Redefining “Dysfunctional”, and Finding Pieces to the Puzzle

A funny thing keeps on happening as I continue through the off-season for many of my clients: many individuals still have some sort of dysfunction present on a neuromuscular level.

What I mean by this is that despite the advanced assessment process, despite auditing how someone moves, and despite controlling for as many variables as I can from an exercise selection point of view, some people will still present with dysfunction.

Why is this? Isn’t the point of pursuing options like working with myself, and many other professionals on the continuum, to help improve functioning for whatever the individual desires/needs?

When it comes to the neuromuscular dysfunctions, I see many present with dysfunction with respect to cervical range of motion limitation, thoracic flexion/extension/rotation limitations, and pelvic stability issues.

These items can lead to a dysfunctional scapulohumeral rhythm (a dysfunctional rhythm is still, well… a rhythm), along with a lack of inability to negotiate gravity in an authentic manner in whatever capacity you choose to perform, among many other items that many professionals can point out as “dysfunctional.”

But what is the origin of said abnormal pattern?

Movement is not the only system that can be defined as “dysfunctional.”

If I were to say the reason you are dysfunctional is because you play a specific sport, that would be an incomplete statement.

Playing a sport is not the real reason – many people play sports without dysfunction.

What is the Real Reason?

Some dysfunction can be due to necessary adaptations as a function of playing your sport, some are due to psychological/behavioral triggers, and others due to other things altogether.

I can play hockey for an hour, but I won’t develop a “dysfunction” comparatively to another person that has played hockey their whole life. In fact, my dysfunction might be that I play the sport of hockey poorly!

Back to my original point, many of the individuals I see are professional athletes. They do almost every rep under our eye, and they are being corrected to the next degree.

What gives? Why would these individuals still display a lack of full range of motion from Point A (end of an in-season) to Point Z (end of the off-season)?

Off-Season - Stress

You’d expect there to be a radical change from a neuromuscular point of view, when in fact I am attempting to do an accumulation of these items:

  • Improve neuromuscular movement quality from a full in-season
  • Improve fitness qualities of strength, speed, power, and endurance to support a future pre-season and in-season
  • Induce recovery methods via nutritional protocols and resting strategies, at appropriate times!

Playing “Who Done It?” with Dysfunction

The above dysfunctions could be due to many things:

  1. Fatigue and thus overuse of incorrect neuromuscular patterning (running too much without considering the tonic/phasic relationship of gait)
  2. Lifting too much without appropriate technique, which could lead to inappropriate mechanics, or altered kinematics with respect to everyday functioning
  3. Lack of appropriate equipment necessary to support a given task – running shoes to give an appropriate reference for your feet, ankles, and hips, appropriate cleats to push off with enough friction if playing baseball, or even the right headwear to support certain dance moves (headspins, for example).
    Equipment - Random Musings
    Cleats, Shin guards, Motion Control shoes, or even Headspin beanies could be pieces to the puzzle


  4. Essentially if you play a sport, you will eventually need to practice that sport at some point when transitioning from your off-season to pre-season/in-season phases… and accumulated stress from practices, sessions, will happen. This sudden onset of stress from the reintroduction of neuromuscular patterning is necessary in order to get better at your sport specific skills.

Viewing the Forest for the Trees


If someone has enough requisite fitness qualities, you may need to develop their sport specific skillset.

An Optimal Performance Pyramid

For example, I would consider my strength qualities to be relatively high in comparison to another individual with respect to powerlifting standards.

However, in order for me to develop the requisite fitness qualities necessary for me to play hockey for example, that extra strength won’t help transfer towards the endeavor. Thus, I’d fatigue a lot faster than someone else who has an exceptional aerobic capacity, and I would tire out trying to learn sport specific items that much faster.

Gym Logic

If someone is not strong, but technically sound from a sport specific point of view, well then get them stronger to support their technical output.

Essentially, if you move under load (a weighted barbell, for example) incorrectly, you are going to kick on a specific type of patterning. The following things can theoretically happen when performing movements in a gym:

Gym Logic

Using or Not Using the Appropriate Equipment

If someone needs equipment in order to perform better, allocating the best equipment will help deliver a better quality of performance. I don’t mean this as in the sense of “Go and get the new Jordan’s,” or even in the context of “MOM! I NEED THOSE SHOES!

I’m including legitimate and appropriate equipment use in the context of these questions:

  • Will the equipment in question allow you to deliver a better force production towards whatever endeavor you choose?
  • Will the equipment in question allow you to deliver a better force absorption towards your chosen endeavor?
  • Are you more efficient with the equipment?
  • Are you less efficient with the equipment?

At the same time, to continue with the Devil’s Advocate, perhaps you don’t need to use certain equipment to further instruct or teach a specific lesson or skillset that you may have overlooked from a fundamental level. In other words, perhaps the equipment you have been using in the past have been a crutch for a lack of sports specific technique.

