I want to talk about breathing this month. Sure, we all do it, but are we doing it effectively? Most specifically, are we breathing optimally while exercising or training. Making sure we are breathing optimally will ensure we are strong and less likely to injure ourselves.
Over the years I have had many students or clients say something to the effect of ‘breathing in this move/exercise is hard’, or ‘I can’t seem to get the breathing pattern right.’ Breathing during a physically demanding movement is challenging and I get it. This post is about how I help my clients and students learn the correct breathing patterns (and hopefully it will help you, too!). As part of this learning process, I also aim to teach them (and you) why these breathing patterns are so important.
The Breathing Struggles
First let’s look at why breathing can be difficult while exercising or during your training activity: your core is (hopefully) contracted. I say hopefully because not every one out there doing physical activity is contracting their core or contracting it correctly. Your core is your center and where all movement begins and its job is to protect and stabilize the spine in movement. If you have been in any of my classes or training sessions, you probably have heard me refer to the doll from the 50’s (maybe earlier than that) where you pulled the string that runs through their center and the arms and legs move. I like this illustration because we really can’t–or more importantly, shouldn’t–be moving our bodies ever without moving from our center, which means moving from an engaged core. Now that doesn’t mean you have to maximally contract your core every time you want to take a step or sit in a chair, but it does mean that your core should be turned on.
Think of this as great practice for when you go to your training sessions. If you start engaging your core while standing, walking, getting up out of bed, standing up from a chair, while picking up grocery bags and any of the other numerous daily movements we do, then you can start training yourself to have your core slightly turned on for daily life. When you catch yourself in a moment of disengagement, just start over again. Eventually the times when your core is slightly engaged will become longer time periods and the times when you’re not engaged will become shorter, until you have mastered this move. This will take daily practice and it will need to be repeated throughout the day, because forgetting will happen, it’s normal. And…..begin.
You may be wondering how much should I contract my core muscles? A little bit. Just enough where you feel your center pull in towards your spine a little. The slight engagement helps support a tall posture and your internal organs. You may find that some neck, shoulder or back pain lessens or disappears after you have trained yourself to approach life with a slightly engaged core .
With all that practice of engaging your core throughout daily life and of course, while breathing, you are on a good path to being able to contract those core muscles harder and exert a little effort and still be able to breathe.
So why does contracting your core with more effort, like during a plank, push-up or hanging leg lift, come with the increased challenge of keeping your core engaged and continuing to breathe? Well, that’s because your diaphragm–your major breathing muscle (see photo)–is the very top of your core. When we engage our core, we should be engaging our deep core muscles (diaphragm, transverse abdominis and pelvic floor) and then the more superficial core (obliques and rectus abdominis) FYI: these are still not all your core muscles, but what I am going to talk about currently.
When inhaling, your diaphragm contracts and presses down into your abdominal region making more room for your lungs to expand into as they take in oxygen. As the diaphragm presses into your abdominal region, this makes your belly rise up or expand out, which can be hard to do if you have contracted all the muscles in your abdominal region. This is why I generally–especially in the beginning–instruct clients or students to try to breathe laterally into their ribs as a way to not disrupt the contraction happening within the abdominal region. This lateral breathing can take practice. The reasoning behind offering this kind of breathing is that focusing on breathing into your rib cage and expanding the ribs out to the sides (and even to the back) usually helps people be able to continue to engage their core and be able breathe simultaneously. As I said earlier, most people find it hard to engage their core and still breathe and then they either hold their breath (not good on so many levels: oxygen depletion, rise in blood pressure to name a few) or when they take a breath, they lose their core contraction. This is also not ideal as it will put this person at risk for possible injury. Losing their core contraction also doesn’t help their core get any stronger.
Lateral breathing comes from my pilates training and I think it translates to aerial and circus training really well. I also think that it translates to most strength training. There are other breathing methods for specific types of weight training, but for this post, which is more about basic strength training and not powerlifting, I will not describe other breath work.
Here’s a great video explaining the pilates breathing.
More and More Challenging….
Of course as you gain strength and control in your core musculature, the breathing can take on more of a 360-degree filling of the ribs and abdominal region, but the expansion of your abdominal region will not be as much as it is when you are breathing with a relaxed core. This 360-degree style of breathing will also take practice.
