Did you know that your regular breathing pattern might very well be messing with, not only your workouts and athletic performance, but also with your everyday life and health? Well, it’s true. Erratic sleep, mood swings, poor digestion, muscle pain, anxiety and even difficulty burning fat, are all symptoms of improper breathing. But who are we to tell you that you’re breathing wrong? After all, you’ve been doing it your entire life, without ever giving it a second thought, so you must know a thing or two about it.
In reality however, the majority of people exhibit wrong breathing patterns without even realizing it. And once you’ve been doing something wrong for a very long time, change comes very difficult. On the flip side are all the benefits to be gained from learning a few simple principles that you’re about to read.
Signs of Improper Breathing
How do you know if you're breathing incorrectly? Your best bet is simple observation. Observing a baby breathing can teach you a lot, particularly in regard with where the air is going and how relaxed and unforced the breathing is. Now, observe your own breathing. If every time you inhale you are puffing out your chest instead of your belly, that’s a clear sign that your breathing is stressed. Other common tells giving away improper breathing are:
- Breathing through your mouth
- Frequent Sighing & Yawning
- Sleep Apnea & Snoring
- Chronic Rhinitis (nasal congestion and runny nose)
- Taking large breaths prior to talking
Yawning and sighing are particularly interesting as they could mean that your body is not getting enough oxygen via “regular” breathing, thus tries to take big breaths by opening the mouth wide and inhaling as much air as possible.
While there are numerous factors that could be causing all these signs, more often than not, the culprit seems to be something as simple as breathing.
At this point it’s worth mentioning that chest breathing, that is breathing by puffing out your chest instead of your belly, can be thought of as a type of body image disorder. The reason most men adopt bad breathing habits is because they’re trying to suck in their gut and belly in order to appear less fat. Same for women, who in addition to sucking their belly, stick their chest out to look more attractive towards society.
Symptoms & Consequences of Bad Breathing
Bad breathing habits can give rise to a lot of unexpected negative effects on our health and well-being. Some of the most crucial ones being:
- The nervous system becomes unbalanced – The breath is very important in maintaining a balanced body because each breath has an immediate effect on the nervous system. Imagine inhaling being the gas and exhaling the breaks. A dysfunctional breathing habit, like a short and forced one, results in a tense body and much higher levels of stress.
- The blood vessels constrict – Which can lead to higher blood pressure and which in turn makes the heart work harder.
- The airways get tighter – Which makes it harder for the air to make its way to and from the lungs. To compensate, we have to work harder and breathe faster to get the same work done.
- Less energy is produced – Bad breathing lessens the body’s ability to deliver oxygen to the cells. The cells get stressed and have to prioritize survival instead of development.
What you should take from this is that most vital processes in our bodies are dependent on proper oxygen transportation in and out the cells. More specifically, our brain, our heart and our muscles require oxygen to properly function and an inadequate supply of oxygen will inevitably lead to decreased brain function, bad circulation and poor stamina correspondingly.
Suboptimal levels of energy, decreased CNS function and poor muscle oxygenation can all lead to less strength output and endurance which will affect your gains in the gym. Additionally, not breathing properly while working out, can increase your blood pressure and lessen your athletic performance.
Finally, and this is highly interesting, if you ask different people how fat is actually burned and how fat loss actually works, you’ll get a lot of different answers. The right answer however, is via oxidation in the lungs! Let’s not get too far into this subject today, but for now, understand that the majority of fat loss occurs “via breathing”. Now, although most of us are either over-breathing, holding our breath or shallow-breathing, the good news is that there is a lot of room for improvement!
Diaphragmatic Vs Thoracic Breathing
Let’s start by discussing proper breathing outside your training. This applies to the majority of your day, whether you are at work, at home or picking up groceries from the market. The best type of breathing you can practice is relaxed, diaphragmatic breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing is all about taking deep breaths that go all the way down to your belly, instead of getting “stuck” in your chest. So with every breath you take, your belly should be filling up with air, expanding, similarly to the baby we discussed in the beginning. 70-80% of your breathing should be done by the diaphragm so that your breathing is nice and deep. This has several advantages:
- It helps your lungs with the gas exchange which is much more effective way down in the lungs.
- The diaphragm massages your liver, stomach and intestines and gives these organs a rhythmical balance.
- The lymphatic system, which is important for our immune system, gets the help it needs to get rid of the waste products from the bowels.
- The pressure in the chest and belly is decreased so that the heart won’t have to work as hard.
- More effective muscle work as the wrong breathing muscles won’t have to do unnecessary work.
