Breath Training for Intra-Abdominal Pressure from the Total Immersion Forums

I thought I’d repost this thread from the Total Immersion forums. It touches on some key points I’ve learned about IAP generation, and the context is for swimming. The full thread is entitled Reasons for the arched back and how to fix it?.

User sachintha writes:
In a recent underwater video I was surprised to see the amount of back arching happening (by arching I mean my head and butt being relatively close to the surface while midsection is towards the bottom of the pool as in a banana shape). I think this obviously breaks the head-spine alignment.

So the question is what causes this and how can I fix this? I believe I could significantly reduce the drag and improve body position if I could sort this out.

My reply:
The most common reason for arching your back is lack of proper torso stabilization technique. The reason why you might do it more in the water is to attempt to lift your arms/head and butt/legs up to the surface, thus forming an arch with your body at both ends.

You will likely have an arched back while standing on dryland. Thus often the postural problem starts on dryland and is transferred to water.

The easy fix is to try Torpedo (stand tall like a statue and straight up with arms at sides), and then holding this position, lean forward like a tower falling, and fall into the water and attempt to hold your straight body position despite falling into the water and now you are not even standing any more. You will need to engage your core and figure out how to turn on stability up and down your spine to stop you from losing your shape even though you may be floating in the water.

The harder and longer but more proper way to do this, is to:

1) make sure you are diaphragmatically breathing.
2) once you can d-breathe, then learn how to generate intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) with each breath inhale.

Proper IAP generation will engage the correct internal torso stabilizing muscles which will not wipe out despite being used for long periods of time. They are designed to stabilize all day long but if you don’t d-breathe, they will stop engaging which is bad.

The torpedo leaning exercise can help with this, but you can hold a straight stiff body by using other core muscles. It is possible to do this while swimming, but you may find it hard to maintain this for long periods of time.

If you want a taste of d-breathing and IAP training, check out this post of mine:

How to Train for Abdominal Breathing and Generating Intra-Abdominal Pressure

This post may also be good for you to read, regarding d-breathing:
Optimal Breathing: The Case for Diaphragmatic Breathing

User sachintha replies:

Thanks David. You are spot on regarding my dry land posture. I tend to have anterior pelvic tilt which makes the back arch prominent. But I have worked on stretching (specially the hip flexors) and strengthening for some time and it is significantly less severe now.

When you say “harder and longer but more proper way to do this …”, do you mean harder to learn but easier to maintain for longer swims once learnt or harder to learn and also harder (more effort) to maintain?

My reply:
Sorry bad choice of words. harder = more time/difficulty to learn due to doing something for so long as habit, and to create a new habit while removing the old one.

However, if you do this, it will take MUCH LESS EFFORT and a LOT LESS ENERGY to maintain torso stability in the water using the internal torso stabilizers (ie. transverse abdominis) which were built for this, versus other torso muscles which are typically primary movers (ie. obliques, rectus abdominis) and aren’t built to maintain stability for long periods of time. You’ll likely wipe them out and lose stability once you tire.

You may also want to explore the dead bug:
Total Immersion: The Dead Bug

Note that i need to shoot that video again. one crucial point I did not describe in there was the importance of lifting your tailbone off the ground while doing this. This will engage your anterior core and give you feedback when it has let go (ie. tailbone touches the ground again).

It is only through proper IAP generation that you will be able to sustain dead bug reps. Otherwise, you’ll start vibrating and shaking like crazy. But that’s ok in the beginning – that’s also your nervous system telling you it’s learning.

Good luck and let me know if you have other questions.

User bx then writes:
Regarding torso/core stabilization with 360-degree breathing (which I’m familiar with from weight training), is this compatible with the “tummy up” instruction from Richard Quick in his Posture, Line and Balance dryland exercises, where he gets Shelly Ripple to draw navel to spine?

To my mind, these seem like pushing out versus pulling in, if you get my drift.

I WAS a pusher-out, but when I saw the Quick video, I became a puller-in 🙂

My reply:
Note that a traditional PT/coaching technique was to create transverse abdominis activation via drawing in. While this DOES happen when you draw the navel to spine, it is conscious action, not a reflexive one. Also, you cannot breathe properly if you are trying to stabilize by drawing in the navel and trying to maintain it through the entire length of a training session or race. You will end up chest/clavicular breathing the whole time which is sub optimal. then you will wipe out either physically and/or mentally to hold your navel to spine the whole time.

See: How Are We Still Getting It Wrong: Abdominal Hollowing vs. Bracing

If you use d-breathing to activate the transverse abdominis (TA) through stabilization reflex, this is a much better and natural strategy. It is one that we are born with and happens when you are a baby – sadly we lose it through our 21st century lifestyle over the years. You will find that the TA and other torso stabilizers will activate naturally and sustain their activation with far less effort.

The idea for swimming is that you renew your d-breath and torso stabilization every time you take your breath. Then you hold it until the next breath. So a quick inhale drives the diaphragm down and activates stabilizers all the way down to your pelvis. this gives you an incredibly stable platform on which your muscles and limbs can perform from.

About pushing out – this is something i’ve learned which is that you should not be simply pushing out with your belly the whole time. I only use this part as a transition to proper d-breathing and IAP generation. It is however, really good as a way to retrain activation of the diaphragm WHILE removing activation of the chest and clavicular breathing muscles. So it is possible to d-breathe via belly in/out, but it may not generate much IAP at all. Most people, when they train for d-breathing, do this, but then do not proceed further.