Putting it to Work
Try breathing into your ribs while performing plank or side plank, hollow body, push-ups, squats or single-leg dead lifts (to name a few options). Again, this will take time and practice. Keep working at it.
Once you get the hang of breathing with a contracted core, it’s now time to check whether you’re breathing at the correct time while performing the exercise.
So now you have your contracted core and you can breathe while performing a (insert exercise here). Excellent! Now let’s check in on your pattern. More often than not, while exercising you should exhale on exertion. For example, when pushing up away from the floor in a push-up or when pushing up away from the floor in a squat. To get into some more aerial specifics, you want to exhale if you are doing hanging leg-lifts or when you are straddle inverting, or any inverting really. If you are doing pull-ups, exhale as you pull up, this is because this is harder, however if you are training pull-up negatives (to get your pull-ups some day soon) then you would exhale on the way down, because you are only focusing on the lowering phase in this exercise.
Now the reason for this is when we breathe in, our ribs naturally expand to make room for the inflation of your lungs. When the ribs expand out this flares the lower ribs a little, which is opposite of what is wanted when we are engaging our core and drawing everything in towards the spine to keep us protected and stable (contracting your core is not sucking in your stomach, this doesn’t really contract your muscles in a way that is going to protect your spine.) Flared ribs indicate an arch through the spine and now not only is the spine strained; the core contraction is compromised or gone.
On the other side of the breath, when we exhale, the ribs and abdominal region move in towards the spine and this is a way more ideal place for core contraction. That’s why when contracting your core you should do it on an exhale. This natural drawing down of your ribs and abdominal region on the exhale is perfectly harmonious for where you need your body to be when exercising with an engaged core.
Applying This to Exercise
Let me use the push up as an example. As you can see from the photos below the starting position is a strong plank shape: a line can be drawn from the ears through the shoulders, hips, knees and ankles. The lowered position, nothing changes, only the elbows bend. (There is some accessory movement of their scapula, but I usually don’t focus on this as a coaching cue at first). This is an example of a great push-up demonstrating breathing properly, inhaling on the way down and exhaling on the way up.
Now let’s look at some push-ups that, for this post, are demonstrating generally what someone looks like when they have their breathing in reverse: exhaling on the lowering phase and inhaling on the pressing-up phase (the harder of the two moves). Of course, a person can look like these not-so-great push-ups even if they are exhaling on the press up (exertion) phase, but I want to use these photos to illustrate how an inhale flares the ribs and if you are having trouble keeping the core engaged already, the incorrect breath pattern is going to weaken your perfect push-up position and send undue stress into your spine.
Can you see how the chest has popped forward (rib flair!), which makes their sunken (super retracted) shoulder blades worse? See the arch in the low back, which puts a huge load on the low back? On top of all that, because the core has become slightly, if not completely, disengaged they are setting themselves up for discomfort, especially in the low back, and maybe even injury. None of this is good.
Bringing it all together
The takeaway is that you want to get really good, through regular practice, at being able to contract your core while breathing. Starting with that light engagement of your core while going through your daily life. Then, work on your core contraction with the lateral breathing (expanding the rib cage sideways), first while seated or lying down without exercise and then take that lateral breathing to less demanding exercises: plank for short periods of time or a kneeling side plank. These exercises require you to engage your core, but you are not moving any part of your body so you can really focus on the strong core engagement while breathing and making sure it’s lateral breath. Once you have that you can begin to add exercises that have movements: dead bugs, push-ups, squats, leg raises… Make sure to exhale on the exertion to keep your body in the optimum position for performing the exercise and thus the best position to gain core strength and keep your spine safe.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not asking your to halt all exercise or physical training until you can walk through life with a slightly engaged core or master the lateral breathing. What I am asking is that you practice these things and become aware of these things in your training sessions. Notice when you lose your core contraction or when your ribs start to flare or when you’re not exhaling on exertion. Then pause, reset and begin again. If you can’t maintain good core contraction and proper breathing, call yourself done with that exercise level of challenge and try an easier version of that exercise. If that doesn’t work, maybe try an entirely different exercise. If none of those options help, you may be done training for the day. It is better to be safe than risk potential injury.
As always, I love hearing form you. If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments.