Jaw Clenching and Breath Holding – Oh My!

Do you ever catch yourself holding your breath or clenching your jaw while exercising, lifting something or just moving? It is incredible how many clients I catch doing one of these as a compensation mechanism for weakness somewhere else in the body.

Awareness is the biggest issue – many don’t even realize they are doing it. Many experience what they would describe as an intense urge to clench or breath hold and can’t do the movement without the compensation. If you can’t do the movement without holding your breath or clenching your jaw (or compensating some other weird and wonderful way), you have no business doing that movement.

What happens when you are compensating with the diaphragm or jaw, is that you are tensioning the nervous system and using that tension to recruit whichever muscles you are trying to recruit – usually the core muscles. Without this tensioning, the brain has a hard time recruiting the core muscles on its own and they become weak or inhibited. Repetitive use of these compensation patterns can lead to issues down the road including pain, injury or damange to associated structures.

If you do catch yourself using one of these compensation patterns, try to release the culprit by stretching it or massaging it:

For the diaphragm, try stretching it out by taking in a big deep belly breath (the belly must expand and the chest shouldn’t move). Hold this for 10 seconds and then slowly exhale. Repeat 3 times. Ensure you are breathing while you are doing your workout or whatever task you are doing.

For the jaw – open your mouth wide and hold for 10 seconds. Repeat 3 times prior to beginning your workout. You will feel the tension start to decrease in the jaw. If you feel it start to ramp up again while moving, stop for a second and stretch it out again. Try holding the teeth slightly open with the tongue at the back of the front teeth. If stretching the jaw doesn’t seem to do the trick, you can try massaging the masseter muscles for 30 seconds, which are those big meaty ones at the corner of the jaw.

If you find you get pain anywhere while working out or moving, you likely have an unresolved compensation pattern and should have it addresses by a physical therapist. 

Challenge yourself to catch your compensation patterns and correct them.