Why you should work on your breathing muscles

Breathwork benefits: 3 exercises for strengthening your breathing muscles and why they need exercising

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You may have heard of breathwork as being an aid to yoga and other mindful practices but if you’ve never stopped to think about strengthening your breathing muscles, this is your chance to work towards lungs of steel.

On average, we take 17,000 breaths every day – inhaling over 13 pints of air every minute – so you’d think we’d be experts at it by now. But according to a new study, there’s a vital element of our exercise routine that we’re forgetting – our breathing muscles.

That’s right, while we’re strengthening our legs in spin, our arms in boxing and our core in yoga, there’s a whole set of muscles that we’re not tending to. But researchers at the University of Colorado have found that by applying the same principle of HIIT to our breathing muscles for just five minutes a day, we can prevent cardiovascular disease, improve our blood vessels and boost our immunity. 

It’s not just the lungs that get a workout from breathwork

Although it’s strange to think that something we do so routinely requires maintenance, the reality is that every inhale and exhale calls upon multiple areas in the body – not just the lungs. 

“The work of breathing is done by the whole body,” explains Rebecca Dennis, the UK’s leading breath coach and workshop leader. “The lungs play a passive role in the respiratory process – their expansion is produced by an enlargement, mostly downwards, of the thoracic cavity and they collapse when that cavity is reduced.”

Good breathing, she explains, involves the jaw, neck, thorax, pelvis and abdomen muscles. “The primary breathing muscles are the diaphragm, intercostals and scalene muscles which are supported by other muscles from the jaw to the pelvis. Often muscles in the chest and shoulders are overused, while others over time are underused which creates dysfunctional breathing patterns.”

What Dennis refers to as “the respiratory wave” (or inhale) begins deep in the abdomen with a backwards movement of the pelvis allowing the belly to expand outwards. “The expiration wave (or exhale) begins in the upper part of the body and moves downwards where the chest and abdomen contract.”

Why do our breathing muscles need exercising?

Similar to the muscles we can see, our breathing muscles require regular time under tension training. Obviously, we can’t start lifting barbells with our breath, but the mantra of ‘use it or lose it’ still applies. 

“Just like with any muscle, the more you utilise them, the easier using them becomes,” says Alexandra Baldi, founder of Compass Chelsea. “It’s the same with breathing. Our breath changes daily, it can be fragmented, shallow, deep – it depends on what is going on physically, internally, and mentally in the body. 

“It’s important that we become more aware of our breathing and not just let it happen in the background because, believe it or not, we do forget to breathe! Tending to these muscles can not only help prevent cardiovascular disease but lower blood pressure, improve breathing conditions such as asthma, and improve your overall vascular health.”

Undoing chronic stress with every breath

Breathing exercises that use different nostrils, that require you to engage the diaphragm and other muscles can help to build strength.
Breathing exercises that use different nostrils, that require you to engage the diaphragm and other muscles can help to build strength.

If you’ve ever practiced Ayurvedic or diaphragm breathing in your yoga class, you’ll know how effective breathwork can be. The feeling of pure calm throughout your body, a sense of underlying energy waiting to be used… there’s nothing quite like it. Wim Hof’s breathing exertions can provide a natural high like no other – something he credits for his tip-top mental and physical state, proving that our everyday habits may not be enough to reveal our body’s true potential.

“Over time, tension, stress and trauma create dysfunctional breathing patterns that weaken the immune, digestion, nervous and respiratory systems,” Dennis says. “When hovering in fight or flight mode, stimulating what’s known as the sympathetic nervous system, the body reverts to breathing patterns such as shallow breathing, chest-breathing and breath-holding. When we are feeling overwhelmed or stressed this burns up a lot of energy and makes us more reactive.”

Simply by changing the way we breathe, we can send the message via our body to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system which takes us back into a relaxed state. We can release tension from all over the body by breathing deeply into the belly, Dennis says, which can result in increased lung capacity, boosted immunity and better blood flow.

Correcting your baseline breathing

We might be familiar with slowing our breath down to reduce panic or breathing more deeply during the final hard rep, but being able to correct our baseline breath is arguably more important. That’s where the health benefits are to be harvested. 

“The starting point is to be aware of your breath,” Baldi says. “Breathing is something we all take for granted but if you can stop throughout the day and take note of how you’re breathing and how it feels, then start to work in some exercises, you’ll start to notice the difference.”

3 exercises to strengthen your breathing muscles

Follow Dennis’ quick and easy exercises for five minutes a day to feel the benefits.

Complete breath exercise

This relaxes the muscles, calms the mind and promotes circulation. It can be done seated or lying down.

  1. Start with five rounds. As it gets easier to sit for longer, add a few rounds on and begin to build a broader and more expansive breath.
  2. Sit comfortably in an upright position and close your eyes.
  3. Draw in a slow, long inhale through the nostrils for as long as comfortable.
  4. Relax your shoulders and encourage the movement of the breath to be in your lower abdominals and ribcage. Relax your jaw.
  5. Hold the breath for as long as comfortable. Relax in the hold, at no point should this feel hard.
  6. Exhale through both nostrils for as long as is comfortable.
  7. Repeat five rounds of this exercise and then pause and observe how you feel.

Balance breath

This is good to practise for five minutes every day. Some days, you might notice you have more tension in the jaw or the shoulders or your chest or just below the diaphragm.

  1. Breathe in through your nose for the count of six and breathe out of your nose for the count of six. Relax your jaw and shoulders and spend some time finding a rhythm that is comfortable for you.
  2. Allow the breath to be relaxed and steady without trying to force it. If six counts feels too long, begin with three and then move to four. Be patient and don’t push or force the breath.
  3. Just notice the breath, bring all your awareness to the inhale and exhale. As you breathe in, feel the movement of the breath expand your lower ribcage and belly and as you exhale allow them to contract.

Diaphragm breathing

This targets all major breathing muscles and is good to make part of your daily practice.

  1. Sit in a comfortable position or lie flat on the floor
  2. Inhale through your nose and notice the immediate rise of your stomach while trying to keep your chest still.
  3. Start to exhale slowly and with control through the mouth as you begin to feel the stomach deflate. 
  4. Repeat as often as desired.

Now that you’ve mastered your breathwork, see if you notice any difference while doing one of our workout videos.

Images: Getty

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