Breathe Your Way Fitter

Something as simple as the way you inhale and exhale can give you more energy every day and supercharge your workout. Here’s how.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Something as simple as the way you inhale and exhale can give you more energy every day and supercharge your workout. Here’s how.

TAKE A CLEANSING BREATH When you breathe in through your nose, the air is filtered and warmed to body temperature to maximise lung function.
TAKE A CLEANSING BREATH When you breathe in through your nose, the air is filtered and warmed to body temperature to maximise lung function.

Breathing happens automatically (about 20,160 times a day), so you don’t need to think about it. But if you do, you can unlock stores of energy and unload stress 24/7 – plus be stronger and speedier, as well as more centred during your workouts. To start, here’s a quick refresher: Your diaphragm is the major muscle responsible for breathing, but this below-the-lungs powerhouse tends to sit somewhat idle in most people. “In fact, it’s partially paralysed,” says Belisa Vranich, a clinical psychologist and founder of the Breathing Class, a series of workshops designed to reset healthy breathing patterns. To tell if yours is on duty, lie face up on the floor and place your left hand on your chest and right hand on your belly. Breathe. “If only your right hand rises and falls, you’re breathing from the diaphragm,” says conditioning specialist Tony Mikla, performance physical therapy manager for the EXOS training centre in Phoenix in the US. That’s good – it signals that your diaphragm is contracting, thereby pulling away from the ribs to make space for your lungs to fully expand and fi ll with air. “But if your left hand moves as much as or more than your right, you’re a chest breather.” The problem with chest breathing is that you expand the chest rather than the belly, which limits the amount of air moving in and out. This type of shallow, rapid breathing is associated with stress and tension, explains Cedric Bryant, chief science officer for the American Council on Exercise. In contrast, diaphragmatic or belly breathing is associated with relaxation.

As for the effect this has on your workouts, “your ability to maximise exercise results is largely determined by how well you recover,” says Pat Davidson, director of training methodology for Peak Performance gym in New York City in the US.

Being able to engage in relaxed breathing when you’re not exercising allows your body to devote its resources to repair. Which is why it’s important to shift your breath back to your diaphragm if you’re a chest breather. “Retraining breathing at rest is a powerful tool to help you re-energise and bounce back from a tough workout sooner,” Pat says.

Practise the three breathe-easy exercises (right) to jump-start using your diaphragm again. “They’ll spike your energy and let you exercise more frequently with fewer aches along the way,” Tony says.

For workouts, steal the following breathing tips to squeeze more out of every rep, step or stretch.

Get Better Body Results

Focus on your breath. You’ve heard this advice in a group fitness class before, but what to do with it? Here, the best breathing techniques you can use to get the most out of whatever routine you’re doing.

Retrain your breath to work out smarter.
Retrain your breath to work out smarter.

During heavy lifting Inhale (through your nose, as with all general exercise) before you lift. Then, as you hoist the weight, briefl y close your airway (almost as if holding your breath) so no air escapes as you forcefully attempt to exhale, Tony says. This braces your core and protects the spine by decreasing the space between your diaphragm and pelvic floor.

On lighter strength days Inhale before the lift, then exhale as you’re hoisting the weight, Tony says. Inhale again as you lower the weight back to start. “Keep your rib cage aligned over your pelvis so the diaphragm and pelvic floor are facing each other, like the top and bottom of a can,” says Tony. If your pelvis is tilted or rib cage is off -kilter, “it’s like having a hole in the can and leads to a loss of air,” Tony explains. “That wasting energy.”

For steady runs Use an even ratio of respiration to steps, Tony advises. For example, breathe in for two to four strides, then out for an equal number. You need a balanced amount of oxygen coming in and carbon dioxide going out in order to facilitate muscle contraction, he says. This makes for an ideal exchange.

When sprinting During the acceleration phase, take a deep breath, then consistently exhale for four seconds. This will help to increase your power, Tony says. You can also try exhaling forcefully through pursed lips to increase your trunk stability.

During yoga Breathe in and out through the nose with equallength inhales and exhales. “This calms the central nervous system,” says Tanya Boulton, a US-based Pure Yoga teacher.

Breatheeasy exercises

Do this series of drills from the pros three or four times a week to make sure your diaphragm is flexing its muscle.

TABLETOP BREATHS Start on all fours. Exhale forcefully through pursed lips as you pull your belly in without moving your back. Inhale as you allow your belly to fall towards the floor. That’s one rep. Repeat for 30 seconds.

BELLY LIFT Start on all fours. Round your back and tilt your pelvis. Shift your weight forward so your nose is over the fingertips. Keep the hips square as you lift your left hand off the floor. Hold this position (above) while you take four or five deep breaths. Lower the left hand. Switch sides; repeat. That’s one rep. Do four.

RESISTED INHALE Stand with your feet hip-width apart and wrap a light resistance band around the rib cage, holding ends tightly in each hand. Inhale, trying to expand band. Exhale. That’s one rep. Do two or three sets of five to eight reps.

Sources Tony Mikla (Tips One And Three), The Postural Restoration Institute (Tip Two, With Modification)