Breathing Exercises for Relaxation

Posted on 11 Dec 2009 18:57

By Ground Up Strength

This article is a simple explanation of several breathing exercises for relaxation. It is meant as related companion to the Getting in the Zone series of blog posts or for anyone interested. However, before we get into the breathing exercises you should have already read Paradoxical and Diaphragmatic Breathing which will have introduced the basic concepts and techniques of correct diaphragmatic deep breathing. That article contains an exercise meant to help you practice deep breathing but it should also have you well on your way to achieving a relaxed state through breathing.

I also encourage you to read the Getting in the Zone series which will provide a broader context for what we are trying to achieve. The benefits of proper breathing are obvious but many strength trainees may not see the point of "relaxation". The Zone series provides that point of context and much more.

What Are Breathing Exercises Good For?

Before we get to the actual techniques it is important to be clear on what we are promoting breathing exercises for. They are for relaxation and stress reduction. We are not saying that breathing exercises will cure any disease and we are not saying they will treat the symptoms of any disease. We are also not recommending these exercise from the standpoint of "corrective" breathing, out of the belief they will fix certain dysfunctions that lead to injury. Learning to relax the body will help to "relax the mind". If you are suffering from a disease then learning to relax in this way could certainly help to reduce and deal with the stress you are under. Perhaps that will help you heal. But that is as far as we are willing to go! So, the exercises here are for the purposes of relaxation and not for alternative medicine.

Many books and websites on relaxation techniques stray from relaxation techniques to promoting relaxation as a CAM therapy. The article on this page, as it stands, should not be considered CAM, or anything of the sort.

For strength training, relaxation techniques help you relax. What's more they can help you learn to relax completely. You will not realize that you hardly ever relax "completely" until you finally do it! Relaxing in this way means you will get more and better rest. More and better rest will aid in your recovering from your training.

Try a Sigh

A recurrent conversation takes place between my wife and I, usually in the evening when I finally sit down to unwind with a book or the television. I let out a couple of nice long sighs and my wife says, "What are you huffing and puffing about?". To which I invariably apply I am not huffing and puffing ABOUT anything…I am relaxing." She doesn't get it and I can't explain it. A a nice long sigh helps drain the tension out of you. We associate sighs with weariness so perhaps there is a connection there. Why question it? One thing I will never convince my wife of is that we must not always "question" our every action. But perhaps I can convince you! So…

Take a deep full breath through you nose. Hold for about ten seconds and feel the tension in your chest and throat and release the breath through your mouth with a audible sigh. I know it seems silly but there is a relaxing and tension draining quality about sighing.

And there is more to it. Mason points out that the "quiet, or calmest" part of the breath is between the inhalation and exhalation. And I cannot stress to you enough how true that is. That little moment is when the body is most relaxed. The sigh helps you zero in on's at the end of the sigh. Remember it.

Body Position

Before doing the exercises one must choose the position, whether sitting or lying down. I would recommend against lying down for the purposes of general relaxation and especially when it comes to relaxing to control the stress response. Think practically. If you are in the office and you need to take a moment to breath and relax because of a stressful day, is lying down really appropriate? Of course not. So, the way you learn and practice breathing relaxation and any relaxation exercise should similar fit how you need to use it.

A number of texts recommend a lying pose for breathing but this seems to be based on what is easiest. Logically, if you've ever only achieved relaxation while lying down then what good is it when you are actually living your life and can't lie down?

If you want also to practice the exercises in a lying position to help you relax and fall asleep at night, do that also, but keep in mind that falling asleep is not the same as "relaxing"!

Similarly, before a strenuous workout, when you are over-aroused and anxious, lying down is not recommended. You want to calm down not cool down. And frankly lying down in the middle of a gym isn't done. Sitting is the most useful option and this entails simply sitting in a chair with your back straight and your feel on the floor. Avoid cushy chairs that you will sink into. Something firm is best.

Breathing Practices

The two basic kinds of breathing exercises we will use are rhythmic breathing and concentration breathing. The former is simply inhaling and exhaling to a certain count. So, for instance, one might inhale slowly to a count of five and then exhale slowly to a count of five. Concentration breathing is concentrating on the act of breathing, or the sequence of events. The exercise for this was already described in [paradoxical breathing] but will be included here also. Mason refers to this exercise as "three part breathing".

One of the keys to relaxation which I stressed in the Getting in the Zone series is not to "try" to hard to relax. Trying to relax only makes you more tense. As a matter of fact, I only used the title Breathing Exercises for Relaxation so that readers would know what this article is about. In the body I am referring to them as "practices" as I think that might help hammer home the message that this is not about forcing it but about letting it happen.

The message here is that it takes time and if you have a hard time getting through the sessions or focusing don't get frustrated and TRY too hard. Just let it happen at it's own pace. There is nothing to be gained from being in hurry except more stress. John Mason summed this up in his "Guide to Stress Reduction by saying that instead of forcing relaxation you should find a way to give into it.

