everything, nor can they assimilate everything, on the first pass. In order to free the angels in the marble you need to chisel away over and over. Better movement is more refined movement. More refinement comes from repetition and a gradual improvement on the previous iteration. The job of refining movement is that of a sculptor gradually chipping away the imperfections in the marble until the hidden beauty is revealed. A sculptor takes many passes over the marble with finer and finer tools to eventually get to the finished product. A sculptor that only has a large chisel will never be able to create the fine details in the piece and a sculptor that only has a very tiny chisel will never be able to create the rough shape of the form. Your cues should have many levels of detail depending on where you and your athlete are relative to where you are going.

The job of a teacher is not merely to educate with factual knowledge, The job of a teacher is also to inspire, to entertain, and to challenge their students. The mere recitation of anatomical facts does little to ignite a student’s curiosity or get them over their fear of getting upside-down. The teacher must wear the hat of cheerleader, poet, task master, sage, story teller, and wikipedia author. The job is to curate an experience for the student from beginning to end that will ultimately be the best part of the student’s day. Using flowery language, poetry, telling stories, and cheering for students in subtle and not-so-subtle ways is part of the teacher’s job. A balance must be struck between how much you speak in literal prose and how much you speak in metaphor but both are necessary. Taking any cue out of context will often reveal many deficiencies, but the point is you can never separate the cue from the context. Do not let the literal-minded extinguish your poetry!

Strength vs. Technique

Being stronger is better. Period. Anybody that tells you otherwise, doesn’t know anything about being strong or about being better. Strength is not just how hard you contract your muscles nor is it how big your muscles are. Strength is the productive application of force. Strength is force applied at the right place and at the right time to complete a task. If you cannot complete the task, then you are not strong enough. No amount of stepping on the pedal or turning the wheel will make your car go forward if there is no engine under the hood. The bigger the engine the faster the car goes. There is no real world situation where strength is a disadvantage. It’s not the only important thing but you should never pass up an opportunity to get stronger and avoid people that encourage you to do so as they are not to be trusted.

Jiujitsu guys love to give lip service to technique. And you see guys complain when they get tapped that the other guy was using too much strength and their technique was bad. A tap is a tap. In the real world we don’t tap just because someone used good technique. We tap because the move worked. Technique is merely the movements or positions used to accomplish a task. There are many many different techniques that can be used to accomplish the same task. When we rate a technique as good or bad what we are really looking at is the amount of energy expended to accomplish the same task. One technique is “better” than the other if it accomplishes the same task with less energy. Both good and bad techniques can be effective and accomplish the task, but the more efficient technique will lead to better results in the long run.

I want you to have strength and technique because both of these vectors point in the same direction. We have all faced the person who has limited technical ability but they make up for it with a lot of strength and they are tough opponents and can overcome very advanced practitioners just based on their size and strength. We have also faced some tiny black belt that seems very frail yet they are able to gradually break down our defenses and submit us. However, the most formidable opponents are the ones that are strong and technical.

To separate strength from technique is actually a fallacy and cannot be done. Strength and technique both point toward task accomplishment, i.e. getting the job done. An athlete that has good technique will appear stronger because the techniques they use will maximize the force they can apply to an opponent. Conversely, a stronger athlete can overcome technical deficiencies with their strength and pull off moves that a weaker athlete would not be able to.

Choose strength and use that strength to bolster your techniques.

The 1-Arm Kettlebell Swing

In the world of Kettlebell sport the 1-arm swing is the foundational movement. The contested movements are the kettlebell snatch and the kettlebell clean & jerk. Success is predicated upon a firm grasp of the 1-arm swing which underlies both the clean and the snatch. Nonetheless, the 1-arm swing is a great exercise on its own which has tremendous carryover to other athletic endeavors.

Unfortunately, the kettlebell is underutilized and misunderstood amongst the crossfit community. The 2-arm American swing, the go-to-exercise in CrossFit) is a great exercise in regard to its ability to deliver a potent training stimulus. The 1-arm swing, however, might be a better tool in the development of athletic movement. Specifically, the development of rotational power.

