On Breathing: The Importance of Proper Breathing When Exercising

Posted by Bruce Scott on Oct 20th 2020

A female athlete training with YBells at dawn on Bondi Beach.
A male athlete training with YBells at dawn on Bondi Beach.

On Breathing: The Importance of Proper Breathing When Exercising

If you’re not breathing you’re dying. It’s that simple.

You breathe 20,000 times a day, and the quality of each of those breaths affects every system in the body.

Breathing has the unique position of being able to be controlled by both the somatic (conscious) and autonomic (subconscious) aspects of the nervous system. This means that your body will breathe for you all day with no conscious mental input. And at any time you choose, you can consciously breathe.

This aspect of breathing is a two-way bridge between the body and the mind. Through conscious breathing, you can gain access to regulating both your physical and mental states.

If you think of your deepest relaxation at one end of the spectrum and your fullest physical and mental exertion at the other, breathing can be the mechanism that lets you take control of your experience and slide and glide smoothly along that spectrum. Your state of being calibrates perfectly with each situation you are in and the task you need to do. This is how your body can control your breathing with exercise or while meditating.

We all know that breathing can be used to calm the mind. Everyone has been told to “calm down and take a deep breath”. Archers and shooters use the aspect of breathing to the level of being able to calm their minds and still their bodies. This technique allows them to loosen the arrow or pull the trigger in the pause between their heartbeats.

It can also be used to energize and stimulate the system — think of a weight lifter before a maximum lift, or boxers and MMA fighters before they enter the ring. Their breathing will occur in quick, little bursts. It’s what the yogis call Kapalabhati breathing or breath of fire. This energizes the body, and then often they will take a long, slow deep breath to calm the mind — putting them in “the zone” for peak performance.

Mastering both the long, slow deep breathing and the short, sharp burst breathing gives you the ability to regulate up or regulate down your body and mind at will. Here are some breathing exercises that can help you prepare your body for proper breathing while exercising:

Breathing Exercise for Relaxing the Nervous System:

Note: This exercise involves holding your breath, which involves a risk of getting dizzy or fainting. Only do this exercise while sitting down in a comfortable, supported seat. Never do it while in water or operating a vehicle or heavy machinery.

This exercise has the incredible effect of calming the mind. It also develops the coordination and connection to the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a muscle like any other skeletal muscle, and its coordination can be developed with practice.

Breath 1:

  1. Inhale for a count of 3.
  2. Hold your breath for a count of 12.
  3. Exhale for a count of 6.

Breath 2:

  1. Inhale for a count of 4.
  2. Hold your breath for a count of 16 (or as close as you can comfortably get).
  3. Exhale for a count of 8.

Breath 3:

  1. Inhale for a count of 5.
  2. Hold your breath for a count of 20 (or as close as you can comfortably get).
  3. Exhale for a count of 10.

It’s important to use your count of each of these breaths. Whatever feels comfortable to you without any strain or force.

Breath Training: Diaphragmatic Breathing

Breathing from the diaphragm, often called belly breathing or abdominal breathing, allows the exchange of incoming oxygen in your lungs for the outgoing carbon dioxide. Diaphragmatic breathing slows your heartbeat and can lower your blood pressure.

  1. Lie on your back on the floor with your knees bent.
  2. Put your right hand on your upper chest and your left hand just below your rib cage.
  3. Take a deep breath in slowly through your nose. Feel the air go deep, towards your lower belly. Your right hand should remain still, but you should feel your left hand rise as you inhale.
  4. Tighten your abdominal muscles. As you exhale through your lips, let your abdominal muscles fall inward. Your left hand below your rib cage should move back to its original position once you fully exhale.

Practicing diaphragmatic breathing daily can help to improve your core stability and improve your tolerance for intense exercise. This is especially helpful if you’re gearing up for high-intensity workouts like high-intensity interval training (HIIT) or high-intensity resistance training (HIRT).

Breathing Exercise for Energizing the Body and Mind:

This type of breathing is called “burst breathing”, or in the yogi tradition, Kapalbhati. This exercise comes from the Russian military’s special forces, the Spetsnaz.

  1. Start walking at your normal walking pace.
  2. When your right foot hits the ground, take a quick sip of air.
  3. When your left foot hits the floor, do a short exhale.
  4. Keep this breathing going as you walk... inhale right foot, exhale left foot.

You will find that this breathing cycle is much shorter and faster than your usual breathing. Walk for 100 meters or so and see how you feel. You most likely will find that you feel more energetic and more alert.

Breath Training: The Valsalva Maneuver

The Valsalva maneuver is a breathing technique that helps to slow your heart. It relaxes your heart’s electrical system and is especially helpful when your heart is beating too quickly. The Valsalva maneuver is also a popular breathing technique for weightlifting.

This Valsalva breathing exercise should be done while laying down or sitting down.

  1. Take a deep breath and hold it.
  2. Pinch your nose.
  3. Close your mouth.
  4. Bear down hard, like you’re having a bowel movement.
  5. While bearing down, try to exhale like you’re trying to inflate a balloon.
  6. Maintain this for about 10 to 15 seconds.

Note: As with all exercise, you should consult your physician about proper breathing and training for your physical condition.

The Importance of Proper Breathing With Strength Training

Proper breathing, as with all exercise and nutrition, can positively impact your fitness goals. Just as you want to focus your body on proper form, you’ll want to focus your lungs on proper breathing while lifting weights.

Proper breathing with exercising and strength training will help you to get the most out of your workout routine. This is achieved by inhaling through your nose on relaxation and exhaling through pursed lips during exertion. As your workout intensity increases, it’s especially important to breathe out through the mouth.  

Here are additional breathing tips to keep in mind for strength training:

  1. Breathe in through your nose. This helps to slow the breath, helps your lungs work more effectively, and provides better oxygen transportation to your body.
  2. Breathe deeply, with your belly. Remember this step from your diaphragmatic breathing exercise? Belly breathing contracts your diaphragm, pulls your lungs downward, and brings air into your lungs.
  3. Breathe rhythmically. Using a rhythmic breathing pattern allows your lungs to take in more oxygen. This also puts less pressure on your diaphragm. A 2:2 rhythm works well for running. For fast-paced interval training, you may want to try a 1:1 rhythm.
  4. Exhale fully. Feeling like you can’t catch your breath often means you’re not exhaling fully. This builds up excess carbon dioxide (CO2) in your body. You want to exhale just as fully as you inhale.

As mentioned earlier, your body’s breathing has the unique position of being somatic (conscious) and automatic (subconscious). Your body will subconsciously breathe for you all day, and you can consciously train your body through the breathing techniques and breath training provided.

A Bonus Exercise: The YBell Machine Gun Squat

I’ve also put together a simple exercise with the YBell for you to try out. It’s a great exercise that can help improve your mobility, with or without the weight of the YBell Neo. Remember your breathing techniques while trying this one out!

Bruce displays how to properly perform a machine gun squat.

Bruce is a master of martial arts, movement and massage.

Over the past twenty-five years he has traveled the world immersing himself with traditional masters of Japanese Aikido, Chinese Qi Gong, Thai Massage and Yoga, as well as the more modern study of anatomy and physiology.

Bruce uses this diverse background to work with high-level performers to improve both their mental and physical capacity, unlocking potential through mindful movement, massage and meditation.

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Instagram: @thebodymagician