Normally we breathe intuitively without even thinking about it. So can the way we breathe be right or wrong? Yes, it actually can.
The diaphragm has the ability with every breath to pull, shift and rotate a rib cage, which can easily compensate for the torso. Breathing therefore affects the ribs, which in turn affects the lumbar spine, sacrum, pelvis and hips.
Breathing is fundamental and must work well if we want to truly engage the core. It not only helps the body in moving with good form but is directly related to posture. If you spend your time slouching and your head protruding forward, your posture will most certainly affect your breathing. Or to put it the other way round, how well you breathe determines how well your posture “stacks up”.
As discussed in the post “Pilates Core Training” the diaphragm is one of the main core muscles. Due to its attachments to the lumbar spine, sternum and the ribs it can be considered the “spine director”. Moreover, in addition to respiration it serves a dual role in postural function as a core stabiliser. This means it is capable of driving postural imbalances.
For all intents and purposes, the key components of “core” function is the integration of spine position, rib position, and airflow. With a consciousness of breathing during exercise, the exercises become core moves. And all the exercises you do in this manner will become more effective.
The Breathing Process
The diaphragm is large a dome-shaped muscle located between the thorax and the abdomen. It is the primary driver of respiration and key to the function of all other respiratory muscles.
During inhalation the diaphragm descends and flattens out. In doing so the air pressure in the thoracic cavity decreases so that fresh oxygen-rich air is drawn through the nose and into the lungs where a gas exchange takes place.
When we INHALE, the diaphragm contracts, the thorax widens, the pressure decreases, the lungs expand and air ﬂows in.
In a normal functioning diaphragm, this descending action is accompanied by a lifting and lateral expansion of the lower ribcage as well as a forward displacement of the abdomen to various degrees (1). Essentially an optimum breathing pattern can be described as “360° breathing” – an expansion of the back, belly and sides.
Expiration should occur with a long, slow and steady exhale. The diaphragm begins to relax, lengthens and ascends back to its dome-shape as the ribs and thorax move down and in. The abdominal wall is drawn in towards the spine.
When we EXHALE, the diaphragm lengthens, the thorax deflates, the pressure increases, the lungs become smaller and air ﬂows out.
So, as you exhale, your rib cage and spine should have the available motion to move downward so the diaphragm can dome up inside the thoracic cage and resume a state of rest. Expiration is faulty when the breath is held and not fully exhaled, rib motion is reduced (stiff ribs) or when paradoxical breathing occurs (2). Paradoxical breathing is where the abdomen is drawn in during inhalation and out during exhalation, the very reverse of the above described breathing process.
The bottom line is, if you never get a good inhalation, you’re not going to be able to follow through with complete exhalation and effectively activate your abs. The converse is also true, without completely emptying the lungs, you’ll never get a good deep breath in.
Proper Breathing Technique
So how should we breathe? In a first step, focus on your breathing right now without attempting to alter it. What parts of you are expanding and lifting? What parts are relaxing? Once you begin to understand the way you’re currently breathing, then you can start to modify it.
If you’re taking shallow, unconscious breaths, you’re breathing in a way that reflects stress. By breathing this way, you’re actually sending a message to the nervous system that you are stressed. This can become a vicious cycle.
The key to breathing with good technique is to learn how to breathe with the diaphragm (3).
1. The abdomen expands first, then the chest. Exclude the use of the neck.
2. Breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth OR in and out through the nose for quiet breathing 8 to 10 times per minute.
3. When performing breathing exercises, exhale twice as long as inhaling to recruit the abs.
Why Breathe with the Diaphragm?
Because it’s the foundation of our system and breathing is the origin of all movement! But wait, there’s more…
• Diaphragmatic breathing is a major component of whole-body health and true core strength
• It creates intra-abdominal pressure to protect the spine
• A better blood supply is delivered to the bottoms of the lungs so there is good oxygen for the body, which in turn promotes healing and tissue repair
• The diaphragm will get a lot of use which prevents it from becoming tight and/or dysfunctional.
• There is no overactivity of the secondary respiratory muscles, therefore less chance of neck pain, shoulder pain, headache and back pain.
• Changes to our stress hormones are initiated via the parasympathetic nervous system
• Posture can only improve as a result of all of the above
Inhale: think expanding through the abdomen, sides, and mid-back (like a balloon expanding in all directions simultaneously).
Exhale: think long, slow and steady until your deep core muscles tighten (like a balloon leaking air as it starts to deflate).
The goal is to train the body to activate the deep core muscles with every single breath. Good luck and remember – take a deep breath…!
1. Rosalba C. The functions of breathing and its dysfunctions and their relationships to breathing therapy, International Journal of Osteopathic Medicine (IJOS), Sept 2009
2. Perri M. A., Halford E., Pain and faulty breathing: a pilot study, Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies (2004) 8, 297-306
3. Postural Restoration Institute®, PRI Breathing Techniques, 2004-2014