What You Need to Know About Breathing and Exercise

Breathing and Exercise: Chest vs Diaphragmatic Breathing & More

Proper Breathing and Exercise: Diaphragmatic vs Chest RespirationIntroduction

Admit it: you’re hitting the gym regularly, you’re getting closer to that 5-minute mile, your strength training form is looking pretty good too. But you don’t really think too much (if at all) about your breathing patterns during any of these activities. Many experienced exercisers would be surprised to learn that their fitness progress as well as their mental state and overall health are suboptimal due to unexamined poor breathing patterns.

Respiration during exercise is something most of us take for granted. It feels so automatic, so we don’t tend to think about it much. You breathe in, you breathe out, maybe you’re panting a little, but you’re not passing out from lack of oxygen, so you must be doing it correctly, right? Well, not necessarily.

Read on to find out more about what poor breathing patterns can do to your body and mind and what breathing changes you can make to turn it around and reap better rewards for your investment of precious time and effort.

Respiration Basics

Put simply, with every in breath (inspiration/inhalation), we gather oxygen from the outside environment and make it available for use inside the body. With every out breath (expiration/exhalation), we expel waste products such as carbon dioxide which are toxic to the body if they are allowed to accumulate. Since every cell in every tissue throughout the whole body needs a steady supply of oxygen to function and constantly creates carbon dioxide as a byproduct of these functions, the need for efficient inspiration and expiration is immediately clear.

Chest Breathing vs. Diaphragmatic Breathing

Many of us breathe too shallowly: on the in breath, the chest and shoulders rise while the stomach stays flat or even retracts. This is especially common in a fitness setting where everybody is trying to look their slimmest by “sucking it in”! This is called chest breathing, and it is detrimental to your health and exercise progress. The lungs don’t fill to capacity and the body is deprived of much-needed oxygen.

Contrast this with diaphragmatic breathing, during which the diaphragm (that sheet of muscle separating the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity) is the prime mover. The breath is deeper and the belly moves as well as the chest, since the lungs are filling to capacity instead of just partway. The body receives more oxygen and is better able to cope with the demands placed on it by exercise. Learn more about proper breathing during exercise.

The Problems with Improper Breathing

In habitual shallow breathers, posture is adversely affected due to muscle imbalances developing in the chest, neck, and shoulders. This can lead to tension headaches, lightheadedness, and dizziness. Additionally, muscles are deprived of oxygen and retain metabolic waste, leading to stiff, fatigued muscles which require more recovery time. Also, since joints need lubrication from movement to function well, you’re at an increased risk for back injury with underutilized spinal joints due to lack of diaphragm movement.

Breathing and Mental Health

Shallow breathing is often a symptom of being in “survival mode”, reinforcing anxiety and stress patterns. Breathing deeply, mindfully, and efficiently not only improves exercise performance; it also helps combat feelings of anxiety or upset that we all experience from time to time, or all the time in more severe cases.

So if you’re using exercise as a way to de-stress, you have yet another reason to reinforce better breathing patterns which will improve physical AND mental health.

So How Am I Supposed to Breathe Instead?

The answer is fairly simple, although difficult to implement if you don’t stay on top of it, since you may be combating a lifetime of poor breathing habits. Instead of breathing shallowly into the chest, breathe deeply into the lower lungs, expanding the diaphragm. Allow your belly to move freely instead of “sucking it in”. Don’t pant when exercising, even when performing cardio. Instead, draw long, deep breaths as much as possible.

Some experts advocate breathing exclusively through the mouth during cardio since it’s the path of least resistance, allowing for the quickest delivery of oxygen into the lungs. Others say it’s best to breathe in through the nose, believing that doing so creates a better balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide within the blood. Elite athletes intent on improving cardiorespiratory performance typically breathe through the nose for periods of time (called intermittent hypoxic training) because it slows down oxygen intake and forces the cardiorespiratory system to make adaptations to work more efficiently in low-oxygen conditions. However, since the jury is still out on what works best for most exercisers, it’s best to do what feels most comfortable and effective to you.

During strength training, breathe out on the exertion (the “harder” part) and in after the exertion while you’re getting in position for the next rep. Your breaths may indeed be shorter than usual due to the pace of your lifting, but make sure to return to deep diaphragmatic breathing between sets.

Final Thoughts

Breathing properly is one of the best habits you can form, especially during exercise. If you learn how to breathe right, you’ll be able to exercise longer and more efficiently while reaping maximum rewards for your time and effort. No matter what your sport or preferred mode of exercise, you’ll find that proper breathing can make the difference between optimum performance and having to hit the shower early because you pooped out.

With good breathing habits, your lifts will be easier, your run will go more smoothly, you’ll be able to power through those last 10 bicycle crunches, you’ll last longer in those tough yoga poses, your fogged-out mental state will clear up…and all the while your enjoyment and sense of well-being during exercise will rise as if by magic.

Practice diaphragmatic breathing not just at the gym, but at home, on your commute, etcetera. The more you practice good breathing patterns, the more automatic it will become. Changing poor patterns which have been reinforced over years of innocent ignorance isn’t necessarily an easy task, but it can be done with time, effort, and attention.

Breathing and Exercise:  References

1. Clark, M.A., Lucett, S.C., and Sutton, B.G., (Eds.). (2012). NASM essentials of personal fitness training. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
2. McConnell, A. (2011). Breathe strong, perform better. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
3. Rakhimov, A. (2012). Effects of exercise on the respiratory system. Retrieved from http://www.normalbreathing.com/c-effects-of-exercise-on-the-respiratory-system.php#.UPSeZdnCZ8F

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About Mae Barraclough

Mae Barraclough, B.S., NASM-CPT, NASM-CES is a certified personal trainer, corrective exercise specialist, and licensed Zumba Instructor. With her passion for health, fitness, and dance, Mae loves learning all she can and sharing her knowledge with others.

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