This is why I move quickly to 3D/360 deg breathing so that it is less an in/out of the belly, but a pressing down of the diaphragm, which then becomes more of a pressure increase (hence intra-abdominal PRESSURE) in all directions in the area of torso that is the lumbar spine. Thus in/out is in all directions 360 deg and not just in front. So the feeling will be much different than you experienced before I’m sure.

User sachintha writes:
Does the IAP decrease when breathing “out”? The reason for asking this is, if we exhale (which we do) when our head is in the water and if that leads to a decrease in IAP wouldn’t the posture go back to that sagging form until you take the next breath?

My reply:
Good detail point –
The idea is to train yourself how to activate those muscles and maintain it even if you are exhaling. However, one thing to note is that you shouldn’t exhale completely. Thus IAP is maintained if you can keep some air in your and don’t blow it all out.

Note that ultimately when activity happens, you should always have some reflexive stabilization capability that just is there simply because your body knows it’s doing movement.

Also note that if you practice this a lot, you will find that you will be able to activate the stabilization strongly even without breathing in. essentially you can command some descent of the diaphragm to give you IAP but not be taking in air. this will happen over time.

If you analyze freestyle, there are really only moments when you need a lot of IAP. You need more IAP during the moment of rotation to the other side and maintaining body shape during that rotation as your spear and stroke with authority. Once you are in the recovery phase, you just need enough IAP to maintain a straight body line but not as much as for a body that is rotating strongly to the other side.

User jenson1a writes:
I watched the video regarding how to get IAP. I can do the belly and the sides, but the back part barely moves. More practice needed. The million dollar question is how do you do this in the water? Obviously if one makes this type of breathing an everyday practice, there is no problem. But how long does it take to make this IAP a reality?

How would one go about integrating this iap while in the water? A focal point?

My reply:
Great question.

It depends on the individual as you might guess. Habit change can take months or seem incredibly long (and frustrating). Think about how long you have ingrained your current breathing habits – decades maybe?

As a case study of one (myself), it took me about 2-3 months to switch from my chest breathing to belly breathing. However, I noticed that under certain circumstances I would still go back to chest breathing, like during a reflexive yawn or cough. At the time I didn’t know about 3D breathing until I took a Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization course whose basis for rehabilitation is to make sure breathing happens properly and is used for good IAP generation and torso stabilization. I immediately started practicing 3D breathing and a few months later, I took my first yawn with my diaphragm descending versus via my chest.

I think the first thing to do is to make sure you are just breathing naturally using d-breathing on dryland. After all, we spend the other 23 hours of the day on dryland and only 1 in the pool, right? The more time this becomes habitual, the better results you’ll have in the pool.

The water provides a new environment, with new sensory experiences which can interfere with transference of dryland practice to the water. How many times have we practiced the swinging arm recovery on dryland and then returned to the pool to swim a few laps with our videocam on, and then upon playback we are doing not a swinging arm recovery!

I would say that the next stages for IAP practice is to:

1. Practice driving IAP way down to the pelvis on every breath. Instead of just pushing out the belly, make the diaphragm descend until you feel a “quickening” way down in your private parts. Make this natural on every one of these breaths, breathe in and way down and don’t stop inhaling into you feel it way down at the bottom. Then exhale and repeat.

You can start with doing a set number of reps, like 5 and then taking a break. Then you can build up from there. I once did this practice sitting in a theater for the entire length of a 2 hour movie. You learn a lot about breathing when you do that!

2. Once you get 1., then practice taking in a quick breath and being able to feel IAP generation in the lower torso all the way down to the pelvis. On every quick inhale, practice to generate IAP quickly and reflexively down there.

While I’m an advocate of nasal breathing, swimming is pretty much done via mouth breathing. So in this case you may want to try a few inhales with the mouth instead of through the nose. The change in intake methods may make IAP generation difficult and need to be reinforced in the other method.

3. In the pool, practice your basic drills with IAP generation and holding it. As you prepare to launch off into SG, take a breath in and generate IAP. You can use your fingers on your sides to feel them pressing out. Hold IAP and your breath, then launch off into SG. Were you able to hold IAP? You may notice that the touch of the water and how it suspends you may all of a sudden cause you to release IAP. Practice holding the IAP despite launching off into SG.

Once you get this, then try holding IAP and launching into SG and then Skate.
Then try holding IAP while taking one stroke. Could you perform a complex movement like one stroke without letting go of IAP? Once you get this, try a few strokes but without breathing.

The next step on this is reinforcing IAP upon every breath. This can feel hard, but if you are practicing on dryland the reflexive, quick generation of IAP via a quick breath in, I believe this will come quickly.

A quick note on IAP and being relaxed:
Remember that we in Total Immersion like to tell people to relax. However, this is a cue. Most often it is used on people who hold too much tension because of unfamiliarity with the water, nervousness, fear, etc. But we have also seen people take that too far, where people are way too relaxed in the water like a piece of loose spaghetti. So great job in working on that cue, but bad because we didn’t tell you at what level of tension you should have stopped relaxing!

This relaxation extends to IAP generation. You need to maintain the minimum level of tension necessary to hold body shape and adjust it based on the need to perform movements. IAP will need to rise during that moment of stroking – when the limbs have a stable base to perform from, they will perform optimally. You don’t want the limbs stroking as if attached to a bag of jello right?

So yes, relaxed down from a lot of tension, but not so relaxed that you are like a loose piece of spaghetti and have lost IAP.

Give this a try and let us know how it goes. Be patient, it can take many months to develop this new breathing habit. Diligent, mindful, consistent, and constant attention to it will make progress faster.