Breathing: The worlds worst kept fitness “secret”

27 Jan

So what’s this big “secret”?

Weightlifters, yoga & martial arts enthusiasts, swimmers, SCUBA and free divers, boxers and tennis players all know about it. It’s not really a secret, and yet it seems that not only do most people give it very little thought during the day, many also seem to have no real clue about it when it comes to physically exerting themselves, and particularly when they are at the gym or in a fitness class. I’m talking about breathing, and for the attention that most people give to their own breathing, you’d think that it’s the biggest health and fitness secret in the world, that everybody knows about, yet so many seem to know so little about.

The bio-mechanics

So most people would know that we breath air into our lungs and that the oxygen in that air makes our blood cells red, gets carried by the blood cells to be used around the body, and returns when used as carbon dioxide to be expelled through the lungs when we breath out. The funny thing about that process is that the oxygen attaches itself to the iron in our blood cells, effectively creating rust, so when people talk about getting old and rusty, they really mean rusty!! This air is needed mostly by the muscle cells in order to handle exertion, and it’s much quicker and easier to use the oxygen loosely attached to blood cell iron than it would be to extract the more tightly bonded oxygen from all of that water that we keep in our bodies. Now for many people, that’s probably more than they ever wanted to know about breathing, and yet when it comes to exertion, it’s probably the least important stuff for you to be worrying about.

Why am I making such a fuss?

How you breathe is crucial to performing well when the body is under any type of stress, whether it’s emotional or physical or both. Depending on the activity you are engaged in, there is a technique for breathing that you need to understand in order to get the most out of your body when you are exercising, and it is incorrect breathing technique that causes more problems with poor performance and poor stamina than nearly anything else. It’s surprising then that so few people address their breathing before doing any type of exercise for the first time. What surprises me more, is how little effort is made by the fitness professionals out there when coaching their clients, particularly in the gyms and in classes, and even more importantly in schools where the basics of physical education is supposed to be taught.

As a Personal Trainer who has been studying fitness and nutrition for many months and who is awaiting his studies to get that all important qualification, I have been developing both my personal and professional philosophies to training, and I can’t see how a great fitness professional can start anyone on a training program without first establishing a firm foundation, and I believe that this must begin with proper breathing technique. And yet, in a standard 13 year school career I don’t recall ever being taught to breathe properly in any of the Sport/PhysEd classes I attended.

While I have met some really inspiring personal trainers in the gyms and fitness classes that I have attended over the last 20 years or so, breathing was never mentioned as more than an afterthought, and only if I seemed to be struggling with something specific. Given how important proper breath control is to so many physically demanding exercises, I can’t help but feel that no matter how well meaning the trainers and coaches have been, they have let down each and every student/client they have ever trained if they have not taken a foundational approach to physical training beginning with correct breathing technique.

There were however two exceptions that I’ve personally experienced where breathing was introduced to me as foundational knowledge . The first was when I attended yoga classes where I was not only instructed how I should breathe, the classes also always began with a simple breathing exercise. The second exception was when learning to SCUBA dive, as controlling breathing affects both the amount of oxygen consumed and buoyancy control, so getting the breathing right means getting to enjoy more time exploring the world beneath the waves.

How to breathe when exerting yourself

While each sport, exercise and movement may require slightly different approaches to breathing, there are a few general rules that that are generally applicable, and if you are aware of them you will find that most of the adjustments you make to your breathing will be relatively subtle when performing different exercises:

  1. Don’t hold your breath as this may affect an increase in your blood pressure.
  2. Avoid shallow breathing as this can result in a build-up of carbon dioxide in the deeper places in the lungs which doesn’t get entirely expelled.
    • Can cause inefficient oxygen transfer via the upper airways only.
    • Can result in laboured breathing.
    • Can cause breathlessness during exercise, which is sometimes referred to as getting into oxygen debt.
  3. Breathe deeply and rhythmically during aerobic exercise.
    • Slow breath in through the nose for a count of 3 (paces, seconds, “Mississippi’s”, etc).
    • Faster breath out through the mouth for a count of 2.
    • Avoid fast breaths out through the nose as this can build pressure in sinuses leaving you feeling kinda “funky” and blocked while you exercise.
  4. Inhale when relaxing or relieving the tension on muscles, and when straightening the torso.
  5. Exhale when lifting/pushing/pulling/punching/kicking and when bending/curling/twisting the torso.
    • Fast yet restricted exhalation timed with a fast muscle movement adds to the explosive power of the movement.
    • Slower yet restricted exhalation timed with a slow muscle movement provides a steady pressured in a controlled movement.
    • Be careful to avoid restricting exhalation too much as it may affect you similarly to holding your breath.

