You’ll be surprised by how many older people are unable to properly contract a given muscle. That’s a direct result of poor muscular control, without practice, the brain doesn’t speak the same language as the muscle increasing the likelihood of injuries and falls. We tend to judge our health and fitness using inaccurate markers – walking, going up stairs, getting around the house. The truth is that those activities don’t indicate healthy muscular control. Muscular control needs to be constantly practiced, improved and refined.
The simplest way to work on muscular control involves – wait for it – breathing! Breathing is not a glamourous subject and it’s role is therefore ignored in many exercise programs. However, breathing is as essential to muscular control as it is to life itself! Well, perhaps that last statement is a little hyperbolic, but don’t be fooled into thinking that breathing is not a conscious process that deserves plenty of attention in the gym.
Professional athletes have publicly embraced yoga over the last few years as it enhances their performance. Yoga is a prime example of how breathing is used to enhance muscular control. Initially, it can be tough to hold certain positions while breathing normally. As you complete more yoga classes, muscular control is enhanced and you can progress to tougher poses.
Avoid Breath Holding
Traditionally, consideration of breathing has been of prime importance for patients that have high blood pressure in order to keep their blood pressure from soaring too high during physical exertion. That holds true, holding your breath can raise blood pressure and isn’t advised for hypertensive people.
Conversely, many of the world’s top weightlifters preach utilising the muscular tension created during breath holding as a vital tool to set personal bests and olympic records.
In clinical practice however, holding your breath is against protocol as it undermines muscular control. We need to be able to breathe with ease during virtually all movements to indicate that the brain is able to contract the requested muscles without being stressed. Breathing is an essential part as it pertains to muscular control when we are dealing with lower back pain and breathing during transversus abdominus (TA) contraction (read that post here). Similarly, we want to have supreme muscular control over TA to ensure that it remains contracted while we are distracted by life’s stress.
Research has shown that dynamic balance is severely compromised in elite athletes when faced with a mental decision (which can lead to knee injury).
How’s that relevant to breathing?
Breathing is a dual task!
If all your energy and focus is required to keep a muscle activated, it indicates poor muscular control. That is, too much brain power is required to keep that muscle turned on. We need to develop a better brain-muscle link which leads to greater muscular control.
We want to get to a stage where we can keep a muscle contracted while we breathe, balance and even do a sudoku.
Breathing is the simplest form of dual tasking in order to enhance muscular control. You can apply it straight away by performing isometric contractions for 20-30 seconds where you are constantly breathing in a normal manner.
Try holding the following for 30 seconds (or as long as you can) while maintaining breathing as normal as possible.
1. TA Activation – by drawing your belly button in, is one of the hardest (and most important) muscles to improve muscular control in.
4.Plank – lying prone on the floor with your elbows underneath your shoulders raise your body so only your toes and forearms are on the floor.
I’ve given a few of my favourite examples above, however improving muscular control is an everyday kind of activity. Learn to practice having better muscular control by contracting various muscles and ensuring breathing is as normal as possible. Some muscles are easier than others, some might not improve significantly, but rest assured that if muscular control is ignored your body will suffer as a result.