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Belly Breathing: A Must-have for All Exercises, Beyond Yoga

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  • Post last modified:September 26, 2023

Take a deep inhale and exhale. Do you feel your chest rise and fall or does more movement come from your abdomen?

The answer should be the latter — and not only when you’re focusing on deep breathing during yoga or meditation. You should also practice belly breathing during exercise. News to you? Here’s what you need to know about making your inhalations and exhalations come from your gut.

What Is Abdominal Breathing?

Yes, belly breathing literally means breathing deeply into your abdomen. It’s also known as diaphragmatic breathing because it allows the diaphragm (the muscle that runs horizontally across the abdomen and is primarily used in respiration) to expand and contract.

While belly breathing is your body’s natural way to inhale and exhale, it’s more common for adults to breathe ineffectively, also called chest breathing, says Judi Bar, a 500-hour certified yoga instructor and yoga program manager at the Cleveland Clinic. Many people tend to resort to chest breathing when they’re stressed because the tension makes you tighten your abdomen, explains Bar. This ultimately makes it harder to breathe efficiently. “It becomes a habit and because it’s a more shallow breath, it actually fuels the sympathetic response — the fight or flight response — making you more stressed,” she says. Thus, you get a cycle of anxious reactions just from chest breathing.

How to Practice Abdominal Breathing Properly

In order to try belly breathing, “you first need to understand how to relax enough so there’s space in the abdomen for the diaphragm and your breath to move,” says Bar. “When you’re tense and hold the abdomen in, you’re not allowing the breath to move.”

For confirmation, try this small test from Bar: Pull your abdomen in toward your spine and try to take deep breaths. Notice how difficult it is? Now relax your midsection and see how much easier it is to fill your stomach with air. That’s the looseness you want to feel when you’re belly breathing — and a good indication of whether it’s all coming from the chest.

The practice of belly breathing itself is pretty simple: Lie down on your back and place your hands on your abdomen, says Pete McCall, C.S.C.S., a personal trainer in San Diego and host of the All About Fitness podcast. Take a nice big inhale, breathing with abdominal force to feel your abdomen lift and expand. As you exhale, your hands should lower. When learning how to belly breathe, think of your stomach like a balloon filling with air, and then slowly releasing.

If breathing from your abdomen feels challenging or unnatural to you, practice it once or twice a day for just two or three minutes, suggests Bar. You can place your hands on your abdomen to make sure you’re doing it correctly, or just watch to make sure your stomach moves up and down. Try doing it while you’re tackling an everyday task too, for example, while you’re taking a shower, washing dishes, or right before you go to sleep, says Bar.

Once you’ve mastered breathing from abdominal muscles, start paying a little more attention to your breath during exercise, says Bar.

Do you observe whether your abdomen is in motion? Does it vary while you’re crouching or jogging? Are you experiencing a boost from your respiration? Reflect upon all of these inquiries while engaging in your exercise routine to assess your breathing pattern. (These breathing techniques specific to running can also aid in making your running sessions more effortless.)

You can engage in belly breathing during most types of physical activity, ranging from spin classes to intense weightlifting sessions. In fact, you may have observed a technique utilized by weightlifters known as core bracing among the heavy-lifting community. “The act of stabilizing the spine for heavy lifts is referred to as core bracing, which essentially involves engaging in belly breathing due to the controlled exhalation,” explains McCall. To execute this technique correctly, it is advisable to practice it prior to engaging in heavy lifting: Take a deep breath in, hold it, and then exhale deeply. During a lift, such as a squat, bench press, or deadlift, you should inhale, hold your breath while descending, and exhale when pressing upwards.

The Advantages of Belly Breathing During Exercise

When you breathe using the muscles in your abdomen, you are activating a muscle that assists in enhancing core stability, according to McCall. “Most individuals are unaware that the diaphragm plays a critical role as a stabilizing muscle for the spine,” he asserts. “By breathing from the abdomen, you are essentially breathing from the diaphragm, thereby strengthening a muscle responsible for stabilizing the spine.” When performing exercises such as squats, lat pulldowns, or similar movements, practicing diaphragmatic breathing should result in a sensation of spinal stability throughout the entire range of motion. This is the key benefit of belly breathing: It enables you to effectively engage your core in each exercise.

Additionally, breathing from the abdomen facilitates the efficient flow of oxygen throughout the body, allowing your muscles to receive an ample supply of oxygen while engaging in intense strength sets or challenging run intervals. “When you breathe using your chest, you are attempting to fill the lungs from the top down,” McCall elucidates. “On the other hand, diaphragmatic breathing draws in air, filling the lungs from the bottom up and enabling greater air intake.” This is crucial for sustaining higher energy levels during workouts and throughout the day.

Large stomach inhalations enhance your alertness, affirms McCall.

With increased oxygen throughout your entire system comes the capability to exert greater effort during your exercise regimen as well. “Abdominal breathing enhances the body’s capacity to withstand intense physical activity because it allows for a greater intake of oxygen to reach the muscles, subsequently reducing your respiration rate and conserving energy,” states Bar. (You can also experiment with these alternative scientifically supported methods to overcome exercise fatigue.)

Moreover, engaging in a few moments of mindful abdominal breathing can contribute to a small measure of stress alleviation and provide interludes of tranquility (or, for instance, assist in recovering from a session of burpees). This holds particularly true if you concentrate on achieving an equal count during inhalation and exhalation, as suggested by Bar. “It genuinely regulates your system in an efficacious manner,” Bar explains, signifying that it diverts you from a state of fight-or-flight and guides you towards a more composed and relaxed state. What a commendable approach to recuperation — and a clever tactic to attain mental and physical advantages.

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