Our breath can tell us many things. Jill Miller, Yogi and author with over 30 years experience studying anatomy and movement states, “Breathing happens automatically about 20,000 times a day. Think about doing 20,000 burpees (with bad form) in a day. What havoc would that wreak on your system?”
Take a deep breath and take note of where you felt it the most. Did you feel your belly expand? Or did you feel your shoulders raise and chest expand? If it was the latter, this means you are taking shallow, thoracic breaths. If you’re breathing this way, you may find throughout the day that your back and shoulder muscles become super sore from being overworked.
The natural process of breathing and the power of the breath in athletic performance, stress management, and overall well being is often overlooked. So what is a more efficient way to breathe and how can I benefit from it?
What is Diaphragmatic Breathing?
Diaphragmatic breathing is also known as “belly breathing” and is a more efficient way of breathing as it allows our lungs to fill more fully with air. When you inhale through your belly, your diaphragm shifts downward, allowing more space in the thoracic cavity for the lungs to expand and fill with air.
Visualization strategies can be a great technique when learning how to breathe diaphragmatically. Visualization strategies could include thinking of a pinprick of light in the center of your diaphragm and this expanding out to all parts of your body with each inhale. You could also picture your diaphragm as a balloon, filling and expanding the stomach and rib cage outwards in all directions during inhalation.
How do I incorporate diaphragmatic breathing into my life?
Just being aware and paying attention to your breath is the first place to start in maximizing its benefit. Learning how to breathe diaphragmatically can be challenging, as it requires conscious effort and a retraining of your brain and muscles.
You can start by lying on your back and placing one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly. Bedtime is a great time to do this. Take deep breaths and pay attention to the rhythm of the breath and where you feel the breath in the body. The goal is to feel your hand on your belly rise while the hand on the chest stays relatively still.
Throughout the day tune into your breath, where you feel it, and try to keep tension out of the shoulders as you do so.
After you feel comfortable with belly breathing at home, you can try incorporating it into your workouts. Highlighted below are some strategies and techniques:
The 4-7-8 method…
One common breathing exercise is the 4-7-8 method. Inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds, and exhale through a slightly opened mouth for 8 seconds. Repeat this 4 times.
This method could be used between sets in the gym, throughout your day to mentally and physically reset, or to relax before bed.
A more direct way of tapping into your breath during workouts could be doing a breathing ladder. This can aid in learning how to use the breath to maximize recovery within workouts and maintain aerobic capacity through difficult workouts.
A common breathing ladder uses kettlebell swings as the exercise. Start with 1 kettlebell swing followed by 1 deep belly breath. “Climb the ladder” by doing 2 kettlebell swings followed by 2 breaths, and continue this through 12 reps and breaths.
In the gym..
With heavier weights and lower reps, take a deep breath into the belly before the lift and hold it. Holding your breath can improve force production by increasing intra-abdominal pressure, similar to the effect that a lifting or weight belt would have. Try to maintain this inhale until you get back to the top where you can exhale and reset. This technique is dependent on the person and the load being lifted. If the load is extremely heavy, the breath may have to be exhaled during the “sticking point.”
Weight belts can be a good tool to tell you whether you’re breathing into the right place. If you’re having trouble with determining whether you’re breathing into your belly, try throwing on a weight belt during your next lift. With a true belly breath, you should feel your belly press outwards against the belt during inhalation
With aerobic activity and lighter weight resistance training, just remember to breathe. The breath can be a useful tool for runners to avoid or overcome side stitches and to maintain a desired cadence.
Pre-game or Pre-competition…
Many athletes experience overwhelming pregame or pre-competition anxiety. Some arousal can be good prior to a game or competition as it hypes the athlete up. However, if the arousal becomes overwhelming it can be a detriment to performance.
Incorporating belly breathing into a pregame routine can help an athlete regulate their anxiety. It can also help the athlete improve their motor coordination, focus, composure, and make faster decisions on the court, field, or track.
When stretching and cooling down…
Breathe into your stretches or while foam rolling. Stretching and breathing both activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps to calm the body and switch off the “fight or flight” mechanism of the sympathetic nervous system. Thus, incorporating breathwork into your cool down routine would be a two-for-one benefit, as it can help you sink deeper into the stretch, while simultaneously relaxing the body after a tough workout.
How can breathing help my recovery?
One study showed that a session of diaphragmatic breathing after exhaustive exercise led to decreased oxidative stress, increased melatonin, and decreased cortisol levels. What does this mean?
Too much oxidative stress, which is the imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants, can cause chronic inflammation, aging, and damage to body’s muscles, cells, DNA. Chronic inflammation hinders recovery of the muscles. Less inflammation means more muscle recovery.
Increased melatonin levels can improve sleep quality, one of the tools we know aids in recovery. It helps regulate our sleep-wake cycle and will improve the feeling of how rested you feel in the morning.
Exercise releases cortisol, a catabolic hormone. Some of this hormone is good, but chronic stress and overtraining can lead to chronically elevated cortisol levels. This hinders muscle growth. Enter diaphragmatic breathing! Diaphragmatic breathing can help reduce levels of cortisol in the body through the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system.
Sleep and rest is one of the most important factors in training, recovery, and rehab. Stress manifests itself in a lot of different ways in the human body. If you are trying to push your performance in the next level, rehabilitate a musculoskeletal injury, or turn a corner in your job... then you will want to ensure you are getting an appropriate amount of rest. The best tool we have to modify our sleep and rest schedule is breathing. We are learning more and more about the impact of breathing but one thing is for sure... it plays a huge role in fitness and health.
If you want to learn more about what the latest research says about breathing and rest, reach out to us today! We would love to help you on your path to improving your health and performance. Prime Performance Rehab serves active adults in the Charleston area get out of pain and get back to doing the things they love. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org today to connect with us!
This blog was written by Ansley Bucknam; student at Meredith College and future DPT student.