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Better abs and strength through breathing?

Egoscue EAST/WEST breathing

By Brian Bradley of the Egoscue Method

If, while moving, your breathing is a paradoxical movement, you can be assured that sooner or later immobility, pain or decreased performance is going to result. This paradoxical movement I am talking about could be considered a “north-south” type of movement where your peripheral shoulder, chest, and neck musculature are overworking to allow for better oxygen movement into the lungs. Unfortunately this is not an efficient movement, especially when under the demand of something like posture work, cardiovascular work, and/or strength work.

The East-West Breathing we are talking about is where the lower rib cage and lower back expand upon taking a breath in. The diaphragm contracts and decends into the abdominal area of the body and allows for a more fulfilling breath by filling the lower lobes of the lungs with needed oxygen. Simultaneously, your intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) is increased to stabilize your lumbar spine anteriorly. This is important because it means that with correct diaphragmatic breathing, the deep stabilizing system more commonly known as the “core”, is fired with each breath. With over 22,000 breaths taken in daily, you could be training your “core” just by repatterning your breathing. This means flatter, fitter abs just by breathing…now I have your ear!

In order for this to happen, your diaphragm must have the ability to move downward into the abdomen during inhalation (breathing in), resulting in a pressing on the viscera (organs) and causing abdominal expansion (IAP). This downward movement kneads and “wakes up” all of your abdominal cavity organs of digestion, absorption, and removal much like pushing down on the end of a water balloon. Considering the thoracic cavity as a cylinder that works in all directions, the diaphragm draws down like a piston, increasing the size or volume of the lungs from below. As the volume of the thoracic cavity increases, the air pressure inside your lungs is lowered and the air outside rushes into the lungs to restore the balance of inside and outside pressure. With this drawing downward movement, your belly can distend because the contents of your abdominal cavity are displaced. For this reason, your belly-out breathing is widely viewed as the path of least resistance for movement and must be changed. Widely taught, belly-breathing causes the belly to distend forward and the drag it exerts can actually inhibit diaphragmatic breathing. The corrective e-cises provided will be a good start at stabilizing this system and allow for an easier firing of your diaphragm due to re-establishing the ideal motor pattern.

This “ideal motor pattern” we are speaking of is one where your thoracic spine, scapulae, humerus, rib cage, and pelvis are working in sync as the anchor for the diaphragm to move. This is achieved by re-patterning (through close interaction) of the central nervous system (CNS), the joints, ligaments, and the muscular system. This interaction is slowly ingrained from infancy and is especially important in the alignment of the joints because of their information transferring qualities. They need to be aligned correctly throughout your continued developmental process as you age for optimal results.

To quickly test this movement on yourself, place your thumbs on your kidney area of your lower back and your index fingers on your side abdominal muscles, just below your lowest rib. As you breathe in, your fingers should feel as if they are being pushed outward. If they are being drawn in, (paradoxical movement) you are not stabilizing your torso due to postural compensations and this movement must be addressed. Why? Read on and find out.

Get this!

On average, the human body takes a breath 12-15 times per minute. That gives us an average of almost 22,000 breaths per day. Think about it. If your breathing is paradoxical…i.e. north-south, you can be assured that every other movement made daily from working out to picking up your child is done inefficiently. This can lead to a very painful end. Whether you are working on strengthening your shoulders, training your abdominals, attempting to run five miles without pain, or take part in your favorite Pilates program, facilitation of the ideal motor pattern is crucial. Without it, the diaphragm cannot be the prime mover in the breathing process. This may be why your training benefits are not at the level that parallels the effort you are putting in.

Is it possible to accomplish this movement without thinking about it? Let’s do a quick and easy assessment to find out. Stand in front of a mirror with no shirt or in a bathing suit… and please do this test barefoot. Take a 30% larger than normal breath and look how your chest, ribcage, and shoulders are moving. In the ideal breathing pattern, your chest and shoulder level should remain unchanged. The movement should not be elevation (north/south), but rather the chest and lower ribs should expand East-West as your lungs fill. If your shoulders rise up and hinge forward with your breath, you can be assured that you are breathing inefficiently and more importantly, you can assume that your upper back and shoulders are out of proper alignment. This faulty posture can easily be remedied by moving the joints and choosing exercises that facilitate this movement. Later in this article, you will experience a couple of the 900+ e-cises we have to address exactly this.

The same holds true for the “tipping back” of your rib cage, seen from the side view, or the lifting of your sternum as you breathe in. A friend can assist you with this assessment. When this movement occurs your diaphragm is placed on an oblique angle rather than parallel to your pelvis. This occurs because of a lack of segmental movement in the thoracic spine, causing inefficient extension and shoulder blade movement. If you notice this movement, you should assume that the effects are being felt throughout all systems and joints in the body.

When the lower ribs are pushed outward (east/west) by the contraction of the diaphragm, an increase in oxygen saturation is achieved because of the increase in tidal volume. Basically, you are moving more air around and the result is less fatigue, better recovery, and your muscles and joints will thank you for it. Remember, our bodies live on oxygen. The richer the environment in oxygen, the healthier we are. The better aligned you are, the more efficient your breathing pattern kicks in normally and the result is more oxygen for you in everyday life…including, all Pilates movements.

