all know that breathing provides oxygen for cellular metabolism and removes
the waste product-carbon dioxide. Breathing maintains your acid-alkaline, or
pH, balance. There are around 10 billion biochemical reactions taking place
every second in the human body, and all of them are pH-dependent. So,
whenever your respiratory rhythm and rate are altered, the acid-alkaline
balance is disrupted which, in turn, disrupts your biochemistry. Having a
suboptimal acid- alkaline balance will stress your entire physiology, and
your respiratory status is tied directly to your mental or psychological
state. This means that any shift in pH balance causes a shift in emotion,
any shift in emotion causes a shift in perception and any shift in
a shift in reality.
The most common symptom of faulty breathing is fatigue, the result of this
acid-alkaline imbalance. Incidentally-or per-haps not-the number-one reason
worldwide for visiting a physician is fatigue. From the non-Western point of
view, when you breathe, you're bringing in life-force energy, also known as
chi or prana. If you don't breathe, you are lacking in chi or prana, or life
force, and will soon be dead.
Breathing and posture
Breathing and posture are intimately linked. Good posture (Fig. 1) creates
the best body mechanics for optimal breathing. Conversely, poor posture
(Fig. 2) will lead
to inefficient and laboured breathing, thereby creating tension in the
primary and secondary respiratory muscles, such as the levator scapulae.
When the breathing becomes laboured enough, you will even see the shoulders
being raised up with each inhalation. This is because their primary
respiratory muscles are not able to effectively ventilate the body, as their
posture has caused the important joints to become locked, with the result
that it takes tremendous force to move them, making the act of breathing a
Someone with poor posture will find it easier to breathe while lying on
their back on the floor. This is because this position changes the effect of
on the body, thereby decompressing important joints and generally improving
the body's alignment, making the act of breathing easier and requiring less
energy. Of course, there are some medical conditions that make breathing
harder when lying down, but we're ignoring such cases in this comparison.
Posture and exercise
A poorly designed exercise programme, or too much or too little exercise to
counteract the demands of any work or sports situation, can lead to negative
changes in posture. A classic example is the overuse of sit-ups or crunches,
which can shorten the rectus abdominis (the 'six-pack' muscles) and fixate
the ribcage into a position of exhalation, ultimately leading to the poor
posture shown in Fig. 2. This will increase the amount of effort needed to
breathe normally, and will be disastrous in, for instance, competitive
running, where the optimal exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide is the
difference between first and tenth place.
So, a well-designed exercise programme should always consider posture, both
in terms of what the exercises themselves are doing to affect posture, and
with a concern for supporting the activities of the individual outside of
the gym. The seated workplace, for example, is now the most common one in
the world. We tend to sit in our cars or on the bus going to work, then sit
all day at work, sit during the commute home and end up sitting in front of
the TV in the evening. This is not a good scenario for optimal posture.
Prolonged sitting reduces the curve in the lumbar spine, leading to a flat
back posture (Fig. 3) and all the associated muscle imbalances that go along
with that. Yet, too many people who already have a flattened lumbar curve
are going to group exercise and Pilates classes, where they are told to
flatten their back into the floor when they perform abdominal exercises.
This means that, instead of correcting the postural issues that their
lifestyles create, the exercise programme is making them worse. This is not
the situation you want to be finding yourself in, especially if you are
paying the person who is making your posture worse.
Exercise and breathing
The way we breathe when we move is also important. Unfortunately, the way
many people are taught to breathe during exercise is backwards, or with no
thought to physiology. It is really rather simple once you know what to pay
attention to-and that is the movement in the spine and extremities. In
short, if you are doing any exercise that moves you towards a fetal
position, you should be breathing out. You also breathe out on exercises
where your spinal curves are increased. Converse-ly, if the exercise moves
your arms and legs away from the centre, or your spine lengthens and
straightens, then you inhale. Another way of saying this is: if you are
getting taller as you're doing a movement, breathe in; if you're getting
shorter, breathe out.
Let's consider some specific examples.
- Swiss Ball Crunches (Fig. 4): breathe in as you extend over the ball
(moving away from the fetal position), and breathe out as you curl up into
the crunch (moving into the fetal position);
- Single-Arm Cable Pull (Fig. 5): breathe in as you pull the handle
back and create extension in the thoracic spine (moving away from the fetal
position), and breathe out as you lower the weights back to the starting
position (moving toward the fetal position).
With some exercises-for example, chin-ups-the way you breathe is completely
different depending on the grip you use, as this affects both the mechanics
of the shoulder and how the spine moves in relation to the shoulder. With a
pronated-grip chin-up, where the palms are facing away from you, you want to
breathe in as you pull yourself up towards the bar. With a neutral (palms
facing each other) or supinated grip (palms facing you), it is just the
opposite: you breathe out as you pull yourself up towards the bar.
When you apply these rules of thumb, you will be breathing in synergy with
your body's mechanics and aiding its physiology. Inhalation neurologically
excites all the extensor muscles of the body, and exhalation neurologically
excites all the flexors. So, whenever you breathe out as you push, you're
actually exciting the pushing muscles. If you breathe in as you push, you're
completely confusing the body-
it's like telling someone to stop and go at the same time. That is not a
good recipe for successful athletic performance. The respiratory system has
a second function: it also serves as a stabilizing system. The diaphragm is
primarily a respiratory muscle and, secondarily, a stabilizer muscle. You
can easily experience this yourself in the gym. Choose any exercise, such as
a Dead Lift (Fig. 6), and start with a light load that you can lift at least
20 times. You should be able to breathe throughout the exercise. However, if
you increase the load to more than 60 per cent of 1 RM (dynamic strength),
or one that you cannot lift 20 times in a row, you will find that you stop
breathing as you lift the load. This is because, as the nervous system
senses a threat to the spinal cord, it causes the diaphragm to switch to its
stabilizer role; as it's a massive muscle that connects to most of your
ribs, it helps to stabilize the body in the transverse plane.
So, for exercises like the Dead Lift, the breathing technique varies
accord-ing on the weight being lifted. If the weight is light enough, you
will be unlikely to need to hold your breath to help stabilize the spine. In
this case, you grasp the bar and breathe in as you stand up (moving away
from the fetal position), then exhale as you lower the weight back to the
starting position (moving toward the fetal position). However, if the weight
is heavy enough that you cannot breath through the exercise, then inhale at
the start, hold your breath as you stand up and breathe out on the way down
through pursed lips to keep pressure in the core.
Good posture, good performance
Breathing, posture and exercise are all related to each other. Efficient
breathing requires good posture, and good posture comes from effective
exercise programmes. In turn, breath-ing can facilitate exercise by both
enhancing posture, and optimizing the results and performance.
Breathing is an essential compo-nent of life, and can both energize and
relax you when performed properly and with intent. By paying attention to
your breathing when you exercise, you can attain the benefits of both
working out and meditating. I have meditative weight-lifting sessions all
the time-it's beautiful.
Paul Chek is founder of the C.H.E.K Institute in Encinitas, CA, and an
internationally recognized lecturer and educator in the fields of
orthopaedic rehabilitation, and corrective and performance exercise. For
more information, call 01924 566 091 (UK) or visit his website at
Vol. 20 06 September 2009