All unilateral movements (1-arm or 1-legged movements) demand an athlete either generate rotational forces or resist rotational forces. Running, punching, kicking, throwing, swinging are all powerful unilateral movements where rotational forces must be managed. It is in the teaching and developing rotational movement that many CrossFit coaches and athletes have a blindspot. As CrossFit has developed into its own sport that ultimately tests for power output, we have cornered ourselves into a relying on a body of movements that only operate in the sagital plane. As most of our daily battles in the gym are against gravity we have become extremely adept at moving up and down. However, in nearly all other sports we need lateral and rotational movements on the field of play. And coaches and gyms that have a bigger picture of fitness beyond purely CrossFit style competitions recognize this and program and teach accordingly.

Let’s get back to the point, the 1-arm swing. The basic understanding of how to perform this movement is flawed in the general public. The bottom and top positions are both done incorrectly for purposes of power, alignment and transferability. I have detailed here what the important aspects of the top of the swing are.
1) Square the hips and shoulders at the top
2) Keep your shoulders down and back
3) Relax your elbow down and squeeze your armpit closed
4) Turn your thumb to about 45 degrees above horizontal
5) Stop at about shoulder height with the bell in front of your nose.

1-arm kettlebell swing top position analysis from Force Distance Time on Vimeo.

I have detailed here what the important points are for the bottom of the swing.
1) Have the bell completely back through your legs
2) Have your arm glued to your body
3) Have your shoulders rotated
4) Keep your legs relatively straight and work on hinging forward rather than squatting down
5) Make sure the non-swinging arm is swinging as well to assist in proper rotation

1-arm kettlebell swing bottom position from Force Distance Time on Vimeo.

Finally let’s look at a few swings in their totality to get a sense of how they should be performed.

1-arm kettlebell swing analysis from Force Distance Time on Vimeo.

I encourage you to go and pick up a kettlebell and start swinging and record yourself and see if you can dial in the 1-arm swing. Once you do, then we can move towards the snatch and the clean. Have fun and train hard.

“Stick to the basics and when you feel you’ve mastered them it’s time to start all over again, begin anew – again with the basics – this time paying closer attention.” – Coach Greg Glassman

Just Squat

If you’re looking to get stronger, healthier, fitter, lose weight and be more dominant on the mat, then you need to squat. Squats are an essential human movement. We sit and stand every day when we get up off the couch or off the toilet. It’s essential to our lives as human beings. Essential in the sense that if we lose the ability to squat, we lose the ability to live independently and our quality of life is greatly diminished. People that claim that they cannot squat for a variety of reasons have accepted decrepitude. They have resigned themselves to the inevitable decline that ends with them in a scooter cruising around the grocery store and living with an aide that cleans your creases. Learning and practicing basic squat mechanics and reclaiming this movement that came easy in our youth is a refusal to submit to aging and physical decline.

As an exercise, squats have the ability to strengthen not only the legs, but the back, the core and the lungs. Squatting also helps maintain flexibility by moving the ankles, knees, and hips through a normal, healthy range of motion. There are many varieties of squats, however only a few mechanical considerations which are universally accepted.

– The feet must remain flat on the floor. Weight shifting to the toes or the inside edges of the feet is to be avoided by shifting the weight back into the heels and actively trying to push the knees away from each other.

– The knees should point in the same direction as the toes. This not only helps keep the feet flat, but it puts the knee in the safest position: where the kneecaps point in the same direction as the middle toe. STarting with the toes turned out about 30 degrees is a good place to start.

– Athletes must learn to squat until the hip crease passes below the top of the knee. This below parallel position is extremely challenging because it is right at this point where the squat wants to fall apart, but maintaining proper mechanics throughout this range of motion builds the strongest squats and strengthens your muscles at the end range where they are most likely to fail.

– The squat is initiated by sitting back as if into a chair. This mimics our everyday movement pattern of sitting our butts down onto an object. Also by sitting back we learn to balance by bringing our head forward. Balance is a perishable skill that also needs to be practiced often lest we lose it (pun intended). Sitting back also helps maintain even weight on the feet and helps get the knees to line up with the toes.

