Breathing is an automatic bodily process that we do some 20,000 times a day, yet it’s often something most of us take for granted. It’s incredibly important, as it fuels our body with the oxygen our organs need to sustain our life, however, because, most of the time, we’re not intentionally doing it, we’re not so focused on how we’re breathing or how well we’re breathing.
Regulated by our autonomic nervous system, breathing happens without our conscious control. “When you breathe in, the diaphragm muscle contracts and moves downward, expanding your chest cavity and lungs,” explains Jennifer Sobel, NASM-certified personal trainer, professional dancer and creator of The Belly Dance Solution. “Once the air reaches the smallest air sacs in your lungs (the alveoli), oxygen enters your bloodstream and once you exhale, the diaphragm relaxes and moves upward, decreasing the space in your chest cavity and forcing carbon dioxide out of your lungs and through the nose and mouth.”
When we exercise, we tend to breathe heavier and there are several reasons for this starting with the fact that we are using our muscles to help us move. “The muscles need oxygen to work properly, and when you place a higher burden on them to do their job, and move faster, then they need more oxygen to help you burn calories and keep moving,” says Allen Conrad, BS, DC, CSCS, Montgomery County Chiropractic Center in North Wales Pennsylvania. “As your body becomes more conditioned to cardiovascular training, you will feel like breathing is less difficult than before.” This, he explains, is due to the fact that your heart and blood vessels are better adapted to handle the increased workload than it needed to just keep you walking and sedentary.
Making sure we’re not only breathing, but breathing correctly, while we exercise is so fundamental and important. For most exercises, the goal is to breathe with our diaphragm rather than more shallowly with our chest, explains Sobel. This is done in a more rhythmic and steady manner. “For strength training, your breathing technique will be connected to whether you’re in the exertion phase of the movement, so the general rule is that you want to inhale during the preparation or starting phase of a movement and exhale during the exertion of force,” she says. “By breathing in this way, the exhalation of the breath will help you exert force and stabilize you during the movement phase.”
After learning about the intricacies of breathing—and breathing right—you might be wondering whether or not you’re doing it, especially during exercise. Here, fitness pros break down the key signs that you’re breathing right while you’re working out.
You feel energized
Jennifer Sobel likes to tell her clients to think of proper breathing as the fuel that keeps you energized during a workout. “If you’re breathing fully and rhythmically you should feel that you have consistent energy to push through even a challenging workout,” she says. “Breathing improperly will also be stressful on the nervous system, so use your breath to help you stay relaxed.” If you find yourself getting dizzy or lightheaded, she warns that this can be a telltale sign you’re not breathing right.
Your muscles feel relaxed and fluid
If you find yourself getting tense and tight during your workout, Sobel recommends returning your center of attention towards how you’re breathing. “If you’re not getting enough oxygen or expelling sufficient carbon dioxide you’ll likely feel it as tense and tight muscles during your workouts,” she says. “Breathing properly helps you feel fluid, relaxed and moving optimally.” If you’re noticing that your chest is feeling tight, she recommends taking a time out and practicing deep breathing before getting back into your workout.
Your breaths are deep and not shallow
Shallow breaths are a sign you’re not breathing properly, warns Jordan Hosbein, NASM-certified personal trainer and owner of Iron and Grit. “In this case, you can try deliberately breathing air deep into the bottom of your lungs or by taking big deep belly breaths,” he says. “Consciously inhale as much air as you can and notice your ribcage and stomach expand.” Once you have a full breath of air, he recommends exhaling it completely to make room for another full breath of fresh air.
You feel steady and grounded
If you’re feeling lightheaded, dizzy and almost out of your own body, you’re not getting adequate amounts of oxygen, which can have a negative impact on your muscle movement and lead to injuries, warns Sobel. “If you find yourself feeling almost like you’re floating and disconnected with your body, taking a few minutes to walk gently and breathe into your diaphragm should give you a welcomed shift in your energy,” she says. “If you don’t feel better, you also may want to consider whether your blood sugar is low and whether you ate a sufficient meal or snack before your workout.”
Your abdomen is expanding
The diaphragm is the primary breathing muscle, and when it descends during inhalation the abdomen should expand, explains Jordan Duncan, D.C., a chiropractor at Silverdale Sport & Spine in Silverdale, Washington. “The most common fault when you breathe in is the chest lifting instead of the abdomen distending, and, in more extreme cases, the abdomen will actually draw in during inhalation, inhibiting normal descent of the diaphragm,” he says. “The best way to avoid this improper breathing pattern is to practice abdominal breathing until it becomes second nature.”
You are breathing through your nose
As human beings, we were designed to breathe through our nose, so it is a sign of good health if we are able to do it—even while we are exercising. “This results in natural activation of the diaphragm and a better breathing pattern,” explains Dr. Duncan. “Mouth breathing is a common default during exercise, but if you are mindful of this you can make sure you breathe through your nose.”