You’ve been doing it about 20,000 times a day since the moment you were born. In fact, you’re doing it right now. More importantly, experts are saying you’re doing it all wrong.
We’re referring to breathing, which seems like such a natural act that we only think of it when we’re huffing and puffing at the end of a 10k — not while walking to work, eating breakfast, or any other normal activity.
What exactly does it mean to say we’re all breathing “wrong?” If you’ve made it this far, it seems like you’ve been doing an OK job. Oxygen is coming in; carbon dioxide is going out. But, according to Noam Tamir, CSCS, founder of TS Fitness in New York City, while we might be getting by, we could be breathing better. In fact, improving our breathing could help to lower blood pressure, decrease stress, improve athletic performance, and maybe even increase brain size.
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Breathe In, Breathe Out: Common Breathing Mistakes
When Tamir works with a new client, the first thing he puts them through is the Functional Movement Screen to assess any major muscle imbalances. Closely following the FMS is a breathing assessment. During the evaluation, Tamir is looking for any one or a combination of breathing inefficiencies we’ve developed over time. The term “inefficient breathing” can mean various things depending on who you ask, but for Tamir, it breaks down to these three mishaps:
Rather than breathing deeply through the belly using the diaphragm, it’s common to see breathing through the top of the chest, Tamir says, which forces the body to rely on other muscles not built for the task at hand. When you breathe through the chest, “you’re using a lot of ancillary muscles, such as those in the neck, that you really don’t need to use.” This can also reinforce neck and shoulder tension common among office workers. Following the age-old principle “Use it or lose it,” this reliance on ancillary muscles also weakens the diaphragm. A weak diaphragm will fatigue easily during exercise, meaning your muscles won’t receive the optimum amount of blood flow during your next CrossFit WOD or 5K.
Another bad habit when it comes to our breath? We’re working too hard to get in the oxygen that we need. Rather than taking deep, full breaths, we’re resorting to shallow, quick ones, forcing the body to work overtime to get the same amount of oxygen, Tamir says. This could partly be due to poor posture, most prevalent among those who slump over a screen all day (not to mention gym-goers who overemphasize mirror muscles instead of focusing on balance). With the shoulders hunched forward, we lose part of our ability to expand our diaphragm and take the big, full breaths that can boost workout perfomance, increase efficiency, and help manage stress.
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Lack of Rhythm
No, we’re not talking about the kind you would see on the dance floor. If you’ve ever focused on your breathing while running to help pass the time, you’ve likely noticed a specific rhythm to your breath. Perhaps it matched the pace of your footsteps (cadence) or your arm swing. Whatever the pattern, breathing smoothly and rhythmically can play a calming role, particularly in athletes, says Tamir. If your breathing is erratic, it’s hard to get into the zone — whether that’s busting out your last track interval or burning through your last set of squats.
3 Breathing Techniques to Boost Performance
Breathing has a huge impact on our health and fitness, but we’re probably not taking advantage of it just yet. The good news is that anyone can improve their breathing with even a small time investment, Tamir says. And it all starts with basic awareness. Tamir recommends focusing on just your breathing one to two times a day, starting with just one minute at a time. Seem doable? Here’s your playbook for success.
1. When you’re at your desk…
Take advantage of the stress-relief properties of proper breathing. Deep breathing has been shown to increase activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, the system opposite our fight-or-flight response responsible for a calmer, more tranquil demeanor. If possible, Tamir suggests working on your breathing lying on the ground with your feet up against a wall, which removes gravity from the equation. (You can also get similar benefits from doing the exercise in your chair or standing if you want to avoid the stare of your coworkers or classmates.)
Next, put one hand on your chest and the other on your abdominal area. For one to two minutes, take deep, focused breaths, making sure you spend as much time on the exhalation as the inhalation. In fact, Tamir notes that the exhalation will often be deeper than the inhalation. The key with this exercise is to make sure that your abdominals rise before your chest.
Focusing on your breath prior to exercising reinforces proper breathing mechanics before any heavy lifting or HIIT.
2. When you’re warming up…
Since breathing has such an impact on athletic performance, the warm-up is the perfect time to refocus the priority on your breath. Spend a few minutes foam rolling your upper body, particularly the areas hampering your ability to breathe correctly (think: chest, shoulders and neck). Then, go through the deep breathing exercise described above before proceeding into your active warm-up. By focusing on your breath prior to exercising, you’re reinforcing proper breathing mechanics before any heavy lifting or HIIT takes place. The result: Less huffing and puffing once the exertion commences, leading to a more efficient workout.
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3. When you’re working out…
Was it inhale on the way down or on the way up? Was holding my breath good or bad? Trying to remember when and how to breathe while working out can be tough. Here are two tips to help you get it right in the gym:
For heavy loads and max efforts, use the Vasalva maneuver.
Val-what? The Valsalva Manuever is a technique that involves taking a deep breath immediately prior to lifting and holding that breath while you lift. Using this method, “You’re creating a lot of intra-abdominal pressure,” Tamir explains. This increase in pressure creates a strong foundation for your body and allows it to handle more weight. Before approaching a max-effort deadlift, for instance, lifters would stand over the bar and prepare for the lift. Right before setting their grip, they would take a deep breath in and hold that air inside the lungs throughout the rep.
Wait — holding your breath during exercise? Wouldn’t that be dangerous? Some research has indeed claimed that the increase in pressure caused by the Valsalva maneuver could have negative health implications (increasing risk of stroke for example). However, a comprehensive recap done by Dr. Jonathon Sullivan, Associate Professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Wayne State University/Detroit Receiving Hospital, explains this risk mainly applies to those with preexisting conditions such as uncontrolled blood pressure or other cerebrovascular issues. As with any piece of health advice, it’s best to check with your doctor prior to getting under the bar just to be safe.
For sub-maximal loads, use bracing.
The term “bracing” was first coined by Dr. Stuart McGill, a leading researcher in spine mechanics. Bracing involves activating all of your core musculature from all angles to create a “superstiffness” of the midsection. This bracing creates stability throughout the entire core and reduces injury risk. For example, while performing a lateral raise, lifters should tighten their midsection as if they were about to be punched in the stomach (actual punch not recommended!). This involves more than just pulling in your abs. Instead, imagine tightening your abominals, lower back, lats and obliques for 360 degrees of tension. Now, hold that throughout the exercise!
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Between counting your macros, hydrating, stretching, foam rolling, and the myriad other habits you have set up to improve your health, breathing is easy to overlook. But, when you take into account how many times you breathe each day? Taking those 20,000 reps into consideration, even the smallest improvements can have a huge impact. Set aside one to two minutes a day to improve your breathing, and then carry those new habits into the office, the gym, or wherever else the day takes you. You’ll huff and puff your way to a fitter, faster and stronger you!
Check out this video on how to do proper breathing practices while working out:
Originally published January 2015. Updated in August 2016.