– Maintaining a neutral spine. The Chinese say, “you are as old as your spine.” Thus a healthy spine is the key to longevity. The squat, done correctly, is a functional and safe way to progressively load the spine and keep it healthy. Start standing up straight and brace your spine by contracting all the muscles of the core and back so that the spine cannot bend while you are squatting. Movement should be limited to the ankles, knees, and hips.

By adhering to those five basic points of performance, squats can be done safely in all populations. Insist that all five points of performance are adhered to the best extent possible for the given athlete. If range of motion cannot be achieved, the athlete can still squat but the long-term goal would be to increase their range of motion so that they can get on and off the toilet by themselves.

There are many ways to squat and you should try them all. Air squats, back squats, front squats, overhead squats, zercher squats, goblet and many more. The style of squat mostly depends on the equipment you use and where you hold it. First start with a basic air squat (unloaded) and work on the basic mechanics. As you practice work on increasing your reps. Starting with sets of 5 to 10 is easy enough to maintain the basic points of performance. Then gradually increase the reps to 20, 30, and beyond. As fatigue starts to increase your form will decrease and you must do your best to maintain proper mechanics as the intensity increases.

Next step is to add some weight. I recommend a goblet squat. Grab a dumbbell, kettlebell, medicine ball, or some similarly heavy object between 15 and 50lbs. Hold the weight like a goblet under your chin with your elbows down and hands up as if you are about to take a sip from the challis. Squat down just like you did in the air squat. Usually with a light load, you will immediately notice some improvements in form: better balance, lower depth, more upright posture, and greater ability to have the knees track the toes. Again start at about 5 to 10 repetitions. You will most likely be limited by fatigue in the arms and shoulders from holding the weight. That’s fine. You will gain some strength and stamina by doing more of these. As with the air squat, slowly increase your repetitions until you can do sets of 50 or more with a light weight.

When you get to the point that you can do 100 air squats in a row or 50 goblet squats in a row, you will notice not only that your legs are stronger, but that your cardio is vastly improved. The benefits to your health and fitness are obvious and you will notice that your jiu-jitsu improves as well, especially regarding your passing game. Having strong legs as well as the conditioning to squat many many times will allow you to push the pace hard inside someones guard and not slow down due to fatigue. That’s only the start though. Continued progress will come from finding many different ways to make your stronger and better. The goal now is to gradually pick up heavier objects and put them on shoulders while you squat. What about reps? Jiu-jitsu doesn’t happen in sets of 5 or 10. Your training should be varied between light weight for high reps, moderate weight for moderate reps, and heavy weight for low reps. Also change the stimulus between front squats, back squats, overhead squats and zercher squats, and change the equipment from barbells, to dumbbells, to kettlebells, and to sandbags. Spend less time worrying about what to squat or how much to squat and just squat!

Jiu-Jitsu Is Not Exercise, Neither Is Yoga.

I love Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) and Yoga. However, I think people need to understand a difference between exercise and sport. Exercise has a regressive and progressive quality that distinguishes it from sport. When you exercise the goal is to find a move that you can do easily enough to repeat but challenging enough that after several repetitions it becomes a stimulus for change or adaptation. For example ,there is a weight that you can squat 10 times but no more and if you squat that weight for a few sets of 10, you will stimulate your body to adapt and get stronger. At that point you need to progress to more load or more reps in order to keep getting stronger. Thus the goal is never to master the 10 rep squat at 95lbs. The goal is to keep getting stronger, faster, better, etc. and do with 195lbs what was once only possible with 95lbs.

When we do a sport like BJJ or Yoga (I know yoga is not a sport, but more of a practice, however, people mistakenly treat it as exercise), we initially find it very physically demanding. Thus it does creates a stimulus that drives adaptation exactly where we need to adapt with respect to the sport. We get stronger and more flexible and our stamina increases and we can train longer and better. Initially people think that all they need is that one thing, BJJ or Yoga, for all their fitness needs. They mistakenly believe that they will keep getting stronger and fitter just by doing BJJ or Yoga. However, the difference with BJJ and Yoga and similar sports is that as we improve at them we actually learn to be more efficient and can perform better without spending the same energy that we did when we first started. As we get better we cease to adapt physically.