Rhythmic Breathing

The simplest of the practices and the easiest to start with. Begin by exhaling completely. Inhale to a count of four. Exhale to a count of four. And hold for a count of four. Breathe the way you have practiced since reading Paradoxial Breathing. That is, breathe correctly.

You can change the count to alter the rhythm.

1:2 Ratio

The easiest practice to start with is a simple one to two ratio. That means that you will exhale for twice as long as you inhale. Start with a two second inhale and a four second exhale.

Close your eyes and take a full deep breath in the manner you have practiced trying for about a two second inhale. If it takes longer to get a full breath so be it. Hold your breath for two or three seconds and exhale completely for four seconds.

When you become comfortable with this and can time your breaths properly try new time lengths with a one to two ratio. You can to to a four to eight, for instance, and then to a five to ten.

The great thing about extending the time as you become more comfortable is that you should actually feel the need to have more time the more relaxed you become. So when a four second inhale and a eight second exhale seems 'rushed' to you it's a clue that you are much more relaxed than you were before. This may not happen the first time you do the exercise but it's good feedback to let you know breathing is working for you.

For the next practices, begin the same. Full deep breath. Exhale slowly and completely and make sure to get the last bit of air out of your lungs. Then begin the counting versions.

Count from 1 to 4

As you inhale, slowly count from 1 to 4. Hold your breath and slowly count from 1 to 4 again. Now exhale while slowly counting from 1 to 8. Repeat 4 times.

Visualize Numbers: 1 to 8 Count

As you inhale try to see the number "1" in your mind while focusing on the inhalation. Hold your breath for three seconds. Say "two" mentally and try to see the number 2 in your mind as you inhale the second time. Exhale. Repeat for each number through to eight. Remember, each exhalation should be as complete as possible, and hold your breath for 3 seconds before each inhalation.

5 To 1 Count

This practice is very similar to the 1 to 8 count above except that you count down to 5. This is a quick exercise and should take one to two minutes. Start by mentally saying "5" as you inhale. Exhale fully. Count "4" and inhale. As you begin the exhalation, mentally say to yourself "I am more relaxed now than I was at number 5".1 Repeat the process all the way down to number one.

Five to one counting is great for a quickly and can be used instead of one deep breath when you need to calm down and relax in a hurry…say at the office or in a traffic jam. It's more powerful than just one breath but not so involved it's impractical.

Three Part Breathing

I have simply copied down the explanation for this I included in the article Paradoxical and Diaphragmatic Breathing. As I mentioned above, it will help if you have already read that article so if you haven't already you may want to do so. This article is only about the breathing relaxation practices themselves. Paradoxical Breathing explains what correct breathing is in the first place. However, the reason I used the following practice in the article is because it is a good way to practice and learn proper breathing itself, as well as being a relaxation technique:


1) Imagine that your lungs are divided into three parts, lower, middle, and upper. With this visualization firmly in place you will begin to take deep, slow diaphragmatic breaths. You can keep your hands on your belly and chest if it helps.

2)Empty your lungs completely and begin to inhale, as slowly as possible, into your abdomen using only your diaphragm and filling only the lowest part of your lungs so that you chest does not rise at all.

3) Now, imagine, as you continue to breath in, that the middle part of your lungs are filling and allow your ribcage to begin moving forward.

4) Now visualize the upper part of your lungs filling as you complete the breath so that your lungs are now completely full of air. The shoulder can move slightly up and back.


Don't be fooled by all this focus on a proper diaphragmatic inhalation. The exhalation is just as important if not more important. Rapid shallow chest shoulder breathers not only fail to fill the lungs, they also fail to empty them. A full exhalation encourages a proper diaphragmatic breath and in most meditative practices the exhalation is the KEY to relaxation, for good reason.

Exhale slowly and naturally, letting your shoulders drop and the abdomen pull slightly in and down. I don't recommend following any scripted pattern for this (we are just learning) but try not to focus all the effort on the abdomen first and instead initiate the exhale by imagining that you are starting at the top of the lungs. If you start with the abdomen without engaging the chest it actually becomes more difficult to completely empty the lungs. The only reason for doing this it is the quickest and easiest way to empty the lungs because it is a natural sequence.

Alan Watts describes this process "encouraging a full release of the breath - easing it out as if the body were being emptied of air by a great leaden ball sinking through the chest and abdomen, and settling down into the ground".[3]

Practice. Often. As you become more adept the sequence of motions should start to feel like one smooth continuous motion and eventually you can drop the rigid control and simply allow yourself to do what comes naturally. Take note of your breathing often in case you fall back into the rapid, shallow, chest, shoulder pattern.

2. Williams, Jean M., ed. Applied Sport Psychology. Palo Alto: Mayfield Company, 1986. Print.

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