How to Breathe More Effectively

As we all know, breathing is an important element of health and fitness. So, let's find out if you breathe effectively or not and then learn some ways to take your breathing to the next level. 

Brock Armstrong
5-minute read

image of man breathing effectively

Let's face it, if you are not breathing effectively, you will not function at your best. Breathing inefficiently has been shown to create tension in the body, lead to premature exhaustion, create vocal strain, interfere with athletic activity, and increase the chance of illnesses.

On average we humans breathe about 20,000 times per day and healthy breathing patterns are how your body maintains its metabolism and delivers oxygen to vital tissues. In addition, if you breathe too fast or don’t inhale deeply enough, you can decrease the amount of blood that is getting to your brain and muscles and result in less than optimum performance.

That’s not all. Your breathing can also be a sign of how well your core muscles are working. If you have shallow breathing (also known as chest breathing) or if you breath to quickly, then your diaphragmatic muscles may not be actively stabilizing your trunk. This can lead to poor posture, impairments in your physical or athletic coordination, and low back instability. All of these factors can increase your risk of injury and decrease your performance potential.

On the other hand, deep breathing (also known as belly breathing) can raise your levels of blood oxygen, promoting health in many ways. This can stimulate the digestive process,  improving fitness, and even boost cognitive performance. 

A study published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy took 34 healthy individuals and put them to the test to demonstrate the importance of diaphragmatic breathing on functional movement. Using a multi‐dimensional approach that included biomechanical, biochemical, breathing-related symptoms, and breathing functionality measures they found that "Inefficient breathing could result in muscular imbalance, motor control alterations, and physiological adaptations that are capable of modifying movement."

A study about breathing rate on oxygen saturation and exercise performance found that people who took 12 to 14 shallow breaths per minute were more likely to have low levels of blood oxygen, which "may impair skeletal muscle and metabolic function, and lead to muscle atrophy and exercise intolerance."

How to Know if You Breathe Well

Before we dive into how you can learn to breathe better, it is important for you to know if you’re not breathing effectively in the first place. Here are seven common signs of dysfunctional breathing patterns:

  1. You inhale with your chest. When you begin inhaling (breathing in), you may notice that your chest is the first thing to move, typically going up or slightly forward. If so, this is a sign that you are engaging in shallow or upper chest breathing.
  2. Your rib cage doesn’t expand to the side. If you place your hands on either side of your rib cage when you breathe, you should notice that your hands move to the side as your trunk widens. If not, this is also a sign of shallow breathing.
  3. You’re breathing with your mouth. Do you find that even when you’re not exercising hard, you commonly have your mouth open as you breathe? Unless you have a sinus infection or nasal congestion that is stopping you from breathing through your nose, your mouth should be closed as you breathe from deep within your nasal cavity.
  4. Your neck, chest, and shoulders are tight. Do you carry a lot of tension in the muscles around and under your neck? If you reach back and feel those muscles (or get a friend to massage them for you), do they feel painful, tender, or tight? If so, this can be a sign that you are engaging in stressed and shallow breathing.
  5. You sigh or yawn frequently (even when you are not tired). Do you find that every few minutes, you must take a deep breath, sigh, or yawn? This is a sign that your body isn’t getting enough oxygen as well. 
  6. You have a high resting breath rate. A normal, relaxed, resting breath rate should be approximately 10-18 breaths per minute. If you measure how many times you’re breathing each minute and you exceed 18 (when you are completely relaxed), this could be a sign of quick and shallow breathing. Incidentally, studies have found that a breathing pattern of about 6 breaths per minute was associated with greater heart rate variability (HRV) than that of spontaneous breathing rate.
  7. You slouch. Poor diaphragmatic control can cause specific chest muscles to become short and tight. Typically these muscles are your chest and the front of your shoulders. So if you find yourself slouching your head or shoulders forward, this can be a sign that you’re not activating your diaphragm when you breathe.

Six Ways to Breathe Correctly

Whether or not you identify with any of the previous seven breathing issues, here are six ways that you can train yourself to breathe more effectively:

  1. Blow up balloons. When you practice blowing up a balloon, it encourages you to contract your diaphragm and core muscles. You can enhance this effect by getting into a crunch or sit-up position on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the ground, then blowing up a balloon by inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. At the same time, try to maintain pressure against the ground with your low back. There are fancier devices for this purpose like the PowerLung but a balloon is a cheap and easy way to do this. 
  2. Purse your lips. Practice breathing through pursed lips by creating as small a hole as possible in your mouth to breathe through. As you do pursed-lipped breathing, this helps to keep you from breathing too fast. Take 2-4 seconds to breathe in through your nose, then take 4-8 seconds to breathe our very slowly through pursed lips, and practice this 1-2 times per day for about 3-5 minutes. Imagine you’re blowing through a straw or trying to blow at a candle just hard enough for the candle to flicker, but not get extinguished.
  3. Do planking exercises. In previous Get-Fit Guy episodes, you learned how awesome the plank exercise is. This exercise can also be used to teach you how to breathe properly. Simply get into a front or side plank position and take 8-12 deep breathes from your bellybutton (metaphorically speaking, of course). Make sure you breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.
  4. Contract your abs as you breathe. A simple activity that can teach you how to use your abdominal (core) muscles to breathe better is to wrap your hand around your waistline, and then try to push your hands slightly away and out to the side as you breathe out. You should feel that your abdominal muscles are moving your hands as you breathe.
  5. Upper chest resistance. Lie on your back, place a hand on your upper chest, apply slight downward pressure to the hard bone in the middle of your chest (your sternum) and try to maintain that pressure while you inhale and exhale. This will force you to “bypass” your chest while breathing, and instead breathe from deep within your belly.
  6. Limit shoulder movement. Begin by sitting in a chair with your arms and elbows supported by the arms of the chair. As you inhale through your nose, push down onto the arms of the chair, and as you exhale through pursed lips, release that pressure on the arms of the chair. The purpose of this exercise is to keep you from elevating your shoulders while breathing (which can cause upper chest breathing).

Today's fashion and aesthetics has taught us that we must have flat stomachs to be attractive and that behavior encourages us all to "suck in our guts" the majority of the day. This type of posture (and posturing) is what I believe contributes mainly to our societal norm of shallow breathing. Remember that the abdominal area contains our most vital organs, and we should really let them do their thing unimpeded. If we suck in our gut constantly, not only do we create lower back tension, stiffness, and pain but we also rob ourselves of the most valuable and effective performance enhancer on the planet—oxygen.

For more breathing info, oxygen tips, and to join the airy conversation, head over to Facebook.com/GetFitGuy or twitter.com/getfitguy.

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All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Brock Armstrong Get-Fit Guy

Brock Armstrong was the host of the Get-Fit Guy podcast between 2017 and 2021. He is a certified AFLCA Group Fitness Leader with a designation in Portable Equipment, NCCP and CAC Triathlon Coach, and a TnT certified run coach. He is also on the board of advisors for the Primal Health Coach Institute and a guest faculty member of the Human Potential Institute.