Watch a novice and an expert perform the same moves and you are not struck by the physicality of the the expert but rather the ease and fluidity of their movement. Your first few months on the mat, you use a lot of energy to attack and defend against your opponent. Your body adapts quickly to the stress of BJJ and then you are able to train with less difficulty. After a short time you learn to relax as you train and exert energy when you need to and conserve energy when you can. When you reach that stage, it is rare that your BJJ training becomes a physical stimulus. What you start to develop is neurological aspects of technique such as timing and coordination by repeated repetitions and focusing on details and positions. As you advance, Yoga or BJJ training becomes skill practice and at that point in order to stay physically sharp, you need to supplement your BJJ practice with outside training exercises, so that you continue to gain in strength, stamina, speed, power and flexibility.

Assisted Recovery: Wrists and Forearms

As soon as your training session is over, your body has to start repairing itself for the next session. Your body is naturally designed to recover and repair on its own with a little help from food, sleep and movement. If all you did was ate well, slept well and moved well, your body would naturally recover and repair itself in its own time. However, that process can be a little slow and, let’s be honest, we don’t eat, sleep and move optimally all day every day. I want to show you some things to assist our body’s natural recovery efforts that go beyond eating and sleeping.

When we start to train every day our body can’t keep up and keep repairing itself at such a rapid rate and that is when we start to see sign of overtraining such as:

– Decreased strength and performance
– Persistent muscle soreness
– Elevated resting heart rate
– Increased susceptibility to infections
– Increased incidence of injuries
– Irritability
– Depression
– Loss of motivation
– Insomnia
– Decreased appetite
– Weight loss
– Persistent fatigue
– High cortisol levels

So the obvious answer might be to train a little less. But, let’s be honest, we do not want to hear that. How do some people manage to train multiple times a day, 7 days a week? There is a old adage amongst trainers, “There is no such thing as over training, just under recovery.”

The more we increase our training, the more we must focus on our recovery. I purposely use the term “assisted recovery” to distinguish it from “active recovery”–a term many are already familiar with. Most people think of active recovery as a rest day where they go out and still workout but at a lesser intensity: a long run, a yoga class or playing a sport. Active recovery can be great and effective except sometimes doing more exercise does not send the proper signal to your nervous system that it is now time for recovery mode (i.e. your nervous system stays in fight or flight mode also known as sympathetic nervous system) . When I say assisted recovery I mean that we should aid in the down-regulation of the nervous system and facilitate the recovery process (also known as the parasympathetic nervous system) so that we can train hard again.

One of the most neglected areas on our body is our hands and forearms. We use our hands for everything on and off the mat, yet we seldom take any time to give the muscles (and other soft tissues) any help in recovery. Doing some self-massage with the Yoga Tune Up® balls will help fight inflammation, help lymphatic drainage, speed the recovery process, reduce pain and reduce soreness and fatigue. Additionally, because we store a lot of tension in the hands and forearms, you will see greater shoulder mobility after doing these exercises. Get a pair of Yoga Tune Up® balls and try the following moves after your next training session.

Check In / Check Out
Before beginning check your shoulder mobility. This is a baseline to just see where you shoulders are before we begin to roll out the hands and forearms. You can also take note of how “tight” your shoulders, wrists or forearms feel before beginning. This is a classic yoga move called Gomukhasana and it is great for illustrating shoulder mobility and imbalances from side to side. Use a belt if your shoulders are tight. Try both sides and do not stretch just take about 10 seconds to adjust and see how closely you can get your hands together. The point is to just see how far you can go without stretching specifically to get into this shape. After each of the exercises below, check back in with this move to see if there is any improvement in shoulder mobility. In fact, I recommend checking in after you do your right hand but before you do your left hand. You can feel the improvements as you go and notice the immediate differences on each side of your body as you do each exercise.

Why is this particular pose important? The pose is a great diagnostic for the amount of usable shoulder mobility you possess: flexion plus external rotation in the upper arm and extension plus internal rotation in the lower arm. If someone is missing range of motion the body will find lots of compensatory mechanisms to cheat when it can.  But for practical jiujitsu purposes: we can see how soon you will tap to americanas and kimuras. The less range you have the quicker the submission will cause you to tap. If you have more mobility you buy yourself some time to tap before damage occurs. Also you have more wiggle room to escape.

