Sometimes, in fitness, it's the small things that make a big difference. And when it comes to staying healthy, lean and strong, there's one little tweak that can either make or break your success: Your breathing technique.
You may not give it much thought — breathing is possibly the most automatic thing that you do - but your inhales and exhales are actually linked to everything from your workout performance, to your joint health and posture, to your pain sensitivity, to your stress levels and even to the way that you approach mindfulness. In other words, it's a big deal, says yoga therapist and teacher Amy Matthews, instructor with The Breathing Project and co-author of Yoga Anatomy.
And while you might be used to breathing a certain way, you can train yourself to do it better. “It's important to understand that you have more choices of how to breathe,” says Matthews.
Tweaking Your Breathing Technique
Each inhale you take oxygenates your blood, and then produces a waste product (carbon dioxide) which you exhale. That oxygenated blood is what feeds every cell in your body, traveling from your brain right down to your toes. So while your lungs are the organs of your breath — or the main one involved in the process — your whole body is impacted, says Matthews. While your breathing naturally moves through your lungs, there are two general areas that expand (or hold your breath) before you exhale: Your chest and your belly. And there is a significant difference between the two. Chest breathing is often quick, shallow and pant-like, while deep belly breathing, often called diaphragmatic breathing (DB), is a lot smoother and slower.
With DB, your belly fully inflates on the inhale, and then fully deflates with the exhale. This is the way you breathed as a baby, and it's instinctual, except for the fact that the busyness and chaos of modern life sometimes leads to a switch in your breathing pattern. But, using the breathing techniques outlined in this article, you can get back to a healthier, fitter breathing pattern.
Take a Load Off Your Joints
During DB, you breathe into your lungs by flexing your diaphragm. While this has many benefits, perhaps one of the most important is that it helps to take the load off your other body parts and muscles. Research performed on individuals with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) - or those who have inefficient diaphragms - has shown that when the diaphragm is not being used as intended, breathing places stress on the back and shoulders. From there it's a chain reaction, causing extra stress on the skeleton and the joints. Translation? "The more efficient your diaphragm is in the breathing process, the smaller the load on your joints," says Stuart McGill, PhD, professor of spine biomechanics at University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.
It's not a coincidence, then, that shallow breathing goes along with poor posture, but the difference between a COPD patient and a healthy, active person is that you can unlearn that shallow, hunched breathing by focusing on strengthening your diaphragm.
- Train your diaphragm by practicing the side plank move, says McGill. When you're holding a side plank, keep your core muscles engaged to maintain the position, which forces you to more efficiently use your diaphragm to breathe. "It reprograms your diaphragm," he says, and has the added benefit of being an excellent core strength move. Start by holding it for 10 seconds, then 20, 30 and one minute or more - making sure to breathe through it.
Reduce Stress and Boost Energy
Your breath is also the key to reducing anxiety and stress. "One benefit of proper breathing is a calm nervous system, which promotes well-being and health," says trainer Lisa Hampton, MS, founder of Mindfull Fitness LLC. “Shallow breathing leads to a constant state of hyper arousal, activating your fight-or-flight system.” That means that when you're worrying about a fight with a friend, a work assignment or your car breaking down, cortisol (a stress hormone) keeps coursing through your body, affecting everything from your sleep patterns to your immune system to your energy levels and appetite. (Plus, research has shown a connection between higher levels of cortisol and increased belly fat.)
- Hampton works with clients on a specific kind of technique borrowed from yoga called ujjayi (oo-jai-eee) breathing, which is both energizing and relaxing. You breathe in through your nose, and as you exhale, you keep your mouth open, but exhale through your nose, making an "ahhh" sound and trying to feel the breath at the back of the throat. Eventually, you can do it with your mouth closed, but it takes practice. "At first, try breathing this way when the demand for oxygen isn't as great, like during rest or stretching, since you are restricting your oxygen somewhat," she says. Breathing this way forces you to take deeper, fuller breaths, which calms the nervous system and dampens the stress response.
Become More Mindful
Breathing is a highly meditative practice, and in fact, paying attention to the breath is the gateway to living more mindfully. Focusing on the breath is the centerpiece of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) programs, which teach people how to distance themselves from their thoughts in a non-judgmental way. Instead of focusing on thoughts running wild, you focus on your breathing pattern, and simply "notice" your thoughts, like credits flashing by on a movie screen. You can use your breath in a mindful way both during relaxation and during exercise. It will not only reduce stress, anxiety, and pain sensitivity, but it can also help you focus during your workouts. Do It:
- Hampton particularly likes the three-part breath technique because it keeps your mind and breath focused. Start by putting your hands on your belly, and breathe deeply into your belly for two to three minutes. Next, put your hands on your diaphragm, and focus on breathing from your diaphragm for two to three minutes. Now, move your hands further up to your chest and focus on breathing there for two to three minutes. Finally, you'll combine all three breathing methods: Inhale into your belly, then feel the air travel to your diaphragm, then chest; as you exhale, feel it leave your chest first, then diaphragm, then belly.
Breathe From Your Belly
Diaphragmatic breathing (DB), or belly breathing, can boost your health and your fitness. Here's how to practice deep belly breathing:
- Sit or lie down comfortably with one hand on your belly. Take a deep inhale for five seconds, and allow your belly to inflate like a balloon (which feels a bit like sticking it out).
- Count to five as you exhale, and let your belly completely deflate.
- Find your own rhythm. (You don't have to count each time — it's just a good way to get started.)
One study, led by Daniele Martarelli, PhD, a researcher at the University of Camerino in Italy, found that deep belly breathing may be a worthwhile addition to your postworkout routine. “Athletes who perform DB after exercise can reduce postworkout oxidative stress (your body's natural inflammatory response to exercise) and reduce the risk of injury,” she says.
Strength Training and Breathing
You know breathing is an important part of an effective weight session, but what is the best way to do it? Check out these tips from the experts.
- Inhaling to prepare for an exercise, and then exhaling with effort is still the golden standard of breathing, says trainer Lisa Hampton, owner of Mindfulfitness.com. For example, inhale, and then exhale as you lift the weight for your biceps curl. Inhale as you lower, and exhale again to lift.
- Don't hold your breath, because this can cause your blood pressure to spike.
- Aim to keep your breathing pattern steady and deep versus shallow, quick, mouth breaths. When breathing through your nose, you're more likely to be present and connected to your body, Hampton says. "Breathing through the mouth skips your brain," she says. And by staying focused instead of zonking out, you can better build muscle because you're not working from momentum alone.