For example, not using a belt in powerlifting has been anecdotally beneficial for myself and others, and when putting the belt back on after a certain amount of time, there is increased strength that is observed.

Sudden Stress

If someone has a sudden onset of stress from, well quite literally anything, how can you manage it?

  • Do you have a recovery plan for if someone goes on a 8 hour flight across the country, and they need to play about 2 hours right after they get off the plane?
  • What happens if the person has next to no sleep because of family responsibility?

The following solutions for a sudden onset of stress come to mind:


  • Mindfulness, or meditative practice
  • Create a robust aerobic engine (doing so for weeks or even months) in anticipation of systemic stress to allow for better parasympathetic functioning in the face of a sudden sympathetic stressor
  • If systemic stress causes a lack of mobility to occur, choose series of exercises that will circumvent this lack of mobility that may be necessary

I bring up all of these seemingly minute details because I am attempting to explain that as a strength coach, personal trainer, or whatever other title you can give me, sometimes I do not have access to the whole picture that is often viewed as a large jigsaw puzzle.
Jigsaw Puzzle

I can see parts of a cloud, and I can see some trees, but when I’m attempting to fill in the corner of the puzzle, I can’t fill it in when I don’t know even know what it looks like.

Now, imagine a jigsaw puzzle that has a certain window of opportunity to be completed in – and you are all of a sudden on a time crunch, with limited resources!

We Are All Pieces to the Puzzle (Whether Or Not You Realize It)

For what it is worth, we (collectively) as a profession are all parts to a much larger puzzle.

  • Those of us that crush our athletes through “extraneous” work and drills are attempting to fill in their pieces of the puzzle with what they believe works by violently thrashing the table around, hoping the pieces of the puzzle will eventually fit.
  • Those of us that don’t create resiliency for our athletes by excessively giving fluffy exercise intensities and selections are likewise attempting to fill in their portion of the puzzle. They do so delicately, and with great precision, because to them every green piece looks like a part of a tree.
  • Unfortunately, they forget that they have the rest of the picture to complete, and they feel satisfied that they placed one piece of the puzzle in the correct spot, yet there are 9,999 more pieces to place down to complete the puzzle.
  • Those of us who attempt to improve recovery through nutritional and/or therapeutic modalities are necessary, and yet again are still just one piece of the puzzle. I hope this analogy makes sense, as I can keep on going on!

And to push this issue even further, if you have the capacity to carry a piece of the puzzle to fill in the larger picture, do you even have the ability to communicate to others who are on the other side of the puzzle to make sure you’re in the right spot, at the right time?

What happens if you recognize that a piece of the puzzle is missing from the whole picture? Do you know who to call to help fill that piece in, even if they aren’t part of your specific group of friends trying to help fill it in?


I find that the more I seek understanding of a certain topic(s), I uncover more questions that I didn’t even realize were relevant questions at the time.

As always,

Keep it funky.


Diaphragmatic Breathing: Implications in an Exercise Program and On-Field Performance

This is a picture of Michael Jordan, myself, and Kobe Bryant all with our hands on our knees.

Breathing is very important to life (obviously), yet very few of the athletes and general population clients that I see understand how to do it effectively. I can probably recall one person out of twenty people that I’ve assessed who has had an adequate breathing pattern. Now, the standards for breathing are out there, and it can be quantified via tidal volume, respiratory rate, and various laboratory equipment. However, my focus is purely on immediate performance in the gym and on the field.

Breathing Standard

There are many different types of standards found for optimal breathing. Some organizations identify how to best improve upon breathing mechanics by respecting the dome of the diaphragm’s position within the ribcage (termed the zone of apposition). Within this context, there are terms such as “apical breathing” and “apical expansion,” which should be defined further. 

Apical breathing involves using the accessory muscles for inhalation or exhalation, but apical expansion identifies a difference by breathing more circumferentially, instead of just caudally (or towards the head).

Here, I troubleshoot and teach you specifically what to look for and how to identify if you are breathing with a faulty pattern.

Interestingly, there has been recent re-surfacing of information from the Translational Journal of ACSM in 2019 has been gaining traction, named “Effects of Two Different Recovery Postures during High-Intensity Interval Training.” In it, they cite some articles that I also draw the inspiration for this article from, along with going more in-depth into the scientific aspects of improving tidal volume, heart rate recovery (HRR), along with other measures.

This is a picture of the abstract of two different recovery postures during high intensity interval training - hands on knees, and hands on head.

Awesome to know that more and more research is supporting this (especially most recently in 2019), because this article was originally written in 2014!

Exercise Program Implications

One aspect that I’ve been inundated with for the past four years is the idea of appropriate breathing with regards to exercise. The avoidance of being within a gross extension pattern (ribs flaring) is something that I can identify with many of my athletes – since they stand for most of their time during their practice, competitions, or games, they often fall into a specific default pattern for movement and breathing. Since I’m essentially a gym rat, the application of breathing within the movement continuum can be identified within several exercises and patterns.

