Although you’ve been breathing since the moment you were born, you’ve probably been doing it all wrong. [Tweet this fact!]
“We’re all born knowing how to inhale and exhale correctly, but with today’s technology, hurried schedules, and everyday stress, most of us have lost that ability,” says Belisa Vranich, Psy.D., author of the new book, Breathe: 14 Days to Oxygenating, Recharging, and Fueling Your Body & Brain. “As a result, most of us ‘under-breathe’ in a dysfunctional way.”
And this dysfunctional breathing can make you feel winded during CrossFit or after climbing a few flights of stairs, no matter how fit you are. Oxygen is fuel, and part of feeling fatigued during exercise has to do with not fueling our cells well enough through our breath. “You can have the heart and cardiovascular system of an elite athlete but the lungs and breathing muscles of a total couch potato,” Vranich says.
Fortunately re-learning the right way to breathe is easy. The first step is realizing which muscles are your breath muscles: your diaphragm, abdominals, obliques, and intercostals. When you strengthen these muscles, just like you would your hamstrings or glutes, not only will your breathing improve, but you may also notice a litany of benefits such as improved endurance, more energy, less stress, fewer GI problems, and a better immune system, Vranich says.
Use this easy “workout” to better your breathing. Complete these exercises once a day for 14 days, and soon your previous dysfunctional breathing will feel unnatural.
1. Stretch. Just like any workout, you need to warm up first. Think about it like packing a suitcase: You want to use every nook and cranny to maximize space.
To stretch out the intercostal muscles—located between your ribs—sit up straight and drape one arm over your head so your biceps is covering your ear. Inhale while leaning to the side away from the raised arm, then repeat on the other side. Do 3 to 4 reps per side.
2. Focus on the exhale. When you think about breathing, you probably focus on inhaling. But exhaling is key to a better breath since mediocre exhalations only release 70 percent of air in your lungs, Vranich says, preventing them from expanding to their full capacity on your next inhale. [Tweet this fact.] This exercise, called exhale maximization, pushes out as much stale air as possible.
Squeeze out every last bit of air with your core and ab muscles on your next exhale. And don’t stop at a flat stomach—go one step further so your belly “scoops in.” Maybe even use your fingers to push air out of your belly. Take 5 normal breaths, focusing on the exhale. On the 5 breaths, concentrate on taking a really big inhale, and notice how much more efficient your breath is after “emptying out” beforehand.
3. “Sip” in some air. Now that you’ve cleared out those lunges, it’s time for inhale maximization.
Sit down, as you may feel lightheaded, which only means you’re doing it right, Vranich says. Inhale completely, then without exhaling, take another breath, opening your mouth as if you’re “sipping” air. (It should feel hard.) After each sip, relax your shoulders, and continue adding sips until you feel like you might explode—you should feel an urgency to exhale. Each inhale maximization should last for 2 to 3 seconds total. Aim for 10 reps.
4. Practice blowing out candles. Exhale pulsations, also known as the yogic “breath of fire,” are short, sharp exhales that involve a pumping action where your abs move from neutral to concave. This exercise targets your core muscles so you can exhale more effectively.
Exhale through your mouth as if you were blowing out a row of candles, letting the air hit the back of your teeth in order to make the exhale audible. (If you’ve never done this before, it will help if you put one finger up at arm’s length in order to feel the exhale.) The inhale happens passively on its own. Vranich recommends starting with at least 20 to 30 reps, adding 2 every day or 5 a week. Your goal is 100 eventually.
5. Let it drop. This advanced exercise combines an exhale with a belly contraction.
While on all fours, keeping your back flat, relax your belly, letting it drop completely toward the floor. (We know, it’s not the sexiest look, but trust us here.) On an exhale, "pick up" your belly by contracting your middle and holding it for a second, then let it drop back down on the inhale. Try for 10 to 15 reps, or when you start to feel a burn. Work to increase your max reps.