How to Breathe During Exercise

Our breath can tell us many things. Jill Miller, Yogi and author with over 30 years experience studying anatomy and movement states, “Breathing happens automatically about 20,000 times a day. Think about doing 20,000 burpees (with bad form) in a day. What havoc would that wreak on your system?” Okay, doing 20,000 burpees with perfect form would wreak havoc on anyone, even on our top Made 2 Move athletes who have done physical therapy with us, but you get the point: breathing efficiently is crucial to our health.



Take a deep breath and take note of where you felt it the most. Did you feel your belly expand? Did you feel your shoulders raise and chest expand? Was it in the throat? Or are you unsure of where the breath originated and landed? If it was the chest, throat, or shoulders, then this means you are likely taking shallow, thoracic breaths. If you’re breathing this way, you may find throughout the day that your back and shoulder muscles become super sore from being overworked.


The natural process of breathing and the power of the breath in athletic performance, stress management, and overall well being is often overlooked. At Made 2 Move, we consider a variety of factors associated with your recovery, breathing being a major one. So what is a more efficient way to breathe and how can I benefit from it?


What is Diaphragmatic Breathing?

Diaphragmatic breathing is also known as “belly breathing” and is a more efficient way of breathing as it allows our lungs to fill more fully with air. When you take “belly breaths,” your diaphragm shifts downward, allowing more space in the thoracic cavity for the lungs to expand and fill with air.


Every time we breathe, we naturally use our diaphragm, but as adults, we may not be utilizing the diaphragm to its fullest potential. Our bodies are smart; we are born knowing the proper mechanics for breathing. For example, observe a baby breathing when they are laying down. The breath is moving almost entirely through the abdomen, with little movement in the shoulders. Are you breathing this seamlessly as an adult?


Visualization strategies can be a great technique when relearning our breathing patterns. Visualization strategies could include thinking of a pinprick of light in the center of your diaphragm and this expanding out to all parts of your body with each inhale. You could also picture your diaphragm as a balloon, filling and expanding the stomach and rib cage outwards in all directions during inhalation.


Meditation apps like Headspace or yoga classes taught by our very own Made 2 Move therapist, Dr. Rachel Heller, are wonderful resources for more guided and structured breathing exercises.


How do I incorporate breathing into my life?

Lucky for human beings, our bodies are always breathing, just perhaps not to our fullest potential. It seems strange to refer to breathing as something we have a potential for, but our breath has the capacity to positively impact all aspects of well being. Are we maximizing our well being with our current breathing patterns?

Just being aware and paying attention to your breath is the first place to start in maximizing its benefit. Learning how to breathe diaphragmatically can be challenging, as it requires conscious effort and a retraining of your brain and muscles.


You can start by lying on your back and placing one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly. Bedtime is a great time to do this. Take deep breaths and pay attention to the rhythm of the breath and where you feel the breath in the body. The goal is to feel your hand on your belly rise while the hand on the chest stays relatively still.


Throughout the day tune into your breath, where you feel it, and try to keep tension out of the shoulders as you do so.


After you feel comfortable with belly breathing at home, you can try incorporating it into your workouts. Highlighted below are some strategies and techniques:


The 4-7-8 method…

One common breathing exercise is the 4-7-8 method. Inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds, and exhale through a slightly opened mouth for 8 seconds. Repeat this 4 times.


This method could be used between sets in the gym, throughout your day to mentally and physically reset, or as a wind down method before bed.


Breathing ladders…

A more direct way of tapping into your breath during workouts could be doing a breathing ladder. This can aid in learning how to use the breath to maximize recovery within workouts and maintain aerobic capacity through difficult workouts.


A common breathing ladder uses kettlebell swings as the exercise. Start with 1 kettlebell swing followed by 1 deep belly breath. “Climb the ladder” by doing 2 kettlebell swings followed by 2 breaths, and continue this through 12 reps and breaths.


In the gym..

With heavier weights and lower reps, take a deep breath into the belly before the lift and hold it. Holding your breath sends a signal to the central nervous system that says “stay tight.” This creates tension that stabilizes your core, protects the spine, and maximizes force output. Try to maintain this inhale until you get back to the top where you can exhale and reset. This technique is dependent on the person and the load being lifted. If the load is extremely heavy, the breath may have to be exhaled during the “sticking point.”

Weight belts can be a good tool to tell you whether you’re breathing into the right place. If you’re having trouble with determining whether you’re breathing into your belly, try throwing on a weight belt during your next lift. With a true belly breath, you should feel your belly press outwards against the belt during inhalation.


With aerobic activity and lighter weight resistance training, just remember to breathe. The breath can be a useful tool for our Made 2 Move runners, in helping them avoid side stitches and maintain a desired cadence.


Pre-game or Pre-competition…

Many athletes experience overwhelming pregame or pre-competition anxiety. Some arousal can be good prior to a game or competition as it hypes the athlete up. However, if the arousal becomes overwhelming it can be a detriment to performance.


Incorporating belly breathing into a pregame routine can help our Made 2 Move athletes downregulate their anxiety. It can also help the athlete improve their motor coordination, focus, composure, and make faster decisions on the court, field, or track.


When stretching and cooling down…

Breathe into your stretches or while foam rolling. Stretching and breathing both activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps to calm the body and switch off the “fight or flight” mechanism of the sympathetic nervous system. Thus, incorporating breathwork into your cool down routine would be a two-for-one benefit, as it can help you sink deeper into the stretch, while simultaneously relaxing the body after a tough workout or PT session at Made 2 Move.


How can breathing help my recovery?

One study showed that a session of diaphragmatic breathing after exhaustive exercise led to a decrease in oxidative stress and cortisol and an increase in melatonin. What do these factors refer to?

Oxidative Stress:

Too much oxidative stress, which is the imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants, can cause chronic inflammation, aging, and damage to the body's muscles, cells, and DNA.

  • Chronic inflammation = less muscle recovery

  • Less inflammation = more muscle recovery


Decreased Cortisol:

Exercise releases cortisol, a catabolic hormone. Some of this hormone is good, but chronic stress and overtraining can lead to chronically elevated cortisol levels. This hinders muscle growth. Enter diaphragmatic breathing! Diaphragmatic breathing can help reduce levels of cortisol in the body through the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system.


Increased Melatonin:

Increased melatonin levels can improve sleep quality, one of the tools our Made 2 Move team emphasizes for recovery.


Here at Made 2 Move, our therapists try to hone into all aspects of health in order to optimize your training and recovery. Nutrition, sleep, history, and activity levels are all important aspects of health. But with breathing being the thing we do most out of any of these factors, we view proper breathing as one of the most integral parts of the equation in achieving the highest level of well being. Interested in working with a physical therapist that sees you as more than your injury? Looking to optimize your recovery and gym sessions? Reach out to frontdesk@made2movept.com to set up your initial consultation!