Breathing is easy. It is part of the autonomic nervous system that controls our breathing without us thinking about it. Unfortunately, just because we do something naturally, it does not mean that we do it well. On an average day, we take up to 23,000 breaths of air. That is a lot…what that also means is there is a lot of room for error. We talk a lot about fine tuning our mechanical movements here at the gym and this is one of the least talked about/addressed motor functions that we do the most. We strive to improve our big lifts, lose fat and build muscle but, we need to pay attention to the little things to that will aid to improve the big things.
How You Breath
If you were to Google: “How to breath?”, you would be prompted with hundreds of explanations of how to and how to correctly breath. There are plenty of books on the subject that go into great detail outlining the intricacies of the respiratory system. Breathing is that important and it deserves the attention to detail that it receives…especially at the university level as there are plenty of people who spend their lives studying the subject matter. However, I lack the ability to go into that great of detail and I like to keep things simple….
Imagine that there is a rubber band around your belly, chest and upper back. When you inhale, all of the bands should expand and when you exhale, all of the bands should come back to starting position. What this means is 360 degrees of breathing. This is often referred to as diaphragmatic breathing…Most of us however, breath into our chest or neck. We are self-conscious of having our bellies poke through our shirts so we shorten our breaths and burden the smaller muscles responsible for our ability to breath. More specifically, this will tax the secondary muscles unnecessarily that are supposed to aid in our breathing and lead to overworked neck musculature. Subsequently, we will have a difficult time when we are under load in the gym.
Common Breathing Issues
I get this question often: “When do I breath?”. My one sentence response usually is: you inhale to start and exhale at the greatest point of exertion. Most people forget to breath and this will throw individuals out of sync with their lifts. We need to be working on our mechanics both in and out…so, we need to match our breaths perfectly with each repetition. If we do not, this will decrease performance and limit the body’s ability to stabilize correctly at times. For example: when you are benching, overhead pressing or doing a push up, you should inhale at the start phase and exhale as you are performing the mechanic. So you should be “blowing” the weight off your chest or over your head. Inversely, when we are pulling, we should inhale at the start of the pull and exhale as we are pulling the barbell closer to us.
What if you are performing planks or other isometric exercises? No worries, I have an answer for that…You breath normally with a focus on proper breathing (duh John). Instead of doing these exercises for time, perform them with a set of full breaths in mind. Remember, we want to breath thoroughly and with 360 degrees around the trunk. Without getting into a huge physiological lesson here, your muscles are activated under stress neurogenically. This is the tone that our muscles take under stress of working out and is different from myogenic tone, which is the tone our muscles take during rest. Neurogenic tone is controlled by the autonomic nervous system (see what I did there) and is vastly improved with isometric exercise. What this means is, your isometric exercises can increase density and overall appearance of the muscle. When we are breathing properly in such instances as a plank, we are inducing proper stability in the trunk and allowing the appropriate musculature to be activated and become stronger. This is why I incorporate a lot of band work into core routines and why crunches are not the best bet for abdominal definition…
Seldom do we talk about breathing until one usually stops all together. Fringe idioms aside, doing the little things correctly, day in and day out will improve all of the big things later. The cool thing about breathing is that we do it all the time and can do it anywhere (mostly anywhere). So this means we can practice proper breathing both in the gym and while sitting at work reading this article!