Hardcore Series Part III: Breathing

I would hazard a guess that most people out there don't get super jazzed to read about/practice breathing when they decide they are ready to do core exercise. Like most, I am also guilty of wanting to jump right into "the exercises", dismissing what seems like the fluff work - breathing. Even more, I often see breathing go completely out the window with core exercises, as we all have a tendency to hold our breath when trying to focus on an exercise or movement. However, effective breathing is just as paramount to proper core training as any other movement or muscle activation you will do. As mentioned in part I, the diaphragm is an integral part of the core unit. When you focus on your breathing and the movement of your rib cage and diaphragm it will actually be a much easier and effective way to engage and relax the proper muscles. 

Although breathing is the most natural activity we do, I would argue that most have very poor breathing habits. We have the luxury of not needing to think about breathing for it to occur, but that doesn't mean we always have good form. There are many ways to analyze breathing patterns and there are just as many categories of breathing to evaluate. For simplicity, I have broken breathing "styles" into three groups. 

Apical or clavicular breathing refers breathing into the upper part of the lungs. When used properly it is only to be done as a mode to get the maximal expansion of the lungs with exercise or excursion, as it requires the muscles of the neck to work in lifting the collarbones and create room for the top of the lungs to expand. However, those [ahem, most of us] that carry a lot of tension in our necks/shoulders can default to this pattern. It ends up creating a very shallow breath with very little excursion of the diaphragm and lower ribs and increases the muscle activity in our upper backs/necks. By far, this is the most common pattern I see when I tell someone to take a deep breath - they end up shrugging their shoulders and filling the top of their lungs and defeating the purpose of using deep breaths to relax those tense areas. 

Diaphragmatic breathing refers to breathe with a conscious focus on proper movement of the diaphragm with every inhale/exhale. It is also referred to as "belly breathing". When "breathing from the diaphragm", you will see the belly expand with every inhale, and retract with every exhale. The shoulders and chest do not demonstrate much movement at all. This breathing pattern is used to slow down the respiratory rate and to increase the air volume in the lungs. It is common to use this pattern for relaxation and meditation. It is also beneficial for facilitating core recruitment and to bring more awareness to the process of breathing. 

Lateral costal breathing refers to side-to-side excursion of the ribcage with each inhale. When speaking of the mechanics of the ribs during breathing, we often discuss the lower ribs moving like a bucket handle - when you inhale, the lower ribs swing out on either side, much like the handle of a bucket. Those with a stiff mid back/rib cage often demonstrate very little movement of their ribs with breathing. Conversely, using breathing as a technique to mobilize the mid back and rib cage can be an effective way to restore mobility to this area. 

The video below is a great 3-dimensional representation of how the diaphragm and rib cage move with a deep, effective breath. 

I know you have all heard countless times how important it is to become aware of your breath. I'm not telling you anything new. But why is it that so few actually use breath to guide their exercises? I don't have a great answer for you. What I will say, is that once I start to work on breathing with a client, they tend to over-complicate/over-think when to inhale/exhale and this (paradoxically) creates more tension and less fluidity to their exercises. Most importantly, just remember to breathe! Start each exercise session with just a few, simple breaths that expand the rib-cage in all directions. To take these big breaths, you will notice you have to shift to a nice, tall posture. You will also (hopefully) start to feel the connection between your diaphragm and core as you continue to inhale/exhale in a thoughtful way. This, my friends, is doing more for you than most "core exercises" than you might previously have been doing. Try for yourself! Below is a simple routine adapted from STOTT® Pilates basic principles (you can find link here)


1. Notice Natural Breath Pattern

  • Lying on back, breathe smoothly and notice your natural breath pattern
  • Is breath going into abdomen, upper chest, sides of rib cage or back of rib cage?

2. Breathing Flexed Forward

  • This exercise encourages breathing into the sides and back of rib cage. 
  • Sit in an upright position, arms relaxed, knees bent
  • INHALE to prepare
  • EXHALE and initiating from the top of your head, curve forward and relax over legs
  • while forward flexed, INHALE through nose, feeling sides and back of rib cage expand
  • EXHALE through pursed lips, allowing rib cage to close
  • repeat 3-5 repetitions
  • on last EXHALE, initiating from tailbone, roll up back to starting position

Homework doesn't get much easier than this! Just breathe in that sweet, spring air and get ready for Part IV: The Pelvic Floor!.......