Have you ever caught yourself completely out-of-breath while exercising and struggling to suck-in more body reviving oxygen but  you can’t seem to get enough? Most of us don’t really breath as effectively as we could (or should) to get the most out of our muscles when we exercise. Diaphragmatic breathing is actually something babies do naturally and somehow we seem to lapse out of as we get older.

The diaphragm is the main muscle we use for taking in air but it is highly underused. Diaphragmatic breathing can enhance overall core function; the diaphragm and the accessory abdominal muscles play a synergistic / antagonistic role in inspiration, forced expiration, and the Valsalva maneuver (a brief -yet forceful- holding of one’s breath during an exertion). What that means is: muscles in your core assist the diaphragm in it’s expansion (or taking in of air) and others help to stabilize and release (exhaling out) the process. During inspiration the diaphragm actually increases tone, while the abdominal muscles decrease tone (relax out). During exhalation the tone of the abdominal muscles increase (more of a drawing-in maneuver) while the tone of the diaphragm decreases.

How does all of this affect performance? Think of it this way, if you are not breathing correctly you are not consuming the correct amount of oxygen your body needs to perform optimally. Your muscles need oxygen to recover and when you are not breathing correctly they are not recovering to their fullest potential. I see this all the time in the gym and on the field; I see kids just exhausted from running the length of the field after a ball and the first thing I see rise when they start to breath is their chest. Chest breathing is commonly done because the person is breathing through the mouth when optimal breathing is through the nose. This goes with added strength as well; after a heavy set of squats you need to let your body rest; diaphragmatic breathing will help you relax the body to prepare you for the next set. If you want to improve performance in any sport, or setting, start breathing through your nose and belly.

Here is an exercise that will help you start breathing diaphragmatically so that you can improve performance and overall function.

  1. Assume a starting position: supine (lying down on your back), seated, or standing.
  2. Place your hands on your abdomen, or hold a water bottle on it so you can see or feel its movement.
  3. Slowly inhale through your nose.  Concentrate on using your diaphragm.  Think about trying to push your abdominals out.  With your hands, feel the abdomen bulge out beneath them, or see the water bottle rise.
  4. Exhale slowly through your nose or mouth.

Note:  While inhaling, if your hands or water bottle resting on your abdomen are not rising, your diaphragm most likely is not descending, as it should.

Start with at least ten minutes per day.  Try to do it several times a day if you can, but start with ten minutes. Once you have mastered this technique start doing it while in between sets and after a workout so that your body can fully recover.

By Paul Skidmore, CSCS, CHEK Exercise Coach