A normal, well-functioning body should have full access to all the joint positions and muscular actions required for normal respiration, and should be able to move in and out of each without compensation.
That’s why the first step in any program is to correctly identify which, if any, specific compensations are limiting your movement or performance.
Although there are many tests that are useful, the following three basic self-tests can be used to extract a lot of insight about the resting state of your movement system, and then guide you toward appropriate exercise interventions.
Active Straight Leg Raise (ASLR)
Not just a hamstring test, the ASL assesses your ability to flex your hip joint and the relative orientation of your pelvis. A normal range of motion is 90-degrees (leg perpendicular to the floor), while making sure the opposite leg remains completely flat.
Active Shoulder Flexion (ASF)
Here we’re using range of motion at the shoulder joint as a proxy for rib cage position. The goal is 180-degrees (arm parallel to the wall) without any compensatory arching of the back or allowing your elbow to twist away from your body.
Here’s another test of pelvic and rib cage position masquerading as a simple hamstring flexibility drill. Having the ability to decompress the back of your body, allowing you to touch your toes when you bend forward, reflects normal function of the respiratory system. The goal is fingertips touching the ground with no bend in the knees.
To oversimplify, if you didn’t “pass” some or all of the tests, you likely have some compensations that may limit your progress or top-end potential.
Specifically, these tests look at your ability to drive air flow—to expand—into different parts of your body to allow for full range of movement.
The goal then is to use certain positions and exercises to allow for more expansion in those areas.
Step One: Build Your Stack
“The Stack” simply refers to the upright alignment of your body. The objective is to keep your head, rib cage, and pelvis stacked (along a vertical axis). This allows your body to optimally move and distribute pressure into areas that are compressed.
90-90 Hamstring Bridge with Reach
The 90/90 is the easiest jumping-off point to find and feel your stacking muscles (hamstrings and abs). Laying flat on the floor places your body in the right position, while providing stability and neurological reference. The 90-degree reach biases expansion of upper chest and back.
The Bear Plank flips the 90/90 Bridge position upside down, increasing the stability demands, and shifting the focus of the exercise toward the abdominals and deep shoulder stabilizers (serratus anterior).
Despite the often repeated coaching que of “butt back,” the hallmark of good squat mechanics is the ability to keep an upright, vertical torso: head over shoulders, over hips, over mid foot. No falling forward or back.
Why the ramp?
Elevating your heels shifts your center of gravity, making it easier to drop down without excessive leaning forward.
Step Two: Prioritize Position
Utilizing different body positions biases air flow in different directions. Specifically, we want to direct air into the upper chest and middle/upper back (think front-to-back expansion).
Staggered Stance Deadlift Video
The front-back position of your feet biases air flow toward the posterior pelvis (you’d feel this as a stretch or lengthening feeling in the region of your back pant’s pocket). Expansion on one side of your hips coupled with compression on the opposite side transfers to normal mechanics for walking and running.
Feet On Wall Chest Press
Here we’re using a traditional dumbbell chest press and layering on top of it a posterior pelvic tilt (backward tipping of the pelvis via the hamstrings) and slight rounding of the lower/middle back aginst the bench (to allow for greater expansion of the upper rib cage).
Step Three: Reciprocal Movements
With few exceptions, almost all movement in life and athletics occur in alternating patterns—with one side of the body moving in one direction, and the opposite side moving in the other.
This is true for walking, running, climbing, reaching, throwing, bounding, and changing direction. Yet, we tend to prioritize bilateral exercises in the gym—like squats or bench presses, where both arms or both legs are doing the same thing.
When we do this a lot, we favor compression as a movement strategy, and we can lose some of our normal reciprocal function.
One solution is to include single-arm and single-leg exercises into your training.
Split Stance Low Cable Row
The split stance position is a quick and effective way to add a multi-directional component to most exercises, allowing for greater separation between the actions of the rib cage and pelvis, and encouraging movement into different planes.
Zercher Split Squat
Holding a weight (or band resistance in this case) in front of your body encourages the stacked torso position, allowing for greater anterior-posterior expansion of the rib cage during exercise. The starting position of the Split Squat (one hip flexed while the other is extended) mirrors the alternating, reciprocal action of the pelvis during walking and running.
Breathing is a keystone movement pattern that affects all other functions. Yet most people overlook its importance in their fitness program. This can lead to stiffness of the hips and rib cage, loss of triplanar function (range of motion across all three planes), altered gait mechanics, slouchy or hyper-extended posture, and a host of far flung implications that limit health and performance.
The good news is that it’s easy to spot restrictions in movement—when you know what to look for—and can then harness the power of different breathing strategies as a corrective. The primary ways to do that are to prioritize a stacked pelvis and rib cage for good alignment, utilize a variety of positions to encourage expansion of the upper back and chest, and bias your exercises toward single-arm, single-leg movements to promote alternating, reciprocal function.