The placement of your hands when trying to catch your breath is something that few people think about. Many people will try to bend over with their hands on their knees, but we all remember our coaches yelling at us to put our hands on top of our heads to “open up our lungs”. We’ve always been told that there’s “no air down there” or that putting your hands on your knees is a sign of weakness.

So where should you place your hands? Up top or down below?

The answer, as with most things in the fitness industry, lies in the middle.

The primary respiratory muscle is your diaphragm. Your diaphragm works optimally when your ribcage is stacked directly on top of your pelvis (neutral lumbar spine). Placing your hands on top of your head encourages lumbar extension which causes the ribcage to flare out. This compresses the area that the diaphragm has to work and limits your ability to fully inhale. In turn, your accessory respiratory muscles (scalenes, traps, and sternocleidomastoids) are put in overdrive which is less than ideal.

The alternative to placing your hands on your head is to bend over and place them on your knees. This is generally considered a “sign of weakness” and coaches do not want their players showing that. While it is a more advantageous position from a physiological perspective, the possible negative psychological component (as well as the fact that the coach will yell at you) renders this position less than ideal as well.

The answer?

Place your hands on your hips. This helps maintain an optimal diaphragmatic position to allow for maximal oxygen uptake and is not considered a “weak” position when it comes to competition.

I want my athletes to have every psychological and physiological advantage possible. Next time you see your opponent with their hands on their head, you’ll know that you have a physiological edge over them, which in turn creates a psychological edge for you.

That’s a win-win.