Gomukhasana Arms for Shoulder Mobility from Force Distance Time on Vimeo.

Hand Rollout
I call this particular move “The Childproof Lid” because it reminds me of opening a bottle of pills from the drugstore. Press down hard and turn. The fact that the balls are grippy, they will catch your skin and create a lot of shear force which will break up adhesions in the fascia. It will make your hand feel really warm and increase the circulation in your hand. In addition to that technique, try to really smash the ball and roll the whole surface of the palm like you’re making a bread. Do about 2 to 3 minute on each hand and make sure to try the gomukhasana arms in between sides to see if there is any change in your mobility. Also notice how much better your hands feel after doing this.

Day 3 of 30. The Childproof Lid from Force Distance Time on Vimeo.

Forearm Rollout
The main muscles that control your fingers and your grip are actually in your forearms and pull on the fingers with long tendons that extend down to the finger tips. Therefore, when you use your grip, your forearms get smoked. Additionally, the different muscles in your body should slide against each other like silk sheets, but when they get inflamed and neglected, they start to roughen up like corduroy and eventually turn to velcro. If you don’t do anything about it, it starts to rob you of grip strength because now when a muscle fires it doesn’t just pull the finger it has to pull all the other muscles it is stuck to. There are lots of ways to roll out these muscles. First, put your balls on the table and roll them out by simply pressing your forearm down and moving back and forth. Second, take your balls to the wall and lean your weight into them and make tiny movements with your hands and wrists.

Day 20 of 30. Put Your Balls On The Table. from Force Distance Time on Vimeo.

The Tiny Conductor from Force Distance Time on Vimeo.

Deep Finger Stretching
I learned these finger stretches from a colleague of mine and I had never seen them before. I’m guessing you haven’t seen them before either. They are good and deep and will help your hands a lot. Go slow with these because they are really intense.

Intense Finger Stretches from Force Distance Time on Vimeo.

See my other blog post on how to prepare your wrists before class and add these assisted recovery techniques after class. Do this work once or twice a week and over time you will have strong, healthy hands and be able to train harder.

Joint Preparation: Wrists and Forearms

Joint Preparation is strengthening the connective tissues around the joints: the tendons and ligaments. This is different than strengthening the muscles. Muscle tissues regenerate in about 90 days, connective tissue takes closer to 210 days to regenerate. Connective tissue has one-tenth the metabolic rate of muscle that means it takes 10 times longer to heal when it’s injured. The reason I prioritize joint preparation is because Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ), by its nature, is based on causing trauma to the joints (armlocks, leglocks and neck cranks), therefore, strengthening connective tissue is a priority if one is to have longevity in the sport. Since it takes a really long time to regenerate connective tissue you need to prepare your joints consistently over a long period of time.

If you look at sports injuries in general, they tend to occur at end range of the joint where the muscles, tendons and ligaments are stretched to their fullest and are therefore their weakest. So joint preparation is basically end range strengthening and conditioning. This can look like weighted stretching or may take the form of various exercises that move the joints through full ranges of motion. By gradually loading the tissues at end range we can condition them to be stronger and more resilient in those positions.

In this article, I will take you through some of my favorite things to do to condition my wrists and forearms. Doing these will help your wrists stay strong and healthy over the years of doing BJJ.

Forearm Blast
This series of exercises will warm up your hands and forearms better than any other exercise I have ever done. There are five exercises that I show on this video. You begin with your arms straight out in front of you and you extend your wrists like you are pushing against a heavy door. Stretch you fingers as long and wide as you can and then make a tight fist while keeping your wrist bent back. Repeat this as fast as you can while trying to extend and flex your fingers as much as you can. Go as long as you can manage. You want to work towards being able to go for a minute. Then repeat this with your wrist flexed and your fingers pointing down at the floor. Now it gets more interesting, bend your elbows 90 degrees like you are a T-Rex and repeat the two variations (fingers up and fingers down). Lastly, with your elbows bent quickly flip your hands over, palms up and palms down, as fast as you can. This works the supination and pronation of the forearm. This whole sequence should take you less than 5 minutes. At first your forearms will feel swollen and tight like Popeye, but then after a minute the hands and wrists will feel really warm and loose. You are probably wondering if the burning sensation in your forearms is normal and healthy. Yeah, kind of. You have many muscles in your forearms that are encased in fascia and all those muscles should be able to slide and glide against each other and move independently. When we do these exercises we become aware that we do not have as much slide and glide as we should. The friction between these surfaces causes a lot of heat. Doing the joint preparation and assisted recovery (my next blog post) will help and you will soon notice that you can go longer and longer with this exercise.

