Good Breathing: It’s More Than Just Inhales and Exhales!

As I often tell my cycling classes, you’re going to hear a lot about breathing and posture when you find yourself riding with a former singer and current Pilates instructor. The two are absolutely related – and they can make a big difference in the quality of your workout, regardless of if you’re a yogi, bodybuilder or marathoner.

Proper breathing can help you to accomplish a number of things: push through a tough exercise, stay energized, and yes, even make it feel a little easier. Though it seems counterintuitive (isn’t breathing something that just happens involuntarily?), many people – beginners and veteran exercisers, too – make the mistake of holding their breath during exercise.

Throughout most of our day, we only use 10-15% of our maximum lung capacity, which, over time, conditions us to rely on shallow breaths rather than deep, full breaths. By making a conscious effort to expand our lungs fully during exercise, we become more in-tune with our bodies – and the extra oxygen allows us to work harder, while still remaining comfortable and avoiding any complications, such as dizziness or light-headedness. As a general rule, for any type of exercise, you want to think about inhaling on the easier part of the motion, then allowing the exhale to help push you through the more difficult part of the motion.

Much like the clothes you wear to the gym can depend on what you’re planning on doing on any given day (please tell me I’m not the only one who is super-picky about which pants I wear to run vs. lift vs. cycle …), your breathing may differ, too. Perfect example? Pilates breath vs. yoga breath. In Pilates, we breathe in through the nose, and out through the mouth, creating additional power through the exhale, in turn helping us to push through a teaser or a double straight leg stretch. In yoga, we breathe both in and out through the nose, allowing the steady, constant breath to guide us through the poses, one cycle of breath at a time.

It can be a very different story as far as cardiovascular exercise is concerned – by getting your heart rate up, naturally, your breathing rate increases, as well.  Because you are challenging your lungs, heart, and muscles simultaneously, your body needs as much oxygen (and thus blood) as it can get. By focusing more intently on taking deep, diaphragmatic breaths, you can actually help to control your heart rate to an extent … and in many cases, can even help runners avoid side cramps.

The cue that I often give my classes is to think of your lungs as bellows: the lungs inflate fully during your inhale, and deflate completely during your exhale.  Here are a few tips to help you get diaphragmatic (or “singers’ breathing,” if you will) breathing down:

  1. Inhale fully, imagining that your ribs are pulling away from one another and the space in your center is opening up.
  2. Stop for just a second to feel the expansion in your lungs – it should feel a little different to breathe fully, rather than shallowly from your chest!
  3. Exhale completely, thinking about squeezing every ounce of oxygen out of your lungs. Get your abdominal muscles in on the action – you should feel your core tighten up as you release those last few ounces of breath.

Which leads me to one last thought on the topic of breath, which we briefly touched on earlier: posture. The more space you create for your breath, the easier it will be to inhale and exhale. That said, think of keeping your chin up and your spine properly aligned. How do you know if you’re there? Imagine there is a string attached to the top of your head. It runs through each of your vertebra, down into your tailbone. Now imagine that someone is holding onto the string, pulling you straight up into alignment. This positioning should allow you to keep your shoulders down and back – pushing your chest forward – and giving your body the ideal posture for strong, full breaths. Good luck … and just BREATHE!