Athletic development specialists dedicated to the art and science of excellence in movement

Respiration and Stability: Simultaneous Tasks

The human body has many amazing features.  One of the most compelling is the dual capacity for autonomous respiration and stability from the same muscles simultaneously.  (“Respiratory activity of the diaphragm and other respiratory muscles is normally coordinated with their other functions, such as for postural control of the trunk when the limbs move.”  (Hodges 2001))   We take it for granted because we learned the skill so young, but maintain optimal function in this dual capacity is paramount for many athletic tasks.  However, if physical demands become overwhelming, one of these two skills will be sacrificed…and you can guess what the brain will choose when forced between breathing (survival) and stability!

As we’ve written previously breathing can be used as an audit for all exercise.  Endurance athletes will often assess effort or control exertion with respiration patterns, whether breathing rhythms in the pool, or measuring respiration rate per stride while running.  In the gym or in the clinic for non-aerobic activity, breathing offers a window in the state of an athlete or patient’s nervous system.  Changes to breathing patterns are an autonomous response to physical and mental stressors and are typically hard to fake.  They can be controlled at some point, but the initial response to alter breathing occurs automatically.

Going further, poor breathing mechanics may also impair respiratory gas exchange, leading to excess CO2 buildup or insufficient oxygen inspiration.  “Diminished PCO2 stimulus combined with depressed behavioral activity play an important role for disordered breathing in nose-obstructed sleep(Tanaka 1989)  Though ancient movement practices have long recognized the value of breathing (martial arts, dance, yoga), breathing is often dismissed as mystical and non-scientific.  However, even a cursory view of the research shows evidentiary links between respiration and stability.

All the way back in 1995, Professor McGill quantitatively documented the link between breathing patterns and demanding patterns.  In one study, eight subjects were asked to complete shoveling task…“For large loads in the hands, most subjects appeared to stabilize the trunk with large muscle forces relegating the responsibility of creating lung air flow to the diaphragm. When reasonably small low-back demands were coupled with a breathing challenge and higher ventilation rates two out of eight subjects demonstrated entrainment of abdominal activity to breathing that resulted in additional cyclic low-back compressive loading of the order of 1000 Newtons”

In another study from Professor McGill’s lab, Wang (2008) assessed the duality of respiration and stability with eight non-painful male subjects in multiple lifting tasks.  "Results revealed that subjects entrained their torso stabilization muscles to breathe during demanding ventilation tasks. Increases in lung volume and back extensor muscle activation coincided with increases in spine stability, whereas declines in spine stability were observed during periods of low lung inflation volume and simultaneously low levels of torso muscle activation."

Ultimately, there are many different ways to coach breathing, but all must agree on the primacy of breathing as a fundamental movement pattern.  Just because it appears obvious does not mean we neglect it, and we must not fall prey to the temptation of progressing onto tasks beyond our present movement capabilities.  Breathing still remains as one of the most vital avenues through which to assess movement competency and further develop physical capacity.  


Tanaka Y, Honda Y.  Nasal obstruction as a cause of reduced PCO2 and disordered breathing during sleep.  J Appl Physiol. 1989 Sep;67(3):970-2.

Hodges PW, Heijnen I, Gandevia SC.J Physiol. 2001 Dec 15;537(Pt 3):999-1008.
Postural activity of the diaphragm is reduced in humans when respiratory demand increases.

McGill SM, Sharratt MT, Seguin JP.Ergonomics. 1995 Sep;38(9):1772-92.  Loads on spinal tissues during simultaneous lifting and ventilatory challenge.

Wang S, McGill SM.J Appl Biomech. 2008 May;24(2):166-74.  Links between the mechanics of ventilation and spine stability.


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