Mark Cheng: Movement Starts with Breathing

Any discussion of fundamental movement starts with breathing. If the breathing is not correct, the body is rejecting whatever you’re trying to teach it. Mark Cheng demonstrates a simple breathing assessment with great cuing to help you get started.

Any discussion of fundamental movement has to start with breathing. If the breathing is not correct, the body is rejecting whatever you’re trying to teach it. In terms of movement, correction and rehabilitation, you have to make sure the breathing is dialed in.

If you look at athletes who own a cer­tain movement pattern, they’re not breathing hard. They’re probably not breathing through the mouth, and certainly not panting. We want to train the breath to be as effortless, smooth and calm, but as deep as possible.

Here they’re going to demonstrate what’s called the apex breath. This is closer to how you see most people breathing. It’s not efficient and it uses a lot more of the upper body to breathe. If you watch the chest, especially Cody’s shirt because you can watch the logo there, as he’s breathing, as he’s inhaling, you’ll notice the logo move. This means more of the neck is involved in breathing and less of the lower abdomen.

However, if your diaphragm is involved in breathing—and I’m going to have you switch to diaphragmatic breathing now—the waistband is where the center of the breath happens. Looking at Jimmy’s shirt, you notice the logo moving more than his chest moving as his belly moves, rises and falls.

Also on Cody, you see the logo on the top where his chest is not moving nearly as much as his waistband. That’s a good sign. If you have someone who has a hard time latching onto this thought or latching onto the ability to be able to move the breath from the collarbone line down to the waistline, one of the ways to help cue that is through the crocodile breath.

The crocodile breathing would require them to turn over, but let’s shortcut that a little. Through Reactive Neuromuscular Training, you can provide a way of accessing that movement pattern or even that movement of breath without having to over-cue them verbally. A verbal cue is nice, but a tactile cue—one they can feel—is one way they’re going to learn better. That’s where the sensory-rich environment is so important.

Right now if you’ll notice, Jimmy is breathing from his lower abdomen, so the logo on his shirt, which is right at his waistline, is moving more than the chest is. That’s a diaphragmatic breath—a lower abdominal breath.

Cody is breathing from his chest in this particular instance. The chest is heaving and the logo on his shirt is moving way more than his waistline is moving. That’s an apical breath. In this situation, he’s actually in a state of mild stress. This breathing is inefficient and he’ll come closer to hyperventilating. His face will probably turn red and he’s wasting a lot of energy.

Once Cody switches down to lower abdominal breathing, you’re going to notice things change for him— not only metabolically, but also in terms of his stress level. Now as Cody is breathing from his lower abdomen, you see the waistband of his shorts move more than the logo on the top of his chest. This is good. In a parasym­pathetic environment when his body is not in fight or flight mode, but he’s calm and he’s trying to be efficient for optimum performance, this is how the breath should be.

Throughout this training and throughout all of these progressions, we’re going to try and maintain lower abdominal breathing. This is an important thing to keep focusing on. No matter how much you think you’re breathing this way, keep checking to see if you can breathe more down into the abdomen rather than the chest.

If you look at how MaryAnne is breathing right now, not only notice her shoulders and her chest are in­volved in the breath, but also look at the tension in the neck. That kind of breath, that kind of apical breath, wastes energy. The center of your movement, especially when it comes to breath, shouldn’t be the neck. It should be much lower in the body.

As she transitions to lower abdominal breathing, she wants to relax the neck, maybe move the shoulders around a bit and then wag the neck a little to check whether or not there’s any extra tension in there. The neck just needs to be a conduit through which the breath gets down to the lower abdomen. As she’s breathing from the lower abdomen, you notice the chest doesn’t heave with each breath. Ideally, the neck should be less tense as well.

One of the ways to get a better sense of feedback when it comes to the breath is Reactive Neuromuscular Training. One way in thinking of RNT is to feed the mistake. In this case, I just want to give you a sensory-rich environment, so you get to feel from where you want to breathe.

What they’re going to do is take kettle­bells—relatively light ones, especially com­pared to their size—and put them such that the bell is right on the waistband. The handle is going to be up for control. They shouldn’t be death gripping it, just using the handle to lightly control it so it doesn’t roll off. Now in­haling, they want to push the lower abdomen up against the bell.

Using the bell as an RNT tool, they have something to feel. It shows them where they want to direct that breath as they inhale up, engaging those muscles of the lower abdomen to create that vacuum to draw the diaphragm down for more breath. This is going to give them that sensory-rich environment and progress in learning all about that sensory-rich environment.

Cody, I’m going to put a bigger bell on him. He has a 24-kilo bell. If you’re new to this and you don’t know how to access breathing, you may need a bigger bell to give you more of a stimulus.

As Cody inhales and exhales, you’ll notice the bell rise and fall—he’s inhaling by pushing the bell up. It’s kind of like filling up a balloon. As you exhale, the bell just falls back down. MaryAnne and Jimmy are doing the same, but with slightly lighter bells.

The whole idea behind the load is to create something proportional. If you put the bell up too high, you’re still going to be breathing abdominally, but not ideally. You want to take the breath down as low between the hips as possible. You’ll notice all three of them have the bell positioned pretty much right at the waistline.

In Jimmy’s case if you notice his breath, the handle is moving a little bit more than the base of the bell. What I’d like for him to do—and I’m going to cue you as you’re doing this—is to make sure the handle isn’t moving so much, but as you inhale, I want you to push the bottom of the bell up higher. I want you to do it in a exaggerated fashion, so draw in the air a little bit deeper and get the bottom of the bell to move up high.

There you go. Exaggerate it even more. Dial it in. Feel that lower abdomen, almost like you’re trying to blow the hips apart with the depth of that inhale. Notice again how much I’m cueing him verbally, but he still has that feedback tool. And I have a visual tool to see how much he’s able to draw that breath down. In terms of coaching him, this is rich.

I want you to still work on that inhale. This time, inhale super deep, pushing up and holding it. Good. Exhale. I want you to wiggle your shoulders a little bit—all the way up, all the way up, all the way up. Notice how much more motion he’s getting out of the bell after wiggling the shoulders and loosening the neck.

Why we’re wiggling the shoulders and loosening the neck is so you understand the coordination aspect of movement. Right now, all of the energy should be focused low—not tension up high. That’s why we want to occasionally get some movement somewhere else, so you know what you don’t want or don’t want on board. Do you feel different now that you’re breathing a little bit deeper down like that?

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