A few weeks ago Nick and I wrapped up the summer Perform Better circuit, and as busy as we were at all the summits we really tried to get into a couple of presentations each weekend.

Long Beach was an especially tight schedule, as my high school is back in session, and Nick had some medical appointments to make sure his leg is healing correctly. So, unfortunately, I missed seeing Josh Henkin and Robert Dos Remedios present, and I didn’t get to have my ass handed to me during Marc Lebert’s hands-on.

But, I did get to see Dan John’s new presentation, and he introduced us to our newest friend in the industry, Dana Santas. Dana is probably best known as CNN’s yoga consultant, but she is also a mobility coach for multiple professional sports teams, and one heck of an expert on breathing.

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, “I breath all day, every day, so that makes me an expert on breathing too!” And that’s how she starts her presentation. Well, did you know that the diaphragm connects to the lumbar spine at the same place as the psoas, and that the two are so interconnected that during dissection it is practically discernable between where one stops and the other begins?? I sure didn’t, and I took years of Anatomy and Physiology in college. Suffice to say, she knows her stuff. You can learn more at www.mobilitymaker.com.

Anyway, during the whole weekend I was only able to see two presentations, and ironically they had more in common than I’m sure Dana and John realized.

During Dan’s talk, he discussed tension, and the importance of teaching someone how to master their own muscle tension before teaching them individual specific lifts. He equates tension levels to a volume dial; sleep is at a 0, petting a dog is a 1, being chased by a lion is a 10. Most people live constantly between a 4 and 6, never fully relaxing and never really engaging everything to its fullest potential. He told a story of when he coached his daughter to a PR on her deadlift, that as soon as she dropped the bar from the top position she immediately started crying. In a split second she went from a tension level of 10 to a 0, and the flood of hormones was overwhelming.

I could relate to the challenge of teaching new lifters to engage and “attack” the bar, because for most of the students in my high school intermediate weightlifting class, they have never given every ounce of their being into anything before. So, asking them to deadlift using every muscle cell in their body is a completely foreign command.

The first thing I teach them is how to create a “box” in their abdomen, by tensing up their abdominals, obliques, extensors, pelvic floor, and then finally “packing” the box by flexing their diaphragm through inhalation. This creates intra-abdominal pressure, which both protects the spine and connects the upper and lower bodies, turning the torso into a “pillar.” The concept of irradiation comes into play here, especially learning now about the diaphragm/psoas link. Irradiation, for the uninformed, is the concept that if a muscle is flexed, the surrounding muscles will also tense, in preparation for maximum force. The usual example is that if you squeeze a barbell tightly with your hands, your shoulders will engage even more.

The importance of bracing/breathing and its link to the psoas and generating lower body force comes into play here. When bracing and increasing the intra-abdominal pressure, you are also sending a message through the psoas and into the legs that maximal force is needed. This is how you turn the dial from a 7 up to a 10.

Now, what about turning that dial from 4 down to 1? The diaphragm also plays a part here too. This is where I will do my best to summarize Dana’s description. Basically, there are a bunch of humorous myths about breathing, one of which being to use “diaphragmatic” breathing to relax and meditate. What she carefully points out, is that ALL breathing is diaphragmatic. Now, there may be breathing dysfunctions that lead to chest breathing (which results in one pec being more developed than the other, which is in turn caused by high stress) or other compensations, but you simply cannot breathe without the diaphragm doing its thing. I totally use chest breathing when I’m stressed, and always wondered why my left pec was bigger than the right, and it’s because the left side of the diaphragm is smaller than the right, because the left lobes of the lungs are smaller than the right, because of that kinda important heart thing we have in there, and so the left pec engages when we are stressed and breath by raising our rib cage up, instead of flaring our lower ribs in and out.

So, by re-learning to breath the way nature intended through a series of exercises she led us through, you can dial down your tension meter. Because stress irradiates just like muscles do, and constantly living in a hyper-aware fight-or-flight state will shave years off of your life.

Dana was working with the goalie for the Boston Bruins at one point, and he told her that after using her meditation techniques, he felt as if he was able to slow down time, and then he could just pick the pucks out of the air in front of him.

Whether you need to learn to dial up your tension for a big lift, or you need to dial down the stresses in your life, your diaphragm is your key. And next summer when the Perform Better Summits come to town, come hang out with Nick and I, you just might learn something new!

Tim Peterson, Chief FitRanX® Instructor