5 Tips for Better Breathing

by Tony Bonvechio

If you did something 20,000 times a day for years on end, you’d think you’d be pretty good at it. But what if I told you that, despite millions of repetitions a year, you’re actually pretty lousy at this activity, especially during exercise?

This activity, of course, is breathing. And if you’ve ever jogged a few miles, held your breath while hoisting heavy weight, or simply taken a yoga class, you understand that breathing is pretty important. But when we forget how to breathe efficiently, we run the risk of accumulating aches, pains and injuries.

Aside from keeping us alive, breathing has incredible power to influence the body’s capacity for movement, which is why we incorporate positional breathing drills like the All Fours Belly Lift and Deep Squat Lat Stretch into many of our warm-up routines at 212.

Well-executed breathing can improve range of motion, enhance core strength, and shift us from “fight or flight” mode to “rest and digest.” Here are 5 tips to get the most out of your breathing drills:

1.    Put Your Tongue to the Roof of Your Mouth When You Inhale

A cardinal sin of breathing is using your “gills” to take in air. When you breathe using the anterior neck muscles, along with the chest, traps and lats, you’re not breathing efficiently. In order to tap into the almighty diaphragm, simply place your tongue on the roof of your mouth when you inhale.

Try this: lay on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Then, place one hand on your chest and another on your stomach. Now, suck air into your mouth as if through a straw. Notice what happens to your hands. It’s likely that either one or the other lifted up, but not both.

Next, put your tongue on the roof of your mouth, close your lips and inhale through your nose, slowly and fully. Both your hands likely rose together as you inflated your lungs with air. This is how you inhale properly, and it’s a feeling that you should be familiar with if you’re into lifting heavy things because it stabilizes the spine by increasing intra-abdominal pressure. Consider it your built-in weightlifting belt.

2.    Show Off Your Coffee Breath when you Exhale

I don’t know about you, but I love coffee. It’s a blessing and a curse, because I’m always caffeinated (and, in turn, more productive and pleasant to be around), but I also frequently have coffee breath. Luckily, showing someone your “coffee breath” by sighing or making a “haaaaah” sound is exactly how you’re supposed to exhale.

Proper exhalation is a powerful action. It allows the abdominals and obliques to bring the ribcage downward, raise the diaphragm and push air out of the lungs. This flips your nervous system switch into the calming “rest and digest” mode, which is why a long deep breath (specifically the exhale part) is a quick fix for anxiety and anger.

Rather than pursing your lips and blowing air out like a balloon (which tenses your neck muscles and shuts off many of the relaxing properties of exhalation), show off your coffee breath with a gentle sigh, elongating the exhale until you’ve let all the air out of your lungs.

3.    Pause Between Breaths

The beauty of breathing is that each inhale and exhale cycle becomes progressively more powerful as you learn to do it properly. A great way to make your breathing even stronger is to pause for several seconds after exhaling fully before inhaling again.

When coaching breathing drills, we’ll often instruct clients to inhale for 5 seconds, exhale for 5 seconds and then do absolutely nothing for 5 seconds. That 5-second pause can seem like an eternity at first, but then something magical happens: your body reflexively inhales a huge breath of air almost automatically. You’ve “tricked” your body into taking in more air than what you typically could on your own.

Try taking 5 deep breaths using the 5-5-5 rule. By your fifth and final breath, you’ll experience some serious deep breathing, enhanced by the 5-second pause technique.

4.    Find Your Left Abs

Quite simply, humans have “right-handed” brains, so we live in a right-handed world. Our bodies are naturally asymmetrical, with our liver, larger lung and larger diaphragm attachment on the right side. This lop-sided nature causes many of us to become more and more right-side dominant over time, which makes it hard to breathe.

Ever watch L.L. Cool J host an awards show? That cat is stuck in his right side and probably couldn’t breathe if he stood up straight.

To avoid feeding into this right-sided pattern, we need to learn to feel our left-side abdominals when we exhale. As you show your coffee breath, put your left hand on the bottom of your left ribs and feel them come down toward your belt line. I’ll often tell people to imagine making a six-pack with only their left side. This can ease some of the breathing woes associated with a right-side dominant stance.

5.    Turn Your Belt Buckle Toward Your Chin

Getting a full exhale is easier when you’re in posterior pelvic tilt, which puts your pelvis under your rib cage and “stacks” your body like a totem pole. This allows your back to round slightly and facilitates the diaphragm with pushing air out of the lungs.

The easiest way to visualize a posterior pelvic tilt is to turn your belt buckle up toward your chin. This tucks your butt under your hips like a dog putting its tail between its legs, expect you’ll be much happier.

If you’re lying down, simply press your lower back into the floor. If you’re on your hands and knees, allow your upper back to round slightly up toward the ceiling and don’t let your back arch as you breathe in and out. 

Better Breathing, Better Movement

Try these 5 tips during your next warm-up routine to unlock new range of motion or during a cool-down to ease yourself out of a tough workout. Better health and better movement are only a breath away.