Has this ever happened to you? You were watching a horror movie with your partner. When right after an intense scene, your partner asked if you were nervous, noticing that you took a deep breath. You were so immersed in the movie and that deep breath was so natural that you didn’t even realize you took that deep breath, had your partner not asked you!
Breathing is such a subtle yet vital activity, which most of the time you don’t realize you are doing, but you won’t be able to survive if your ability to breathe is deprived for more than a few minutes. It not only supports our normal body functions, reduces our psychological and physiological tension (as seen in the horror movie example), but also facilitates our workouts, as we will discuss in the rest of this article.
Common Types of Breathing
Before stepping into the fight or flight phase (exercise), let’s first take a look at the resting phase. Keep in mind that breathing is the activity of gas exchange of our body, where we breathe in and transport oxygen for our organs and muscles to use and breathe out carbon dioxide these organs and muscles produce.
There are many types of breathing, functional and dysfunctional. In this section we will mention three common types or terms of breathing – eupnea, diaphragmatic breathing and shallow breathing.
Eupnea is a mode of breathing that occurs at rest and does not require the cognitive thought of the individual, also referred to as quiet breathing.
Diaphragmatic breathing (left/above) versus shallow breathing (right/below. See definition below). Notice the difference in movement of the diaphragm (green line) and the rib cage (black lines). GIFs by John Pierce - Own work, CC0
Diaphragmatic breathing is also called deep breathing. In proper diaphragmatic breathing, there should be an expansion of the lower rib cage without any cranial movement of the chest, accompanied by a synchronized activity of the entire abdominal wall, which expands slightly in all directions (anterior from rectus abdominis posterior to the spine, up from the diaphragm down to the pelvic floor, and side in between the oblique abdominal muscles) during inspiration.
Since the diaphragm is responsible for about 80% of all the respiratory work in normal breathing, eupnea should in essence be diaphragmatic breathing. However, due to various physiological and psychological issues e.g. bad posture, stress and diseases, dysfunctional breathing develops. According to a study, dysfunctional breathing is said to be as high as 5 – 11% in the general population, around 30% in asthmatics and up to 83% in anxiety sufferers.
Shallow breathing is a mode of breathing in which mainly the intercoastal (chest) muscles contract, causing cranial movement of the chest. The belly is drawn in and the lower rib cage narrows rather than expands during inspiration. Shallow breathing is also called chest breathing. It’s a type dysfunctional breathing and hinders adequate gas exchange of our body. Shallow breathing often accompanies stiff and elevated rib cage, stiffness and pain in the back and neck, and weak abdominals.
Breathing During Different Types of Exercise
According to what is mentioned above, it is natural to assume that diaphragmatic breathing is the proper type of breathing we use during exercise. And it is the case!
Breathing During Strength Training
General rule of breathing during strength training is exhale on exertion and inhale on relaxation. However, when you are challenging a heavy lift or when you are hitting the last reps, specially techniques like Valsalva maneuver can be used.
Valsalva maneuver is when the abdominal muscles contract with the airway closed as when you are coughing, sneezing, nose blowing, or pooping. The increased intra-abdominal pressure helps to strengthen the torso during heavy weightlifting.
Breathing During Cardio
During aerobic exercise such as running, spinning, swimming etc., establishing a rhythmic and consistent breathing pattern is the key. For example, a good rhythm of breathing for running can be three strides – inhale - three strides - exhale. You can progress into two strides – inhale – one stride – exhale when approaching the finish line or for short bursts of exercise.
Maintaining rhythmic and consistent breathing during cardio ensures that our body gets adequate oxygen and blood flow to facilitate the endurance training. It also helps to stay focused, develop a steady pace, and elongate the exercise or make it less strenuous.
Breathing During Yoga
Yoga as a special type of practice has its specific breathing patterns – long inhale with equally long exhale (which is called sami vritti), e.g. 10 to 15 seconds each.
For some styles of yoga practice, such as ashtanga, vinyasa etc., ujjayi breathing is often used. In ujjayi breathing, the back of the throat is constricted. The air breathed in through the nose first fills the lower belly, rises to lower rib cage, and finally moves into the upper chest and throat. Because of the sound it produces during inhalation and exhalation, ujjayi breathing is also called “the ocean breath” or “Darth Vader breath”.
Same ratio long inhale and exhale during yoga practice helps to calm the body, promote deep stretch and improve range of motion.
Breathing is so important in yoga, that there is a distinct breathing practice – pranayama. Check out this complete package of pranayama below if you are interested.
Breathing Through Nose or Mouth
During exercise you should breathe through your nose most of the time, because the cilia (hair-like structures) and mucus inside your nose filter out pollution, allergens and bacteria, and humidify the air before it travels down your airway. Nevertheless, mouth breathing can bring in more air, which helps during strenuous exercises such as jogging, spinning and other cardio workouts.
Whatever breathing pattern is used, they are all based on diaphragmatic breathing. Plus, one should never hold her/his breath during exercise.
Diaphragmatic Breathing Exercise
After all this talk about how important diaphragmatic breathing is, how to do diaphragmatic breathing exactly? If you don’t know the answer yet, this may be helpful, and pretty simple actually - lie on your back and start breathing according to the diaphragmatic breathing definition under Common Types of Breathing.
If you still can’t get a grasp of it, this article provides a series of tests to evaluate the function of your diaphragm and activate the muscles that participate in diaphragmatic breathing.
Matching proper techniques for different types of exercises is important because it ensures adequate gas exchange and blood flow, maximizes performance and results, and even prevents injuries.
Diaphragmatic breathing is the underlying breathing pattern during exercise. Incorporating diaphragmatic breathing into daily life also has multiple benefits. It helps you relax, deal with stress, promote blood flow and reduce back pain. It even improves your decision-making ability!
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