How breathing can improve your workout. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you’ll notice that I actively add breaths to each exercise I describe and there’s good reason for this. During my time as a Pilates student (I actively studied Pilates for about 5 or 6 years before starting to take my exams to become an instructor), much of what we spoke about was our breath and how to breathe during our exercises. We learned how a focused and calm breath could actually help the movements. Okay sure, since we are all alive, it stands to reason that we are breathing naturally but if you take a little time to match your breath to your workout, you just might see a big difference in your performance (think longer, more effortless workouts and less cramping).
So Why does breathing matter? Well, to put it very simply when you aren’t breathing, the energy that’s stored up in your cells depletes much faster than it would if you were oxygenating them.
Try this first. Although we breathe naturally, most of us don’t really focus on our breathing and as a result, it becomes shallow without diaphragm engagement. Take a moment to practice your breathing. Lying on your back, place one hand on your stomach and one hand on your rib cage. Now inhale and exhale deeply. Which hand is moving? If your rib cage is fairly still then you are breathing from your diaphragm, this is good because you are breathing deeply. If, however, you find that your rib cage is moving a lot or even more than your belly, this means that you have shallow breathing and it signifies that you aren’t taking in as much oxygen as you could be. To help you relax and de-stress, try focusing on taking long and deep breaths.
HOW BREATHING CAN IMPROVE YOUR WORKOUT
During strength training. When you lift something heavy (forget the gym for a moment and think a heavy bag of groceries) your body’s need for oxygen increases and your breathing rate increases. It’s very tempting to hold your breath when lifting weights when in reality, you generally want to exhale on exertion. For example, as you are pressing weights overhead, make sure you are exhaling and then slowly inhale as you return to your starting position. Holding your breath can result in dizziness or shortness of breath, neither of which is desirable when holding a heavy weight.
During aerobic exercise. When running or doing other cardio exercises it’s very easy to fall into a pattern of quick shallow breaths. Try to slow down your breath. If you are a runner, inhale for every two steps and then exhale for the next two. Not only will this type of breathing help prevent those dreaded side stitches, but it also helps you engage your core stabilizing muscles. This is very important if you are running on uneven terrain or participating in a cardio class and performing lateral movements (side to side).
During Pilates. Yeah okay, so I had to add this one in, but that’s also because it’s a unique type of breathing that isn’t taught in the other exercises I mentioned. Although the breathing is deep, in Pilates you want to breathe laterally (also called intercostal) into your rib cage while keeping your abdominal muscles engaged and still. Lying on your back, place your hands on the sides of your rib cage, gently (on a scale of 1-10 it should feel like a 3), pull in your stomach and try to let your ribs expand sideways as you fill them with air. In class you’ll find that each movement is carefully coordinated with your breath pattern, so that you can focus on keeping a stable core while you move.
During Yoga. The key to proper breathing in Yoga is to keep your inhale and exhale the same length. Getting more specific, you will inhale through your nose for 4 or 5 counts and then exhale through your mouth for the same length of time. The reason for this type of breathing is to help you get into a sort of rhythm as the poses become more challenging. You are able to stay centered and focused during your practice. Another reason for this type of breathing is to help you with each pose. You will find yourself inhaling for standing poses, as this helps you get taller. For stretch based movements (lunges), an exhale will help you get deeper into the pose.
During stretching. Stretching is all about deep relaxation for your muscles and is not unlike a gentle yoga class, so many of the same principles apply. As you start stretching, focus on slowing down your breath which will allow you to release your muscles rather than tensing them. Try inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth and on each exhale, push a little deeper into your stretch.
As an instructor, I admit that it was kind of fun watching people suddenly get tripped up with the very simple act of breathing, but then seeing them perfect the movements and watching it all fall in sync was so gratifying. When you are breathing and moving in sync, it’s like a beautiful ballet. Remember that getting into the perfect breathing rhythm takes time and it’s not necessarily easy, so if all else fails just inhale and exhale!
Do you focus on your breathing when working out?