Belly Breathing? Is This the Correct Way to Breathe?

Posted on 27 Jan 2011 22:39

I was reading over my comments secondary to the article on the valsalva maneuver and some of the things I said struck me as important enough to mention again as a separate blog post.

All the time we are instructed to do "belly breathing" or to "breathe into the belly". There is an idea there that has something to do with correct diaphragmatic breathing but it has been mixed with some incorrect interpretations. The basic question is:

Should I be breathing into my belly?

Not exactly. The term belly breathing is not actually correct and stems from a misunderstanding of the full picture of how physiologically correct breathing works. Most explanations of diaphragmatic breathing say that the breath should be "taken into the belly". People are taught not only to unnaturally distend the belly but are told that this distension represents a "deep full breath". In fact, most explanations of an abdominal brace for heavy lifting go something like this:

"Take a full breath into your belly until your belly is as full of air as you can get it. Then suck in a little more air. Then push down and tighten the abdominal muscles."

First of all, I'm not kidding. People really do say to take in as much air as you can and then take in more. That description of an abdominal brace is incorrect and the concepts it comes from are incorrect. I'll get to that.

Misconceptions about Diaphragmatic Breathing and High Chest Breathing

People have misunderstood the problems with high chest breathing to mean that you should not be using your ribcage at all and instead should concentrate all breath to the belly. They think this is "diaphragmatic" breathing. I've explained it all in-depth in the article on diaphragmatic versus reverse breathing which I linked above. But will summarize it here.

Correct breathing starts with the diaphragm and then continues into the chest cavity. Even with calm but correct breathing, the rib cage does move up and out slightly. The claim that the chest should never move during correct breathing is absolutely false. The chest, instead, should only move very slightly during calm breathing. It should be expected to move more during labored breathing. But the chest should never move excessively and the breath should never be completely centered in the chest. Now, that is really the most important part. High chest, clavicle, or reverse breathing has all the breathing centered in the chest. This has naturally resulted in a false dichotomy and given many the idea that good breathing is belly centered and bad breathing is chest centered.

In reality, breathing simply does not result in the shoulder rising in excess. Indeed trying to artificially focus all breath into the belly could cause problems as well as there are a great many secondary muscles which contribute to breathing. The more in-depth explanations can be found in all the various things I've linked on this page.

How to do a Proper Abdominal Brace

I gave the wrong way to do an abdominal brace above. Now I'll give the correct way but first I want to explain something more about this belly breathing thing. If ONLY your belly expands out during your diaphragmatic breathing then you are not breathing correctly. Good breathing does not have the belly blowing up like a balloon but instead, the whole torso should expand.

Many instructions have you place a hand on your belly to see if it is rising first before the rib cage. This is fine and I've explained how to use that in the other article. However to really feel the correct movement of the torso during a correct breath (which I've also explained previously) do this:

  • Stand up straight or sit up straight in a chair. If you are new to this the chair may be easier
  • Place your hands on your torso just above your hips so that your fingers are in front and your thumb is in back. Squeeze slightly.
  • Take a deep breath into the abdominal cavity and note how the fingers and thumbs move. Both the fingers and thumb should be moving apart from each other. If only your fingers are moving you are not doing it correctly.

So what you should see happening is the entire torso, front back and sides, expanding. Not just the belly. For more info see the breathing category. When you do an abdominal brace, this is what you should be looking for, not just the belly blowing up.

Another way that can help you during the actual lifting performance is to cinch a resistance band around your middle. Just tight enough so that you can feel it resisting the expansion of your torso. This serves a dual purpose. It gives you something to physically push out against, which helps with your "mind-muscle connection". And it allows you to feel the difference between just the belly versus the whole torso expanding before you lift.

One last thing before I explain the abdominal brace. This is ONLY for heavy near maximal lifting and we will take a breath and expand the torso while simultaneously bracing. For other athletic situations where you need to brace you will need to do it while continuing to breathe. So you have to learn to brace independent of your breathing. Most lifters will intuitively choose to breathe in before a heavy lift and so doing allows us to increase intra-abdominal pressure a bit more while making a wider "trunk". However, it is optional and taking a breath means you are going to be using a modified valsalva. The idea, then, that breathing in and bracing are one and the same is wrong. The steps for an abdominal brace:

1. Stand up straight and take a moderate diaphragmatic breath so that the torso expands a bit as explained above. This is optional and you do NOT need to take an exaggerated breath. Just a comfortable one.

2. Contract the abdominal muscles and the glutes simultaneously

3. You should feel the lower back tighten as a result

You are now braced. As you begin lifting, depending on how heavy the load is, you will want to allow a bit of that air to escape as explained in the valsalva article. This should feel like a deep hiss or grunt against your partially closed glottis. Once you have passed the sticking point of the lift allow all your air to escape. That's pretty much it.

This page created 27 Jan 2011 22:39
Last updated 20 Mar 2018 19:08

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