Breath of Life - why breathing is critical to moving

I want to talk about why breathing properly during exercise is so important.

What is proper breathing anyway? Well proper breathing consists of three parts really:
1. The inhale
2. What you do with the breath once you have it
3. And then the exhale

The Inhale - Regulates Breathing

First let’s focus on the inhale. It's important to train yourself to breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose. Start by simply becoming aware of how you breathe. Take a minute, find a comfortable seat, place your right hand on your collar bones and your left hand on your belly. When you breathe in take note of which hand moves - is it your right or your left? If you’re breathing properly, the hand that's on your belly will be moving in and out while the hand on your collar bones will hardly move at all. This is often called ‘stomach breathing’ or ‘belly breathing’ . What’s happening is that you are using your diaphragm the way it was designed to draw air down into your lower lungs - the region of your belly. This causes the cylinder around your belly, including your sides, even your lower back, to expand with the inhale.

Note: Interesting bit of trivia about your nose... Your nose performs lots of functions for you including warming, humidifying, and filtering the air that goes into your lungs (the hairlike cilia in your nasal passages filter out nearly 20 billion particles a day!). These are all the other reasons you should breathe through your nose.

During exercise the most important thing breathing through your nose does for you is that it regulates your cycle of breathing and allows your body to take in more oxygen. Oxygen plays a vital role in both kinds of exercise - slow, endurance types of exercise that can be sustained for an extended period of time (aerobic) and quick, explosive movements that require tremendous amounts of energy (anaerobic). Both types use oxygen differently. To put it simply, oxygen intake during aerobic exercise generally means you last longer. Increased oxygen intake during anaerobic exercise generally means your body and muscles recover faster.

The In-Between - Breathe As Support

Second, proper breathing technique provides support for your entire core especially your spine. You should use the muscles in your diaphragm and your pelvic floor to create pressure with the air you have just breathed in. How do you do that? First, brace your diaphragm by pushing out slightly, as if you were bracing your abs to take a punch. The second part may seem a little strange...  but at the same time push down slightly using the same muscles you use when you have a bowel movement. It goes without saying that you also want to keep your sphincter muscles tight. Keeping this kind of pressure inside the “pelvic bowl” gives you a really solid foundation from which to lift. This is super important during deadlifts and squats but once you learn the technique you can apply it in every lift.

Note: Warning!... if you have heart trouble or high blood pressure do not use this technique!

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The Exhale - The Relief Valve

Do not hold your breath all the way through a deadlift or squat (or any exercise for that matter) or you may likely pass out. instead, keep the tension until you hit the halfway point then let it out under pressure using your lips or your teeth. You’ll hear lots of sounds when people do this. Most often it’s a ‘shhhhh’ or ‘sssss’ sound or just a tight lip blow as if you’re trying to blow up a balloon. Think of your lips and teeth as a relief valve on a pressure cooker, giving the extra pressure a way to escape.

One last thing on the topic of pressurizing your ‘pelvic bowl’. Everybody’s seen balloon animals, right? You know how those balloons are typically long and skinny? During pressing movements (push-ups, squats, etc.) imagine that your arm or leg is one of those balloons and imagine that you are pushing your air into that limb as if to inflate it. If you do this you’ll find your joints and base of support are more stable which also translates into more power.

Don't 'Panic Breathe'

The third point on proper breathing focuses on all three parts functioning together to regulate your cadence and rhythm and keep you out of ‘panic breathing’. Panic breathing is when your breathing is more like panting - short gulps or gasps or air through the mouth. This shallow breathing only fills the upper lobes of the lungs. The problem is that the upper lobes are used only in dire emergencies for flight or flight responses. This makes you over-adrenalized and puts your body in stress mode. Instead, you should breathe deeply in through your nose, hold that breath in for a couple of counts (always maintaining a slight pressure - martial artists call this breathing behind the shield), and then breathe out slowly through the mouth with pressure to provide that important pelvic support when necessary (as in the case of deadlifting).

Breath As Life

Finally, with each breath out think about letting go of unnecessary tension and with each breath in think about life coming into your body - because it really is life. I find it interesting that from the ancient Hebrew perspective, the text in Genesis 2:7 says God “formed the man (Adam) from out of the dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a living creature.” So from that perspective, there are two layers of meaning in nasal breathing - a physical and a spiritual. And I like that because it makes me think more deeply about it and appreciate the fact that the breath I breathe in is truly a gift of life.