In the following examples, the internal cue of “ribs down” will be used to identify the use of internal and external obliques, as they connect on several of the lower ribs and attach to the pelvis. If the ribs are flared up in an athlete, this posture will identify the internal/external obliques as being inadequately used.

Abdominal Obliquables
  • Squatting? Bring your ribs down and brace before you squat.
  • Deadlifting? Bring your ribs down and get into a neutral spine before you deadlift – otherwise you’ll be rounding at the back and using accessory muscles vs major movers to lift.
  • Planks, side planks, push-ups, and chops and lifts? Better believe your ribs should be “down” and not flaring.
  • One concept that is often misunderstood is the idea of exhaling on the way “up” and inhaling on the way “down”. This is a faulty method, because the answer is it depends on the exercise.

Since I’m impartial to a powerlifting method, I’d recommend inhaling, bracing, and then lifting.

On the way up, or out of the hole, I’d recommend a slight exhalation to enhance the total tension seen with intra-abdominal pressure for the lifter (not a gasp of exhalation, as this will simply just lose your tank of tension that you’ve preserved).

For other exercises however, it can be justified to breathe continuously throughout. There is no set “inhale down, exhale up” for a belly press, plank, or side plank. Promoting a continuous “breathing” component during these types of exercises will be my recommendation.

Breathing for On-Field Recovery

To take this out of context of an inside “controlled” environment such as the gym or lab, breathing has even more application in a gaming or competition type of environment. In fact, there are psychological benefits to seeing someone doubled over gasping for air, versus seeing someone sprint, cut, jump, and still stand tall towards the end of a play.

So there are two possible “incorrect” or at the very least, less advantageous ways to breathe. For our purposes today, I’ll identify these two less optimal methods for on-field recovery as “hands on head” and “hands on knees” recovery position.

The first involves breathing with your hands way up high. This was something that was told me to by anyone and everyone when you are extremely fatigued. Whether this knee-jerk reaction occurs from sprinting or running for a long distance, I think this is a telltale “sign” that you have done something exhausting. However, this also increases your chances of using the accessory respiratory muscles of the scalenes, SCMs, and upper traps.

“Hands On Head” Recovery Position

Hands on Head Breathing
I just look uncomfortable. Maybe it’s my tucked in “Diesel” shirt.

The “hands on knees” option (shown below) involves doubling over just to get a breathe. This may be attributed to extreme amounts of fatigue as well, and in reality you may be enhancing the chances of using your accessory muscles even more than the previous option.

“Hands On Knees” Recovery Position

Hands on Knees Breathing
Shouldn’t have had those burritos before I sprinted.

NOTE: Some Twitter discussion sparked a clarification on the use of this position for recovery purposes. While the psychosocial aspect of this position can be correlated to the appearance of fatigue, this recovery position can also be facilitated to mechanically restore easier use of the abdominals, and posterior mediastinum for respiratory purposes. This is, of course, assuming that you don’t have a forward head posture accompanied with an upper trap shrug, as that will take you out of an “optimal” recovery strategy.

“It’s okay to be tired. It’s not okay to show how tired you are.”

Which do you think will put your body into more of a sympathetic overload: breathing using your neck muscles, or breathing using your nose, filling your lungs up slowly with air, while exhaling fully with your diaphragm?

The justifications that can be made for the following option involve apical expansion of the lungs by breathing “fully” throughout your torso, along with appropriate inhalation through the nose. This not only ensures full inhalation of the lungs when your body needs the oxygen, but also prevents the body from going into further “system overload” while shifting away from accessory respiration.

“Hands Around Stomach” Recovery Position

Belly Breathing
Belly breathing after sprinting.

By placing your hands around the bottom of your waist and sides of your abs, you not only provide that psychological “aura” of unending stamina, but you can also increase your proprioception to the areas that often need filling up the most. At best, it’ll look like you’ll be flexin’ hard, bro.

  • Further, by placing your hands around your hips/ribcage (where your obliques attach), you’ll be acquiring more sensory awareness within this region, which should guide your breathing into a 360° circumferential expansion.
  • This is opposed to chest breathing or apical breathing, where the breath only rises upwards, but not down and around on the inhalation and exhalation.
  • Increasing oxygenation of your body after a stressful activity will allow less feelings of “gasping” for air.
  • If you are not “gasping” for air, you won’t have to breathe with accessory muscles.
  • Since accessory muscles aren’t as profound for recovery on a mechanical and systemic level, you’ll have less anxiety during your recovery periods.
  • If you have to return to play immediately following a bout of sprints, for example, you’ll be able to return to a clear-headed level of play sooner when using this diaphragmatic breathing option.

In any case, give the “hands around hips/sides of body” recovery position a shot next time you are feeling fatigued during a workout or game and you can help improve not only your psychological well-being, but also improve your recovery time as well. It would also be interesting to see if there would be an updated study on “hands on hips/sides” to see if more sensory awareness of the obliques attachments will improve upon similar biological markers that were identified in several studies!

As always,

Keep it funky.