Forearm Blast from Force Distance Time on Vimeo.

Wrist Stretches
Now that you are warmed up, we can stretch the wrists a little. These stretches are good to help increase some range of motion and also to start loading the joints with a little bit of weight. The four stretches I show on video can all be done from the knees and do not take very long. I recommend doing 10 gentle pulses into each stretch and then holding the last rep for 30 seconds.

Forearm Blast: Part 2 from Force Distance Time on Vimeo.

Wrist Push-Ups
These wrist push-ups are extremely challenging, but they will build very strong wrists that can withstand a lot of abuse. I recommend starting these standing up against the wall and only doing 1 hand at a time initially (The other hand was just doing a regular pushup. Don’t try to do 1-arm wrist pushups, you fucking savage!). That is how I learned them. Eventually, I was able to do them with both hands simultaneously standing at the wall, then I started doing them from my knees on the floor with one hand and then eventually with both hands. I was at the point where I could do them from my toes, but then I hurt my wrist and had to start back from square one. Even though these exercises didn’t prevent me from getting injured, by scaling back to very light versions of these, I was able to get my wrist back to 100% in a very short period of time. Work up to 5 sets of 5 of each variation. Start with the standing variations first before going to your knees. Also do not be in a hurry. These exercises are for the connective tissues that take a long time to regenerate. You will not see huge wrist muscles all of a sudden. You have to be patient and even if you think the variation is too easy, make sure you can do 5 sets of 5 with perfect form before trying to advance. Even if you stayed at the easiest variation and did them once a week for a year, in a year you wrists would be much stronger and healthier.

Forearm Blast: Part 3 from Force Distance Time on Vimeo.

Ujjayi Pranayama

Ujjayi Pranayama means “victorious breath.” It is often practiced through the entirety of an ashtanga or flow yoga class. It is meant to be calming and rhythmic and help the practitioner focus. Slow, deep inhales followed by long, exhales of roughly the same length. The defining characteristic is the wheezy, ocean-like sound. Ujjayi is an audible breath performed by constricting the throat and tongue slightly while breathing in and out through your nose.

Try this. Sit up straight. Close your eyes. Take a breath in through your nose and exhale out through your mouth and whisper “hahhh”. Feel where it vibrates the back of the throat. Take another breath in through your nose and whisper “hahhh” but press the tongue to the roof of your mouth. Feel where your tongue touches the palate and how the jaw constricts slightly. That’s basically the shape you want for your mouth. Take another deep inhale though the nose and exhale though the nose while retaining the sound. Keep doing this while taking slow, deep abdominal-thoracic breaths.

Ujjayi Pranayama from Force Distance Time on Vimeo.

I personally find it relaxing to perform ujjayi breaths and will consciously or unconsciously start doing it when I take deep breaths to relax or when I meditate. Because the breath is audible, you can focus on it better and thus counting your breaths and the length of your breaths becomes much easier. Because you are restricting the flow of air, you naturally breathe much slower with ujjayi breath and consequently much deeper.

One thing that I rarely hear mentioned about ujjayi breathing is the fact that it aides in spinal stabilization. The throat acts like a valve on abdominal-thoracic cavity. True abdominal bracing is done by creating pressure between the diaphragm and the perineum. However, the slight restriction on the breath helps create pressure as well. In situations where breath holding is ill-advised but some intra-abdominal pressure is necessary, ujjayi breath is a strong choice.

Breathe Fucking Harder

Breathing is a funny thing. We do it all day long out of necessity and rarely give it much thought. However, just because we do it so often doesn’t necessarily mean we are good at it nor are we getting better at it. In fact, I find that a lot of people suffer from “bad breath.” Their breathing patterns are less than stellar. So what? You may ask.
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The thing about our breath is that it is linked to our central nervous system; it is tied to physical performance; it is tied our movements; and it is tied to our pain. We can utilize the breath to up-regulate our nervous system or down-regulate our nervous system. We can move in ways that help or hinder our breath. We can use our breath to help alleviate our pain or to mask it.