Remember that this is a generalised approach, and specific alterations to your breathing technique may be more applicable to a specific sport, exercise, or training method. Correct technique will enable you to perform with greater stamina, and with greater power than if you were to simply breathe as if you are at rest. If you don’t believe this, try lifting a very heavy weight on a bench press, first by breathing in when you press, then by breathing out when you press, or try breathing in and out with every step or at every 4 steps when you are running, and you’ll notice the difference.

Some additional breathing tips

  1. You can use controlled diaphragmatic breathing to help you relax, such as before and after a workout, when feeling under pressure or stressed, or when preparing yourself for sleep
    • Assume an at rest position. This can be standing, sitting, or lying down.
    • Breathe in slowly and continuously for between 6 to 10 seconds/Mississippi’s,
      • Fill through the diaphragm into the belly as well as the lungs.
      • Keep your shoulders relaxed – I.e.: not bunched up to your neck.
      • Raise your arms slowly to the sides (so your elbows are above head) to encourage a deeper breath.
    • Breathe out slowly and continuously for between 10 to 15 seconds
      • Lower your arms slowly to the sides.
      • Think about pulling your belly button back towards your spine.
      • Expel all of the air out of your lungs.
      • You can tip your head back to force your mouth to drop open in order to prevent any restriction when expelling the air.
    • Repeat the process for as long as you wish to.
    • If you monitor your pulse, you will notice it slowing.
  2. Controlled rapid shallow breathing (hypoventilation) can help you to wake up or to remain alert
    • Breathe in and out through your nose only as rapidly and shallowly as you can for between 15 to 30 seconds.
    • If hypoventilation makes you feel dizzy or light-headed, you should take a couple of slow and deep breaths, and think about reducing the amount of time you do this for.
    • Avoid using this technique if you are feeling nervous or anxious.
    • Avoid using this technique when driving or operating machinery, particularly if you are prone to dizziness through hypoventilation.

Hasta Luego

This is certainly not an exhaustive list of techniques or tips for managing breathing. I hope it helps however for you find a connection between breathing and optimal physical functioning so that you will get more out of exercise. If you have any specific thoughts or tips that you’d like to share, perhaps you’d like to leave a comment.




2 Responses to “Breathing: The worlds worst kept fitness “secret””

  1. teenieyogini 28 January 2013 at 00:21 #

    Yessss! All of that!
    Also, squatting. I have noticed that when people (myself included) start to feel winded or dizzy, the instinct is to drop the head down, put the hands on the knees, close the eyes and pant. While having the head below the heart does lower the heart rate, this position really makes everything much worse. When you apply pressure to one part of the body, you limit the blood flow to that area, so when you remove the pressure, all of your effort to calm and steady the heart rate and blood flow is immediately undone as the blood goes rushing back into the formerly restricted area. Closing the eyes causes you to lose your position in the room, so every time you open them you have to refocus yourself, which when can lead to feeling dizzy and wastes energy that could otherwise be used for your practice. Panting dries out the mouth and makes filling the lungs increasingly difficult. Dogs pant to cool themselves off. We are humans, we don’t need to do that because we can sweat.
    It’s extremely scary and counterintuitive at first, but when feeling winded and dizzy, we can regain control much more efficiently by doing the exact opposite. Stand straight up, keep the eyes open, look casually in a general froward direction (as opposed to tunnel vision), and focus on breathing normally with a closed mouth. Additionally, turning the palms forward (stand with your arms hung loosely at your sides, palms are touching thighs, right? Flip it over, so the backs of your hands touch your thighs and palms face the direction of your eyes) creates a more efficient blood flow, and opens the chest just slightly. This very tiny detail has absolutely changed my practice.

    When you really just HAVE to get low (I’ve been there too, I get it), take one knee or kneel while keeping the head upright, eyes open, and breathing normally through the nose. Again, from this position, placing the hands gently on the thighs with palms facing up towards the ceiling, helps tremendously- try it, sometime, if you never have. You will be amazed.

    • Sean Robins 28 January 2013 at 07:29 #

      I didn’t provide much about recovery breathing did I?! And you’re absolutely correct that when you get the urge to pant, what you really need to be doing is slowing down, standing tall and breathing more deeply. As you’ve mentioned, you also need to open the chest, and another way to do this is to place your hands behind your head and push the elbows back slightly.

      Thanks for commenting 🙂

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