This eventual and unconscious breathing pattern will facilitate (along with improved joint posture) a functional movement in all motion. Unfortunately, from your earlier assessment, you have probably already realized that your body has become very proficient at interrupting this system. Knowing this, here is the challenge! Try doing the accompanying e-cises and focus on this breathing while going through your favorite movements. Contact me at the email or phone number below with your results. I know you will be blown away and I would love to hear about it.

Please do the following e-cises in specific order listed below. Each one leads to the next.

1. Unilateral Arm Circles/Pillow:

*Stand barefoot (or in a minimal shoe like the Nike Free or Vibram FiveFinger) with your feet straight. Place an Egoscue pillow between (six inches in width) your knees to assist with stabilization of the spine through the hip and pelvis.

Bent Arm: Elbow, forearm, and hand, palm down, onto a shelf or apparatus.

Extended Arm: Bring your fingertips into the top of your palm to close-pack your wrist. Move your arm to shoulder level. Relax your shoulder blade down and back. *Hold this position, press the bent arm and elbow down into the counter to fire your deep stabilizing system.
Begin circling the straight, abducted arm (up and forward 40x) and then turn the palm up and begin to circle (up and back 40x).
*Do not tilt the sternum upward or lean back in substitution for the down and backward movement of your shoulder blade on the straight arm.

2. Unilateral Elbow Curls/Pillow:

*Stand barefoot or in a minimial type shoe (Nike Free, Vibram FiveFinger)with your feet straight. Place an Egoscue pillow between your knees to assist with stabilization of the spine through the hip and pelvis.
Bent Arm: Elbow, forearm, and hand, palm down, onto a shelf or apparatus
Place your knuckles against the temporal bone, on the side of your head, with your thumb facing the floor.
Press your bent arm and elbow down into the counter to cause a facilitation of the deep stabilizing system.
Keeping the wrist locked out, bring the elbow to a closed position in front of your face and then open it back up to the beginning position. Let you knuckles roll back and forth on your face for an easier shoulder movement.
Repeat this motion 25-35x and then switch arms, all the while, holding the constant downward pressure of the bent arm on the counter.

3. Drape:

*Kneel down and hang your body over an ottoman or an Egoscue Block.
*Drop your head and allow your legs and arms to relax…no tension.
*Breathe into your back by forcing air into your abdominal area. This will facilitate your diaphragm. The pressure from the block should allow this breathing pattern to trigger rather easily to give you the feeling that you are breathing East to West.
*Relax your entire body and allow your spine, shoulders, and hips to adjust as you breathe out. Hold this for 3 minutes.

4. Drape w/Hip Extension:

*After the 3 minutes in the Drape above, move one leg back to the “locked” knee position by tightening your thigh muscles. This movement will trigger the low back, glutes, and hamstring to promote and stabilize your hip into extension.
*If you are missing proper Hip extension in your running, there will be a propensity for major gait deviations and changes in foot strike for the worse. The result, pain and limitations.  This corrective exercise promotes proper Hip Extension needed in proper gait mechanics.
3×5 per leg.

5. Elevated Child’s Pose w/Elbow Pressure:

*Kneel down into the traditional child’s pose with your elbows on the floor at head level. Elevate your pelvis six to eight inches from your heels and hold this pelvic position of deep hip flexion throughout the entire e-cise.
*The placement of the elbows is crucial. Basically, you want the half way point between 90 degrees of arm abduction and 180 degrees of complete shoulder flexion. In other words, the arm is not straight up and not straight out. I want the half way point.
Pronate both wrists by rolling your hands onto your thumbs and index fingers to close-pack the entire arm to your shoulder.
*Place downward pressure against the floor with the inside bone of each elbow and hold this pressure. This movement causes a downward-inward movement of the shoulder blade to connect the deep stabilizing chain to assist in diaphragmatic facilitation.
*With this constant elbow pressure and the pelvis elevated above the heels in deep hip flexion, the focus is on breathing into your back. This breathing should be a bit easier than in prior e-cises due to the pressure of the abdominals against their quads.
*Continue the east-west breathing until it feels natural and there are no restrictions in the thoraco-lumbar fascia and lower ribs spread easily. Hold 3-10 minutes in duration.
6. Gravity Drop

*Stand on the edge of a stair, preferably holding onto both sides of the stair railing, with shoes on. Your feet should be pointed straight ahead, which will feel slightly toed in.
*To position your pelvis/hip in the correct joint alignment, you should look down at the tongue of the shoes and to accomplish this, your pelvis must back up to bring it into view. Now, keep it there.
The trick is to keep the pelvis in this position as you place your shoulders and head vertical again, while holding on.
*Drop your heels off the stair to create a stretch on your calf musculature and hold for 3-5 minutes. Be sure to re-check the joints for stacking or have someone view you from the side.
As time ticks away and the body begins its micro adjustments, the global posture will improve and true thoracic extension will be the result.

7. Static Back:

*Lie on your back with both legs up over an Egoscue block, ottoman, bench, or chair.
*Place arms at sides at about 45 degrees between the shoulders and hips with the palms up.
*If you can’t get your head onto the floor comfortably due to upper back roundness, place a small lift under your head…bringing the floor to you.
*Relax and let the lumbar spine react to the 3 points of contact with the floor. The occiput, the area of the inferior angle of the scapulae, and the PSIS/high glute area are these points and the body’s weight on the floor will remind the body of these reflex points and help facilitate your body’s normal, ideal breathing pattern.

With these points activated, and the cumulative affect of the previous six e-cises, your ability to facilitate the ideal motor pattern will improve daily.


  1. drjoewood posted this