Why we talk about exercising the breath

Exercise the breath

A balanced breath means breathing silently through the nose and using the diaphragm, in todays stressed society the body is often forced unconsciously into a shallow and fast breath through the mouth. Hence the breath should be exercised.

Per Olsson, Strength stairs

It is true that the breath handles itself, it is autonomous, and the intriguing thing about it is that we can also control it to take advantage of more than the purely basic fact that breathing helps us survive. So training your breathing is absolutely possible and it is also a good idea for many to make improvements with breathing for a sustainable health.

Prevent illness through improved breath

You can prevent or alleviate illness by improving the breath, of course health care workers should have their say first so that no risks are taken before you change or start exercising your breath.

Here is a couple of examples from universities in US (Harvard Medical School) and UK (University of Oxford) how relaxed or slow breathing can improve the health
https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/can-deep-slow-breathing-lower-blood-pressure and https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27059041

How does breathing work?

Breath is controlled by the autonomous nervous system, which mean that it handles itself if we humans are healthy otherwise. We can also control breathing with our will to some extent.

Inhale

To describe the breath simply put you draw in air with lots of oxygen (which we need to survive) and the inhale consists of three phases:

  1. Stomach is filled – the midsection moves slightly downwards and you get a feeling that the stomach / abdomen is filled
  2. The chest fills – now the ribs start to move upwards, you can say that they are angled slightly upwards so the chest / chest is filled
  3. The shoulders are filled – here is a movement of the shoulders. They are raised/elevated to give the lungs even more space to fill up the last.

Even if we describe an inhale consisting of three phases it is simplified and often nothing we have to consider, it just happens.

Exhale

At the exhale you just relax and ventilate the carbon dioxide the body created as a decay product when your body turns food and oxygen into energy.

Who should exercise the breath?

In our opinion there is three categories where you can see significant results by exercising the breath.

  • you who want to learn how to calm down and relax, if you are normally over or chest breathing (normally 16-22 breaths per minute)
  • you who want to create intra-abdominal pressure to improve the results in your strength training, a knowledge that is good to have during for example dead lift or snatch.
  • you who want to breath to improve the results of your endurance training

How do you exercise the breath?

Relax

We talk about slow exhales can lower the pulse, stress levels and if the inhale is somewhat good it is a reasonably full pair of lungs that is emptied. Here are two exercises, one to relax (breath in square) and one for breathing downwards in the abdomen (lie on the back and breath with a bok on the stomach).

Breath in square

The name comes from trying to find something square to look at, can be a window or a building. What you should use this square for is to inhale, hold your breath, exhale, hold your breath and then start over. Here is how it is done:

  1. Start in one corner and as you begin to follow the line from the first to the second corner, you draw in air so that you are done with the inhalation when you reach the second corner.
  2. From the second to the third corner, follow the line just as fast / slow and hold your breath.
  3. As you follow the line from the third to the fourth corner, exhale so you finish the exhale as you reach the fourth corner.
  4. Between the fourth and first corner, hold your breath again restart at point 1.

Try to keep a speed of 5-6 seconds per side, or as long as the breaths feel comfortable. It should be enough with a few turns to stress down a little and it may take some practice to get a good result.

Lie on the back and breath with a bok on the stomach

Lying on your back and exhaling with a book on your stomach is an old trick to get your breath right, ie learning to breathe down and with your stomach if you usually shallow or chest breath. So find a book to put on your stomach, over your navel and also find a comfortable surface to lie on. Lying there, put the book over your navel and then start breathing. What you should focus on is for the book to be lifted straight up as you breathe in and sink straight down as you exhale. Then lie and breath like that for about about a quarter of an hour a day, if you fall asleep in the meantime that was meant to be.

Create intra-abdominal pressure

Most people who practice strength sports learn this early. It is about taking a deep breath according to the section Inhalation higher up in this post and then tighten the abs. This creates pressure in the abdomen, and the pressure itself is what protects the back and abdomen from collapsing (or as some call it to to lose your back).

Think of two things about abdominal pressure

  1. It protects reasonably from collapse, of course there needs to be a basic strength anyway so take it gently with high weights.
  2. Breathing with abdominal pressure can raise blood pressure to dangerous levels, if you already have high blood pressure so check with a healthcare professional BEFORE you start with heavier weights and simultaneous breath holds.

Improve the results of endurance training

Breathe through the nose, if it works. Then the body will, through the sinuses, create nitric oxide. Nitric oxide helps the body widen its blood vessels so that the blood can receive (get a higher saturation) more oxygen and oxygen itself is something that is important in muscle work and metabolism. It demands some exercise to learn to breathe through the nose during a running/rowing/cycling pass and depending on how fast you run/row/cycle it can sometimes be difficult to keep your mouth closed as the body needs to be able to ventilate faster than the small holes in the nose allow.

For those of you who want to go directly to research, there are some such in the subject.

Scientists at Karolinska institutet have look at the connection between nose breathing and the creation of nitric oxide: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12952268

Scientist at University of Michigan have looked into how nitric oxide impacts the oxygenation (at intesive care, so this link is more to show the connection)): https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25727270

Summary

On an everyday basis you can think of three things

  • Occasionally practice breathing only through the nose, creating a good breathing habit and doing it both in everyday life and during exercise.
  • Lie down, put a book or hand on your navel and breathe so that only the hand/book moves, then you increase the likelihood that the breathing muscle / diaphragm will be active.
  • Breathe through your nose as you exercise, you can get better oxygenation and more efficient metabolism.
  • Take conscious steps as you work with breathing to create a comfortable and sustainable change.

If it is more exercise-specific breathing you want to know more about, our advice is to contact trainers within the branch you want to improve, often they have good knowledge on how to use the breathing.

If you want to discuss more, please contact us !

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Per Olsson

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