Our main respiratory muscle is the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a key player not only in breath but also in spinal stabilization as it is used to create intra-abdominal pressure. When I assess clients that have chronic pain and/or movement dysfunction they often have “bad breath,” i.e. poor breathing mechanics and poor control of their diaphragm. By teaching people how to breathe properly, I can get them to down regulate and create a physiological state where healing can occur. Proper breathing allows me to better help them stabilize and protect their spines which leads to better, pain-free movement and helps me teach them better movement patterns.

For example, you twist your ankle and it hurts to walk on. Maybe you tore a ligament or strained muscle, you don’t know. All you know is that it hurts. Maybe you went to the doctor, maybe you didn’t. Maybe you took pain killers. It doesn’t matter. Your body senses pain in your foot. Every time you try to walk on it, you wince a little and your body braces itself. It stiffens. You hold your breath a little with each step. You compensate by placing more weight on the other leg and your hips shift with every step. That means your lower back is supported more on one side than the other. After a few days of this, you don’t even know you are compensating and your brain starts to filter out the noise coming from that achy ankle because now you can pretty much get through your day. Six months later your lower back is hurting all the time. You think it’s unrelated. Turns out it is from all the compensating you’ve done to avoid stress on your bad ankle that hasn’t healed.

So are you saying that learning to breathe better will fix my lower back? Not exactly. If you learn to breathe better, you can start to relax a little. That’s important because when you are stress breathing you are up-regulating your sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”) and releasing stress hormones. When you learn how to do abdominal-thoracic breathing you down-regulate and activate your parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”) and get back to homeostasis and this allows your body to better heal itself. Furthermore, once we get you to breathe deeply we can then create some intra-abdominal pressure and teach you how to stabilize your spine. Often that helps relieve some of the back pain. Once your spine is stabilized when you stand you won’t shift your weight over and you will put weight on both feet then suddenly you will realize your ankle still hurts. Finally you can start doing something about that ankle.

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This all seems convoluted. It is. The body is a complex system of systems. That is why many people suffer injuries over and over or constantly find themselves getting stalled in their progress. The pain isn’t where the problem started. The pain is where the problem stopped. Going back to the start of the pain is the hard part. Breathing is just one of the vehicles that help us on that journey.

From a practical and functional standpoint, you need to breathe deeper so you can perform better. Learning how to take longer, deeper breaths and create and utilize the full capacity of the lungs is essential to performance. Strengthening the diaphragm is also important because that is one of the stabilizers of the spine. If your spine isn’t stable, you are going to have big problems.

Three Abodes of Breath from Force Distance Time on Vimeo.

The Three Abodes of Breath

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As I eluded to before, there are several ways to breathe. The body being intelligent has redundancies built in so that we can always find a way to breathe. See the video above. The first abode is abdominal breathing. In abdominal breathing we utilize the diaphragm to draw air into the lungs. When the central tendon of the diaphragm contracts, it pulls the giant umbrella shaped muscle down and creates a low pressure system in the lungs. The lungs then draw air in air to balance the pressure. Lie comfortably on your back with your knees bent and feet close to your butt. Place one hand on the belly and one hand on the chest. Inhale into the belly and it should rise up under your hand. Exhale and the belly should fall.

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The second abode is thoracic breathing. Thoracic breathing utilizes the intercostal muscles between the ribs to expand the rib cage. The increased diameter of the rib cage creates low pressure in the thoracic cavity and draws air in. Inhale into your chest. The chest should rise up into your hand. You might also feel the back of your ribs press into the floor. ‘

The third abode is clavicular breathing. Clavicular breathing utilizes the levator scapulae and the trapezius muscles to draw the shoulders upward and create low pressure in the upper thoracic cavity and draw air in. Clavicular breathing is associated with stress breathing and panting. It tends to be very shallow. Breath into your shoulders. The shoulders with rise up into your ears. This is called clavicular breathing and should be used infrequently as it is often associated with panic breathing. Unfortunately, many people chronically practice clavicular breathing and are stressed out. Furthermore, they often suffer a lot of shoulder problems because of the overused trapezius muscles that should be doing other things besides helping you breathe all day.