- As the chest gets more relaxed so does the neck and shoulders and as a result the likelihood of pain and injury in these areas go down.
An interesting point here is that diaphragmatic breathing will keep your shoulders, chest and upper back relaxed and prevent tightness which can lead to bad posture. In fact, part of the solution for the classic kyphotic, rounded-shoulders posture is deep, relaxed breathing.
Practice Deep Breathing
What you need to start doing is devote 5 or 10 minutes every day to just practice this kind of breathing. If you do it in a conscious way and you’re persistent and patient with it, you will see some cool results.
Easiest posture to start practicing deep breathing is the fetal position, which is lying on your side, knees bent towards the chest and neck neutral. You want to start in this position first, because this way you won’t be fighting gravity along with your bad breathing.
Close your eyes, relax and concentrate on your breathing only. Inhale through the nose and try to fill your belly with air. You will feel the air expanding and pushing out your belly. Slowly exhale, and let out all the air, again through the nose. Block out any irrelevant thoughts and try to take each breath deeper and deeper. This is best done either before you go to bed at night or after a killer workout at the gym. You will feel so much better after doing it, your recovery will be much faster and you will sleep so much better at night.
After you practice deep breathing in the lying position for a few weeks, it’s time to progress to sitting and standing which are a lot more difficult because now your posture becomes an issue. The same mechanics apply with the addition of keeping your back straight, your neck neutral and not hyperextending your lower back.
The more you practice deep breathing, the more it’s going to become a part of your life and you won’t have to consciously think about it anymore while you’re at work or at lunch or chatting with your friend. Deep breathing is very beneficial for the majority of your day but what about working out?
Proper Breathing For Isolation Exercises
People are always asking what the proper way to breathe while lifting weights is. Do you inhale during the positive and exhale during the negative? Is it the exact opposite? Or maybe holding your breath is better? Well, it depends on what exercises you’re doing.
Starting with isolation exercises, which are exercises that do not heavily involve the core like flies, kick-backs, extensions, raises and curls, it doesn’t really matter how you breath as long as your breathing stays consistent, relaxed and though the nose. So just make sure you are constantly taking in a breath without hyperventilating and without using your mouth to take air in. Holding your breath or breathing too quickly can result in imbalanced levels of carbon dioxide which will make you feel dizzy, light headed and weak.
Proper Breathing For Compound Exercises
Moving on to compound exercises like the squat, the deadlift and the overhead press, your breathing technique is half the battle. Now your core is heavily involved in the lift, and if you don’t know how to properly use your breathing to reinforce your core, your core will inflate, and you’ll become prone to injury and inferior performance.
Proper way to breathe during any compound exercise is by utilizing your “internal belt” on every single repetition. Let’s take the squat as a random example. Before you start any rep, you need to take a big breath through your nose, expand your belly with air and keep that air in your belly, throughout the entire repetition. If you squat down and start exhaling while pushing the weight up, you will lose core tightness and you will either injure your lower back or fail the rep. Once you reach the starting position, now is the time to let the air out, take a moment to reset and repeat the same process. It’s also very crucial that you fill your belly with air before every rep, NOT YOUR CHEST. Puffing out your chest and taking shallow breaths will do nothing to create that internal belt and protect your core but instead it will increase your blood pressure and you might even feel dizzy or lightheaded.
Proper Breathing For Abdominal Exercises
Now, with abdominal exercises, the story is a lot different. This time around, you want to work your abs without supporting them with the “internal belt”. So you want your abs to work alone, without the assistance and support that air in your belly offers. Makes sense, right? It’s almost like using a weightlifting belt while working your abs. What’s the point?
As a random example, let’s take the regular ab crunch on the floor. To properly contract your abs during any ab exercise, you want to let ALL the air out of your belly every time you reach the peak contraction of the exercise. So for the ab crunch, begin with a full stretch (full lower back extension), and start exhaling as you crunch up and reach the top. By the time you reach the top, there should be no air in your belly and you should feel your abs almost cramping up. Inhale as you go back down into a full lower back extension and repeat for the right amount of reps.
"Μost people don't know how important breathing is but when the game is on the line and you are not getting the oxygen you need to it can really hurt your performance." - Chris Gronkowski
Wow, this has definitely been a long read for you and while it is important to know how to breathe properly, implementing it in to your own life is what makes all the difference
Whether you're seeking to improve your athletic performance, longevity and the quality of your life, sleep apnea, or anxiety, breathing properly could very well be the solution. Take 5 or 10 minutes every day and practice deep breathing. You’ll be surprised of the new version of yourself that will emerge.