We are brought into this world with beautiful breathing mechanics. If you stop and watch a baby breathe, you’ll notice that their podgy little belly moves in and out with every breath. It’s smooth, effortless, and natural. Yet, if you were to look at the way most adults breathe, you’ll see them breathing into their chests instead. There’s a reason this happens, and the distinction is far more important than you might think.
Before we talk about what’s happening, let’s take a quick look at how we’d all be breathing in a perfect world.
Basic Breathing Mechanics
The diaphragm is shaped like an umbrella. It sits on top of your organs and is attached to the bottom of your lungs.
When the diaphragm contracts properly, it flattens and moves downwards inside your abdomen. This pulls your lungs downward and creates a negative pressure inside your lungs. This creates a vacuum that sucks air into your lungs. Pretty nifty!
When you exhale, the opposite happens (shocker!). The diaphragm moves upwards and pushes the air out of your lungs, while your diaphragm will moves upwards.
However, as I’ve already mentioned, this isn’t actually what most adults do. So, what gives?
Enter paradoxical breathing
Around the age of 5 or 6, we start going to school and spend most of the day seated. This continues for most of us into our adult lives as we study and get jobs. Prolonged sitting affects the way our bodies move, and over time, accessory-breathing muscles can take over and dominate our breathing. The diaphragm, which is supposed to be our main breathing muscle, can actually end up contracting in the wrong direction during each breathing cycle. This is a phenomenon known as paradoxical breathing.
Want to know if you’re paradoxical breathing? It’s actually really easy to assess.
Place one hand over your chest and one hand over your upper abdomen. Take several normal breaths without thinking too much about it (if you feel like you’re cheating, think about something else). If your bottom hand moved inwards on inhalation and your top hand moved outwards, then I’m afraid to say that you’re breathing paradoxically .
How do I fix paradoxical breathing?
Don’t panic just yet! There is a very simple drill you can do to help fix this issue, and it’s called crocodile breathing. Lie on your stomach, and rest your head on your hands. Relax all of your muscles and spend a minute or two really concentrating on letting any tension go.
The focus is to be inhaling and exhaling through your nose, as this will bring on a stronger diaphragmatic contraction. Take a breath through your nose and push your belly into the floor. Initially, you may need someone to place their hands at the sides of your stomach to give you something to push against.
Once it feels natural, try the same drill lying on your back. It will be harder and requires plenty of practice, especially if in your day to day life you find yourself sitting a lot. After several days, of crocodile breathing you can try diaphragmatic breathing from sitting, kneeling and standing positions.
Load training your diaphragmatic breathing
Once you are comfortably breathing with your diaphragm whilst standing up, it’s time to add some load. But before you go and grab a 12kg kettlebell to slap onto your stomach, hear me out!
Lie on your back and place a straw in your mouth. Breathe through the straw taking long slow breaths. Aim for 5 minutes a day on your back before progressing to sitting and then standing straw breathing.
If you feel slightly panicked, try to relax! Remember that you’re safe and you can remove the straw from your mouth at any time. Make sure you focus on the rise and fall of your belly, as we don’t want to fall back into chest breathing. If you can work up to 5 minutes per day, you’ll be in a much better place than you were before.
Learning how to breath with your diaphragm and then strengthening this action is essential for getting the most out of your weight training. Without the proper breathing technique, you’re going to lack tension in your abdomen. In particularly stressful movements like the deadlift, the last thing you want is your lower back to have to pick up this slack, as that’s the perfect way to injure yourself!
Diaphragmatic breathing is something that most people don’t think about when strengthening their bodies. It really pays to be one of the ones who do, however, as a stronger, more efficient respiratory system will pay in spades when you load up the weights.