How To Use Breathing To Get A Better Workout


Michelle October |

Trying to up the ante on your workouts? Start with your lungs.

You know the drill. Do 20 burpees – or, you know, 10 – and flop down onto the floor, gasping for air like you’ve just summited Kili, muttering about how much you hate burpees. Yes, the king of all-in-one moves is a challenging exercise, but it may not be wholly to blame for your collapse. “Most people unconsciously hold their breath or hyperventilate when trying to push or move something heavy. But if you don’t breathe correctly, you starve your muscles of oxygen,” says Fabian Langerman, a martial arts instructor at Warriors of Faith Martial Arts in Randburg, where breathing is essential to the practice.

Your body on breathing

Here’s a quick biology lesson. When oxygen enters your lungs, it passes through your lung barrier and into your blood. From there, your red- blood cells transport it to peripheral body parts – like your muscles – fuelling them so they can keep going, says Sandton-based physiotherapist Lauren Bradfield.
As your blood cells take up oxygen, they expel carbon dioxide (CO2) at the same time. “You need a balance between the two in your blood,” says Bradfield.
Know that feeling when you haven’t worked out in ages and it feels like every rep is sucking the air right out of you? That’s the imbalance of CO2 and O2 in your body, says Bradfield. The fitter you are, the more this balance – called the cardiac output – is working for you. In short, you need to be able to breathe out as efficiently as you breathe in to keep fuelling your body.

Read More: Breathing Techniques To Improve Your Sport

Clearing the air

And that’s only the beginning: different kinds of breathing yield different results. In a recent study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, Sudarshan Kriya yoga – a practice that focuses on a specific kind of breathing – was found to help reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.
“Teaching your body to breathe as you strike or are being struck is important,” says Langerman of martial arts, which also harnesses the power of breath. “Coordinated breathing allows more strength to be transferred when done with a movement.”
Pilates devotees have breathing to thank for those washboard abs. “Breathing is the foundation of Pilates movement,” says Marisa Smit, a Cape Town-based Pilates instructor. “We use it to initiate and support movement,” she explains.

Read More: Why You’re Out Of Breath When Climbing Stairs

Up your game today

Good news: you don’t need a mat or punching bag to power up with air – there is a better way to breathe when you’re at the gym on your own.
Breathing apically (shallow breathing) means you’re straining your system during exercise – and it’s dangerous. When you breathe apically, you’re taking in less air, says Bradfield. “As you gasp for more air, you shorten your breathing rate and less CO2 can be expelled,” she says.
This results in a condition called hypocapnia, where there’s an imbalance in your blood chemistry. Think pins and needles during your sweat sesh, headaches, dizziness, exhaustion and abnormal heart rate – all aside from gasping for breath like you just sprinted for the train. Plus, you’re putting too much pressure on your muscles to get through your workout – and it’ll even affect your posture, says Bradfield. Next thing you know, you’re stuck in a chicken- and-egg situation: you can’t breathe, so you labour your muscles, which impacts your breathing, which further labours your muscles.

Read More: The Right Way To Breathe When Lifting 

Get in the O-zone

Those symptoms sound eerily familiar? Start by looking at how you breathe when you’re not sweating it out. Take a deep breath and let it out. Did you feel your shoulders hunch up? Were your neck muscles tensing? Did your chest expand? If you’re nodding right now, you’re doing it wrong.
Oxygen flow needs to happen in your diaphragm, a large sheet- like muscle nestled between your internal organs and your lungs. “An effective breathing pattern is achieved when your diaphragm moves downward, your stomach swells and your rib cage opens outward, like lifting a bucket handle. This enables more air to enter the lungs,” says Bradfield. Do it often enough and you’ll be able to power through tougher workouts.

How To Breathe When…

You’re running
Try the 2:2 rhythm. Breathe in for two steps, then breathe out for two steps. “This is to coordinate the diaphragm and surrounding organs to running cadence,” says Prof Dr Ina Shaw, an expert in biokinetics and breathing at the University of Johannesburg.

You’re doing an explosive move
Inhale at the calmest moment – you’re sinking into launch position in front of a box – and exhale during the “explosion” (jumping onto the box). The explosion is the hardest part – the out-breath will give extra oomph.

You’re doing a strength move
Exhale while lifting, inhale while lowering. And don’t hold your breath! It increases your blood pressure and can be dangerous.

You’re swimming
“Find a consistent place to breathe in each stroke cycle,” says Shaw. Try exhaling when you’re nearing the end of your stroke under water. That way you have enough time to clear your lungs before the next inhale.

Looking for more ways to take your workout to the next level? Try these running tricks to help you up your pace, and these hot new fitness trackers will definitely amp up your workout. 

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