Things that have me rethinking flexibility, mobility and stretching: breathing for better circus

Let’s begin with a brief recap of part one.

Stretching can be an effective way of improving flexibility. (Sort of).

Of course, by stretching, I mean static stretching where you hold a stretch for 30 to 60 seconds.

And by effective, I mean that if you do it regularly, over time, you will see a modest increase in the passive range of motion at the joint you are stretching.

For the most part, if you do not have the kind of range of motion you’re looking for at a particular joint, it’s not because the muscle is short. In a lot of cases, your muscles are already long enough for you to be able to do a split.

And stretching doesn’t really lengthen muscles anyway.

Ah, now this is where it gets interesting:

Holding a stretch for 30 to 60 seconds doesn’t lengthen the muscle…but it will improve flexibility?

Yes. What happens is your sensitivity to the stretch decreases. This essentially means that improvements in flexibility are a result of a neuromuscular (ultimately, brain-muscle connection) adaptation.

Which suggests that your muscles were long enough to begin with and that for some reason, your nervous system just wasn’t letting you move that way.

Definition of terms

Let’s take a moment to clarify the difference between flexibility and mobility.

Flexibility, or limberness, refers to the absolute range of movement in a joint or series of joints, and length in muscles that cross the joints to induce a bending movement or motion

Joint mobility is the ability of a joint to be moved through its range in different planes. This is dependent on the characteristics of the individual joint itself as well as the supporting muscles and ligaments, the capsule and the anatomy of the articulating surfaces.

The distinction between these two concepts is important. Flexibility tends to refer to the passive range of motion at a joint. Mobility, on the other hand refers to the ability of a joint to be move through its range of motion, which is dependent upon the synergy of the bony anatomy with the supporting muscles and ligaments.

Mobility is a more global concept.

This is relevant here because before stretching something that feels tight, we should really give some thought as to why it feels tight.

A good general answer to why something feels tight is that your nervous system wants it to feel tight.

Sometimes, your nervous system will make something ‘tight’ or stiff because it’s looking to create stability through stiffness. (This is a thought I’ll explore in a future post).

Sometimes muscles feel tight because your nervous system is simply a bit too amped up.

Your nervous system

And now, a brief high school biology review.

You’ve got your Central Nervous System, comprised of your brain and spinal cord. And then you’ve got your Peripheral Nervous System which is comprised of all of the nerves that connect to your spinal cord.

Your peripheral nervous system is subdivided into the Somatic Nervous System and the Autonomic Nervous System.

The somatic nervous system is associated with voluntary control of movement—the nerves that connect to skeletal muscle.

Your autonomic nervous system influences the function of your internal organs and functions largely unconsciously and regulates a variety of bodily functions. It has two branches: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.

The sympathetic nervous system is sometimes characterized as the fight or flight system while the parasympathetic nervous system is often considered the rest and digest system.


Life outside of circus training can be stressful. Deadlines at work or school, interpersonal relationships at work…and outside of work, taking care of the kids, paying the bills…really any sort of external life stressor (or even internal stressors). All of these things stimulate your sympathetic nervous system.

And then it’s possible that you’re training really, really hard and maybe not getting enough sleep, or maybe you’re not supporting your training with good nutrition.

Also things that ramp up the sympathetic nervous system.


Increased sympathetic nervous system activity (increased sympathetic tone) creates increased muscle tone. (Stress makes you tense).

The implications extend beyond just restricted mobility, however.

When your sympathetic nervous system is kicked into high gear a number of things happen.

One of the first things that tends to happen in concert with increased sympathetic nervous system activity is an alteration in your breathing—in terms of both depth and rate of breathing—along with changes in the mechanics of how you breathe.

We tend to breathe in more by raising our ribs (chest breathing) than by expanding through the stomach. This can reduce the effectiveness of the diaphragm, which is intimately connected to the development of effective core engagement and force development/transmission/absorption.

We also tend to end up breathing more shallowly. Less CO2 is expelled from our bodies, triggering an elevation of blood pH. This can lead to reduced oxygen delivery to working muscles (which impacts performance). The increased acidity prompts the kidneys to produce bicarbonate to buffer it, which ends up altering calcium balance and can lead to muscle cramping. (Toe cramps, anyone?)

Your ability to engage with and take in cues from your environment diminishes. Concentration is affected. This can have a significant impact on skill learning and performance. Your ability move fluidly is also impacted (see increased muscle tension above) …and that’s kind of a big deal in most circus disciplines.

Bringing my tangent full circle…

So, life stressors can make your nervous system increase muscle tone, reducing your overall mobility. (There are all of those other things as well, but our focus here is mobility).

There is, however, something you can do to normalize the sympathetic/parasympathetic balance before you start training. And it will only take you 60 seconds to do.

90/90 Belly Breathing

Borrowed from the work of the good people at the Postural Restoration Institute, this drill has a couple of benefits:

  • it will serve as a bit of a nervous system ‘reset’, bringing you back to a more parasympathetic state; and
  • it will help the breathing-assistance muscles that lift your ribcage to settle down, so that your diaphragm can shift your breathing to your abdomen.

90/90 breathing

Here’s how to do it:

  • Find a wall or mat or bench and lie on your back with your knees and hips bent to 90 degrees.
  • Put one hand on your stomach and one hand on your chest. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.
  • Take a couple of breaths to focus on having your stomach rise first, expanding up and out to the sides (a 360-degree breath, if you will). We’re aiming for little to no movement of your chest.
  • Once you’ve got that, breathe in through your nose and exhale forcefully through your mouth. Purse your lips and blow out all of the air in your lungs.
  • Notice the way this reflexively contracts your core and locks your ribs down, closer to the top of your pelvis. This is your ‘neutral’ rib position.
  • Now, press your legs into the wall/matt/bench and lift your butt about two inches off the floor. Hold it there for 5 full breaths.
  • Lower your butt back to the floor and do one more full breath.

Done.90-90 breathing2

If you don’t have a wall/mat/bench handy, try Crocodile Breathing

For this version, lie face down. Make a ‘diamond’ shape with your fingers and thumbs to rest your forehead on.

Once you’re in this position, it’s pretty similar to the 90/90 drill:Crocodile breathing

Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Focus on your abdomen expanding before (or, preferably, instead of) your chest. When you breathe out, do so forcefully and through pursed lips.

Do five full breaths.


For either variation, each successive forceful exhalation should feel like your ribcage is locking down into position. The importance of this position cannot be overstated. This represents the neutral (lumbar) spinal position and core muscular engagement that is the key to hip and shoulder mobility and your ability to transmit/absorb/generate force.

Now you’re ready to work on some mobility!

With reduced sympathetic muscle tone, you’re on your way to less restricted movement…and better mobility. (Not to mention, your mind will probably feel calmer, which makes for better training).

I have seen this drill alone produce a rather impressive improvement in shoulder overhead range of motion, but it’s not intended to be a magic bullet. (Nor will it likely be one). Instead, this is about the synergy of the multiple elements of a good mobility-development program. Taking a minute to breathe at the start of your training is just one piece of the larger puzzle.

From here, the plan is to use this series to build a mobility series that you can use—along with explaining the rationale for each element’s inclusion.

Next up: foam rolling.

Recommended reading:

Understanding Mobility (Dean Somerset)

Stress, Breath, Fascia and pH – An Interview with Leon Chaitow

5 Reasons Why Training Proper Breathing Is Key, part two: Tapping Into The Nervous System and Enhancing Mobility (Dave Tilley)

Why And How We Program Breathing Exercises (Movement As Medicine)

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