Abdominal Thoracic Breathing

Practice isolating each abode of breath. Compare the sensations associated with each abode. Which one allows you to breathe deepest and which one stresses you out. Now practice abdominal-thoracic breathing. Lie on your back with your eyes closed. Bend your knees and place your heels close to your butt. Place one hand on the belly and one hand on the chest. As you inhale you should feel the belly rise up into your hand first and then the chest rise up into the other hand. On the exhale the chest descends then the belly. Continue breathing like this for 10 cycles. Go as slow as you can comfortably.

You should feel calm and relaxed afterwards. If you find it difficult to breathe like this, you need more practice. Most people try too hard at first which actually makes it more difficult to breathe. Do less. Abdominal-thoracic breathing should be your normal relaxed breathing pattern. Chronic pain and movement dysfunction correlate highly with the inability to perform abdominal-thoracic breathing. Practice breathing this way whenever you become conscious of your breath.

Bridge Lifts

In the next exercise we put it all together and link our movement with our breath. It’s called a bridge lift (I demo these at the end of the video). We start in ardha sivasana lying on our backs with our feet by our butt. Our arms by our side. From here we inhale and lift our hips and arms up. Our hips terminate at the top of a bridge pose and our arms continue until they come to rest by our ears. On the exhale we return our hips to the floor and our arms by our sides. The goal is to synchronize the breathing with the movement. Remember the hips move much slower because they travel a much shorter distance than the arms which travel in a 180-degree arc. This is called a vini or vinyasa. The promise of vinyasa yoga is that evenly metered breath coupled with evenly metered movement will result in an even mind.

You will find that you breathe deeper in the bridge lifts because the movement helps facilitate deeper breaths. One reason is that now you are adding clavicular breathing in addition to the abdominal-thoracic breathing. As the arms rise shoulders get pulled up and help draw in more air. This is proper and normal clavicular breathing that occurs

Practice abdominal thoracic breathing and the bridge lifts and work up to sets of 10 breaths. You should feel relaxed and calm afterward. The goal is to move slower and breathe deeper. Not to go fast and get your heart rate up. Do not take your breathing for granted. There is much to be gained by mastering your breath. Some people say “Master your breath, master your life.” I say, “Breathe fucking harder!”

Day 8 – KB Armbar Stretch

The Kettlebell Armbar Stretch is a unique move. It doesn’t feel like a stretch; it’s awkward; but it leaves your shoulders feeling great. What it does is set your arm deeper in the shoulder socket essentially putting the golf ball on the tee (the humerus on the glenoid fossa). You are doing an isometric hold of the scapula in retraction and depression and letting gravity set your shoulder. Trust me, it’s worth the price of admission. You can do this with a kettlebell, dumbbell or even a band but you’re going to need some resistance to make it work. Start light until you feel comfortable and secure holding the weight, then load it up.

Use two hands to pick up the kettlebell while laying on your back. Press it up over your shoulder. Keep your core tight as you roll over onto your side. Turn your hips over and point them toward the floor. Rest your head on your arm and keep your eye on the bell. Press your shoelaces into the floor, squeeze your butt and retract and depress your scapula. Stay there for up to two minutes. Initially, you may not be able to hold the weight for that long. That’s okay. Perform the armbar stretch two or three times on each arm for as long as you feel safe holding the weight. Use both hands to lower the weight slowly and place it on the ground.

Kettlebell Armbar Stretch from Force Distance Time on Vimeo.

Here are the rules for the 30-Day Stretch Fucking Harder Challenge. Each day do the deep stretch, post it on Instagram and tag some friends to do it with you. Post your stretch with the tags: #stretchfuckingharder #supplepandas #30daypandachallenge Tag me @coachpanda. Come back here to my website or vimeo channel to see more details on each stretch and modifications and scaling options. Try to stay in each stretch for at least 2 minutes per stretch per side. Remember to breathe slowly and deeply and start gradually and move deeper over time. Back off if it hurts.