Tap into the power of your breath — and get into the best shape of your life.
If there’s one thing we should all be experts at it’s breathing, but believe it not, you may actually be doing it wrong. Whether you’re running a 5K, attempting a new barbell lift or just sitting at a desk, your brain, organs and muscles need oxygen. Limiting that supply is a non-starter, obviously, but maximizing your breathing potential could be the difference between success and failure at sports — and at life.
Every Breath You Take
Think about the last time you attempted a heavy lift or did a series of crunches. Did you remember to breathe? “Most commonly, people hold their breath through a movement,” says Belisa Vranich, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, fitness expert and author of Breathing for Warriors (St. Martin’s Press, March 2020). It makes sense that you might forget to breathe if you’re focused and concentrating, but even if you remembered to do so, you may still be breathing improperly.
According to Vranich, humans were designed to breathe horizontally, in other words, the section of your torso between your nipples and your hips should expand with every inhale. This engages the muscles that are intended for breathing, which include the diaphragm, intercostals, transverse abdominis and obliques. Unfortunately, Vranich says, most people breathe vertically, meaning that an inhale causes your chest and shoulders to rise. This action relies on the muscles in your pecs, traps and neck to engage, and each breath can actually use more energy and oxygen than it pulls in, which in turn makes you breathe faster and take more breaths than a horizontal breather, according to Vranich.
What’s more, during exercise you’re often cued to “brace” your core, meaning that you inhale and hold your breath/muscular contraction in order to create intra-abdominal pressure to protect your spine. The thing is, most people don’t remember to unbrace. “You’ll see folks who are … bracing their belly so much in an attempt to take care of their spines that they’re not actually breathing at all,” Vranich says. “They’re just sipping in air.”
It might not seem like a big deal on the surface, by over time, poor breathing habits can take a toll on your health. For example, think about how you react when you’re startled — you gasp and hold your breath, your body tenses and you draw your arms in toward your chest. In essence, a shallow breathing pattern is akin to walking around as if you’re frightened all day, explains Jen Esquer, DPT. “We are essentially telling our brain we are in danger and that your body must get tense and tight to protect you,” she says. “During the inhalation phase of a breath … you are in a more stressed and sympathetic state where you hold inflammation and tension and increase your sensitivity to pain.” This state causes your body to release a surge of cortisol as a protective measure, but over time, consistently elevated cortisol can lead to myriad of health problems, including weight gain, sleep disturbances and anxiety.
Poor breathing patterns also can prevent you from reaching your athletic potential, according to Vranich, and breathing in the most primal, anatomically correct manner can ultimately help you log more miles, lift more weight and burn more calories.
Better breathing begins with an awareness of where to breathe: Place your hands on your lower ribs and belly, where your diaphragm and the largest part of your lungs are. As you inhale, think about expanding this portion of your torso, not your chest, and as you exhale, push against your belly.
Now that you’ve located your proper breathing muscles, it’s time to make them stronger. And, no, a tempo training run that gets you huffing and puffing doesn’t count. “You need to train your breathing muscles separately from your sport,” Vranich says, “because you can’t train them to exhaustion if you’re doing your sport at the same time.”
One simple but effective breathing exercise is called the bellows breath: Inhale really hard through your mouth and pull in as much air as you can. “And remember, you’re going to puff up your belly when you do that,” Vranich says. Then blow all the air out of your mouth as hard as you can, squeezing your belly inward. “It should feel like an ab exercise where you are pulling your bellybutton toward your spine,” she continues. As a beginner, you’ll want to start with two 15-second sets of bellows breathing: Set a timer and breathe in and out as hard and as rapidly as you can for 15 seconds. Then complete one regular inhale and a slow 15-second exhale before moving to your next set. Gradually and incrementally work your way up to two 45-second sets with a regular breath and a slow 45-second exhale in between.
When it comes to sports and exercise, the breathing technique you use ultimately depends on your chosen activity.
When lifting weights, you should for sure be bracing your core to protect your spine, but this technique is a little more nuanced than simply tightening your abdomen as if you were about to get punched in the gut. You also need to tighten your sides, back and pelvic floor, according to Vranich. What’s more, the amount of bracing done should be relative to the load you’re lifting. For example, the Valsalva maneuver (breathing against a closed airway) is appropriate for something like a super-heavy deadlift to maintain spinal stability and lift a heavy load safely. But if you’re banging out a couple dozen lightweight biceps curls, your torso doesn’t need to be as stiff and your brace needn’t be as intense.
The rest period between sets and/or circuits of a strength workout should benefit both your skeletal and your breathing muscles. “If you’re staying braced, you’re not fueling yourself for your next set,” Vranich says. “Remember, you get energy from oxygen. If you’re braced between sets, you’re not getting enough gas, so you’re going to be tired.” Vranich recommends consciously unbracing and taking three deep breaths during rest periods.
It’s also important to time your breath properly during a repetition of an exercise. “The exhale aids with the contraction of the muscles, and the inhale aids with lengthening of the muscles,” Esquer says. For example, when doing a biceps curl, you’d exhale as you bend your elbow to lift the weight and would inhale as you extend your arm to lower it back to the start.
When it comes to cardio workouts like running, rhythmic breathing — timing your breaths to your steps — can help you find a sustainable pace. Ideally, you want to maintain a 2:2 pace, meaning you’d inhale for two steps and exhale for two steps during a moderately hard workout — in other words, not a sprint but also not a slow jog. The main point is to connect your breathing to your movement to optimize oxygen delivery and strengthen the mind/muscle connection. Experiment with different ratios to see what works best for you. And while runners do need to brace their core enough to stay upright, they have to be careful not to brace so much that they revert to vertical breathing, Vranich warns.
You also should try to breathe through your nose for as long as you can in order to hold more carbon dioxide in your system. “Carbon dioxide reacts with water to form carbonic acid and results in a decrease in blood pH,” Esquer explains. “When this happens, hemoglobin (the protein in red blood cells) releases oxygen into the body. Therefore, increasing your capacity to maintain carbon dioxide [levels] improves oxygen delivery and allows your muscles, nerves and brain to work better.” Introduce nasal breathing slowly, she advises, and breathe through your mouth when necessary.
Measure Your Breathing IQ
Use these tips from Belisa Vranich to determine how well you’re using your diaphragm and breathing muscles:
- Locate the bottom of your front ribs (located directly under your nipples), and loop a measuring tape around your torso at this point.
- Inhale and make note of the measurement in inches.
- Then exhale completely and take a second measurement in inches.
- Subtract the exhale measurement from the inhale measurement for your score.
The greater the difference between your inhale and exhale measurements, the better and more correctly you’re using your breathing muscles. A good “score” is anywhere from 2 to 4 inches difference. Coming up short? Don’t worry. It’s entirely possible to improve your breathing mechanics with specific exercises, increased awareness and dedicated practice.