We do it all day, every day without even thinking about it, but chances are you’re doing it wrong. Breathing is the most fundamental human bodily function, and how we do it can greatly impact our performance both on and off the training ground.
“What do you mean, I’m breathing wrong?”
Although our body automatically takes care of breathing, we should still treat it as a skill. Correct breathing is important for oxygen uptake, core strength and stress management.
We take 30.000 breaths per day and many people do it incorrectly by practicing a shallow breathing pattern. This limits your performance in training and creates chronic stress on the nervous system. Therefore correct breathing needs to be trained.
Shallow breathing is characterized by the use of your secondary respiratory muscles. These include the neck, chest, back and shoulder muscles. Use of the secondary respiratory muscles during rest is often a cause for neck and shoulder tightness and tension.
Shallow breathers report more stress and anxiety. That’s because shallow breathing increases our sympathetic nervous system activity. Our body is tricked into believing that we’re in danger and releases stress hormones to get us ready for action. This is called the “fight-or-flight” response.
“Fight-or-Flight” is a natural response to shallow breathing. It’s useful when we are in a life-threatening situation, but not when we are working in the office and our boss is staring at us. During rest, we want to be calm, relaxed and rational, not wired, nervous and anxious.
Improper breathing limits the amount of oxygen we can take in through our lungs. Therefore, we can’t take up as much oxygen into our blood and muscles, which stunts our aerobic endurance for running and rowing.
When you breathe shallowly, you’re unable to engage your core properly. The breathing muscles are a vital part of the core and supply it with stability. Lack of core stability leads to decreased strength and power. Shallow breathing therefore hinders your progress on compound exercises like deadlifts, back squats and heavy rows.
In short, shallow breathing...
- Increases stress and anxiety
- Causes neck and shoulder tightness
- Decreases muscular and cardiovascular endurance
- Decreases core stability and compound exercise strength
“How should I breathe and how will it help?”
We call it deep diaphragmatic breathing. Proper breathing is characterized by using the primary respiratory muscles - the diaphragm and the intercostals. The diaphragm is the strongest breathing muscle and provides your core with stability during exercise. The intercostals expand your rib cage to increase your oxygen intake.
The correct breathing pattern during rest includes using your diaphragm to fill your core with air. It includes an expansion of your belly to the front side and to the back (360° expansion). As your diaphragm is filled with air, the inhalation then moves up towards the ribs. The intercostals are engaged to expand the rib cage. Lastly, the chest rises gently to complete the inhalation phase. During exhalation the chest sinks, the ribs close and the air flows out of the diaphragm.
Deep diaphragmatic breathing activates your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). Instead of dumping out stress hormones, the PNS is active during rest and digestion, which means that we’re calm and at ease. This is the optimal state during non-activity. It further relaxes our neck and shoulders to take away some of the tension in our upper body.
During exercise on the other hand, deep diaphragmatic breathing contributes to our core strength. This makes us stronger and more powerful during compound exercises. We’ll further be able to take in more oxygen to supply our muscles and cardiovascular system for endurance activities.
Deep diaphragmatic breathing thus:
- Decreases stress and anxiety
- Reduces neck and shoulder tightness
- Increases muscular and cardiovascular endurance
- Increases core stability and compound exercise strength
“How can I learn deep diaphragmatic breathing?”
A simple exercise to learn the deep diaphragmatic breathing pattern is the “90/90 Breathing with Hip Lift”. It shouldn’t take you longer than 5 minutes to complete. To do this, you just need some space on the floor, a wall and a foam roller or a similar tool:
- Lie down with your feet against the wall and your back on the ground.
- Bend your legs and hip at 90°.
- Place the foam roller in between your knees. Apply gentle pressure to activate your adductors.
- Slightly raise your tailbone by pulling down the wall. This will activate your hamstrings.
- Begin your breathing by inhaling through the nose.
- Expand your diaphragm, the rib cage and then the chest.
- Inhale for 5 seconds.
- Exhale through the mouth. Imagine to blow up a balloon.
- Flatten your chest, pull the ribs down and push the air out of your diaphragm.
- Exhale for 5 seconds.
- Bring your tailbone back on the ground.
- Repeat for 5 repetitions
This is one round. Repeat the procedure for a total of 3 rounds. You can either do this before your warm up or as part of your cool down. Download the Freeletics app now to put your perfect breathing to use.
Sources Quinn Henoch, Postural Restoration Institute, Melbourne Strength Culture.