You finished a set of sprints at the end of practice. As you gasp for air, you put your hands on your knees, because, well, you’re freakin’ tired. And all you can hear is your coach barking at you and your teammates to put your hands on your head.
Reluctantly, you comply, wondering if this is a form of torture.
Personally, I hated putting my hands on my head. I busted my butt during a drill. Now let me be so I can get ready for the next one. I always felt that if my instincts were to put my hands on my knees, my body was telling me something, and I needed to listen to it. Having my hands on my head seemed like more work. And if it was to the point where I felt nauseous, placing my hands on my knees was the only option.
Some coaches might make you do this simply because they don’t like their athletes to put their hands on their knees. Admittedly, it’s not advisable to do this during a game, since it basically tells your opponents that you’re tired. But this isn’t necessarily a problem in practice.
Most coaches follow the logic that putting your hands overhead allows more air to get into your lungs, which is supposed to help you recover faster.
I always thought this was a bunch of bologna. Why would arm position matter?
Based On Science
Well, it turns out the theory is actually based on science—whether your coach knew it or was relying on anecdotal evidence is another story.
A study assessed whether arm position affects air intake and oxygen consumption. The researchers found that when subjects held their arms at shoulder height, oxygen consumption and air intake were superior compared to when the subjects held their arms at their sides. These benefits continued for two minutes after the arms were lowered.
It’s thought that the elevated arm position increases the use of the diaphragm, the muscle that sits below your lungs and is responsible for breathing. Other muscles contribute, but this is the main one.
So yes, it may be wise to listen to your coach next time you hear the command to get your arms overhead. It might not feel that great when you do it, but this technique might just flush your muscles with more oxygen so they can recover faster.
The version of myself from 15 years ago needs to eat a giant piece of humble pie, because I was flat out wrong.
But (trying to save a little face here), that might not be the entire story. Based on the research, we can surmise that placing your hands overhead might simply be a way to trick your body into better breathing patterns.
As mentioned above, your diaphragm is primarily responsible for breathing. When your diaphragm contracts, the volume of your thoracic cavity increases, which brings air into your lungs. When your diaphragm releases, the volume decreases and air is pushed back out. During this type of breathing, your stomach rises and falls.
However, due to the stress of everyday life—and our poor posture and propensity for sitting—our breathing patterns tend to shift up toward the chest. Notice now how you’re breathing at this moment. There’s a good chance your chest is rising up and down—not your stomach.
This leads to short and shallow breaths, typically taken through your mouth. Problem is: This uses only about a third of your lung capacity. On the other hand, deep diaphragmatic breathing fills your lungs.
So you first priority should be to fix your breathing technique. This will help you take in more oxygen during your drills and as you recover. If you need an extra boost of O2—or your coach tells you to—place your hands on your head.
Below is a drill from Shaun Sterling, strength coach, IFA-certified personal trainer, yoga instructor and co-owner of Bodywize Athletic Development (Warrensville Heights, Ohio) that will help you perfect your breathing technique.
Segmented Breathing How To:
Choose a bodyweight exercise like the Push-Up. Simultaneously lower your chest to the ground as you inhale through your abdomen. Pause at the bottom, holding your breath for a five-count. Then simultaneously push yourself up and exhale. Perform two sets of 10 reps, focusing on a different segment of your breathing—the inhale, hold, or exhale—with each rep.
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