man performing planks

The Athlete's Guide for Breathing During Exercise

Breathing is something we don’t typically give much thought to. We go about our day, and breathing happens automatically. Until we have to run to catch the bus or face a stressful situation - only then do we notice changes in our breath.

Proper breathing can make or break your workout. If you exercise regularly, you’re probably paying more attention to your breathing than someone without a workout routine. To learn more about correct breathing and how it can improve your exercise, continue reading as we lay out some basics.

The Mechanics of Breathing

Let’s start from the beginning: breathing is a process of letting the air leave your body so that new air can come into the lungs. To allow this to happen, we need to lower the pressure in the thoracic cavity - the part of our upper body that contains the heart and lungs and is surrounded by our rib cage. We decrease the pressure by increasing the volume of our thoracic cavity. We do this by moving its parts - rib cage, diaphragm, and shoulders. When more space is created, more oxygen can come in. We can move our ribs to the side and create more space, our diaphragm moves down, and our shoulders can go up. To create more space, we can do all three of these together, or one at a time.

During the exhalation, the opposite process happens. The diaphragm moves up, ribs contract in, and shoulders go down. All of this happens to decrease the volume of our thoracic cavity and allow the lungs to exhale.

Check Your Breathing

There are two types of breathers - vertical and horizontal. If you’re not sure which one you are, stand in front of a mirror shirtless or in a top. Breathe normally, and simply observe which parts of your torso are moving. If your shoulders are moving, you’re a vertical breather, just like most of us. If, however, you see your ribs expanding to the side, you’re a horizontal breather.

When we breathe passively, meaning not consciously paying attention or controlling our breath, two main elements are involved - the diaphragm and the intercostal muscles. The latter are the small muscles between our ribs that allow the rib cage to expand and contract. If the mirror experiment proved you’re a vertical breather, it means you’re not using your diaphragm and ribs properly. Vertical breathers use their neck, back, and chest muscles to help them breathe. Consequently, they’re not getting as much oxygen because the thoracic cavity isn’t expanding, and less oxygen can affect exercise or any other physical activity.

The Importance of the Diaphragm

If you want to improve your squatting abilities, your ankles, knees, and hips are the components to work on. Similarly, if you’re going to improve your breathing, you should work on all the elements involved. Enhancing the mobility of your shoulders, ribs, and diaphragm will allow you to breathe better in all circumstances, whether you’re resting, working, or exercising.

The diaphragm plays a key role here because it is connected to the lumbar spine and the pericardium, the muscle that surrounds the heart. The diaphragm attaches to your lumbar vertebrae, all the way down to L1-L3. Every time you breathe, the diaphragm moves up and down, and by doing so, it directly affects the lumbar spine and the heart. So, it’s vital to breathing and providing stability and mobility to your lower back. Sometimes, people experiencing lower back pain don’t need to do any other exercise but proper breathing to fix the pain.

If you are prone to stress or feelings of anxiety, you might want to check your breathing. Shallow breath confined to the chest area stimulates the sympathetic nervous system - part of our autonomic system that regulates the ‘’fight or flight’’ response. In other words - your constricted diaphragm and shallow breathing might be causing you anxiety, not the other way around.

woman resting during workout

Practice Proper Breathing

Here are a few things you can do to activate and awaken your diaphragm and improve your breathing:

Let Your Belly Out!

Somehow we are made to believe that our bellies shouldn’t stick out, so we pull them in. Sucking your belly prevents your diaphragm from sinking low to its full range of mobility and decreases the amount of oxygen you inhale. Relax your belly consciously when you’re sitting or standing, and allow your diaphragm to move through the complete range of motion.

Move Those Shoulders

When we have poor shoulder mobility, we have to compensate with our rib cage and thoracic spine. To breathe better, we want to differentiate the two movements so that our ribs can be free to move and allow more air—Lay down with a bolster or any support under your middle back. Spread your arms to 90 degrees horizontally and rotate your thumbs to the ground. From here, slightly bend your elbow and move your arms up and down from your thighs to your ears, like you would when making a snow angel. While doing this, stay mindful that your rib cage isn’t protruding.

Open The Cage

Like we said before - to get more oxygen, you need to create space for it, and there is no space with a constricted rib cage. With this simple exercise, you can gradually learn to move your ribs and activate the intercostal muscles. Sit comfortably and take a towel or a resistance band and wrap it around your torso, at the point where your ribs are the widest. Hold the ends of your band or towel with your hands in front of you. Try to breathe in such a way that you feel your side ribs expanding with an inhale and retracting with an exhale. Whatever you have wrapped around will give resistance, making it easier to focus. Mobilizing your ribs is an essential part to correct breathing.

How (Not) to Breathe While Exercising

Now that we’ve mobilized our breathing parts and expanded our oxygen capacity, it’s time to apply it to our exercise regimen. First, let’s see what not to do!

Never hold your breath

Unless you are doing some specific yogic practices, it’s not a good idea to hold your breath while exercising. We all tend to hold our breath during strenuous work or when intensely focused on something. There’s even a thing called email apnea - when you are so invested in your work that you stop breathing. In exercise, this translates to holding our breath to get more strength from our core. Holding your breath can become a crutch and doesn’t yield positive results long-term.

Breathing Techniques for Yoga

In Yoga postures, we can employ four ways of breathing: abdominal, thoracic, clavicular, or yogic breathing. Abdominal breathing focuses on your abdomen as it expands with inhaling and contracts with exhaling. Thoracic breathing focuses more on the upward and downward movement of your lungs. It is usually how you breathe in postures where your abdomen is constricted due to a twist or prone position. In clavicular breathing, you breathe into the upper portions of your lungs and your neck. Yogic breathing consists of all three of these. It’s like filling and emptying a vessel: you fill the bottom - your abdomen, all the way to the top - your clavicle, and empty from the bottom up.

In Yoga, we never breathe through our mouths. Both inhale and exhale are nasal. Here are a few things to always keep in mind when doing Yogic asanas - postures:

  • Always exhale while folding down and bending sideways
  • Inhale in the center position, and exhale when the body is going out of the center, like twisting
  • When backward bending, you should always inhale

Breathing Techniques for Strength Training

Knowing movement-specific breathing techniques can launch your progress and make you a supreme athlete. How you breathe will optimize the tension of your core muscles, and the core is so much more than your abs. Behind the front of the abdominal wall are the intra-abdominal cavity, the pelvic floor, and the diaphragm. It gives the core a vital role in strength, resistance training, and weightlifting.

As the diaphragm contracts with the inhalation, intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) is generated. The IAP then enhances the tension and stability of the core and spine, which is transferred through the body to all the parts involved in the given movement. It boosts the nervous system, preparing it for the stress of lifting heavier. IAP also increases your ability to handle more force, which comes in handy in squats, lunges, deadlifts, and other strength-based exercises.

You want to synchronize the inhalation with the eccentric motion and exhalation with the concentric movement. It means that when you squat, you inhale as you go down to activate your core stability, then exhale as you go up to increase the IAP and feel the exhale lift you naturally.

Note that breathing through your mouth is not advised in strength training, as it doesn’t contribute to diaphragm contraction. Breathing through your mouth decreases IAP and consequently drastically reduces force. If you want to lift more weight, you have to increase pressure to increase tension, and mouth breathing does the opposite.

Breathing Techniques for Running

Running is a demanding activity that requires more effort from your muscles and respiratory system. Because you need more oxygen, breathing can become more complex, and you may experience shortness of breath or even tightness in your chest like you’re fighting for air.

Luckily, the diaphragmatic breathing that we’ve covered comes in handy here as well. It will allow more oxygen that the body can use more efficiently. If you prefer a casual jog, nasal breathing is a good option. If you find yourself struggling for breath, you can exhale through the mouth. Though mouth breathing isn’t usually recommended, it might be more efficient for high-intensity training or sprints.

Rhythmic breathing is always an excellent option for runners. By coordinating your inhales and exhales with the foot that hits the ground, you will optimize muscular balance and relieve your diaphragm of excess stress. The most common pattern is 3:2, or 2:1 - meaning you inhale for 3, or 2 foot strikes, and exhale for 2, or 1.

man performing planks

Breathing Techniques for HIIT

If the word HIIT gives you shivers, our blog has plenty of content on high-intensity interval training and and more. Familiarize yourself with this unique way to shed the excess calories.

If you feel fatigued quickly into HIIT training, it’s probably because your breathing is shallow. You don’t want to feel drowsy during your workout or have your mind clogged with negative thoughts. When you breathe consciously, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth, filling up your lungs, your mind will clear, and your focus will increase. This way of breathing can make you feel dizzy by constricting your blood vessels.

Synchronize your breaths with your movement to exhale vigorously on the most intense part of the exercise, and you inhale in the resting phase. If you are doing quick reps, with virtually no resting stage, pout your lips on the exhale, and the breath will naturally follow the movement. Again, finding your unique rhythm will help maintain your vigor throughout the workout.

Just Breathe

To master breathing in your specific workout regime, you first need to learn correct breathing in everyday circumstances. Don’t forget to relax your belly and practice diaphragmatic breathing. Not only will it help you get the maximum out of your workout, but it will also teach you to relax your nervous system and feel more at ease in challenging situations.

Contributing Writer: Eni Susak

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