The way you breathe may offer the simplest and easiest route to a physique that’s more aesthetic, stronger, and less prone to injury, and yet you’ve probably never given it a moment’s thought.
First of all, if your chest and shoulders rise when you take air in, you’re doing it wrong. An optimal breath comes from your belly— your abdomen should expand 360 degrees on the inhale, and it should withdraw on the exhale. “You’ve been conditioned to think that when you take a deep breath your shoulders go up, and that you should brace your abs all the time,” says Belisa Vranich, Psy.D., founder of The Breathing Class and a breathing consultant to athletes, celebrities, and military personnel. “But that doesn’t allow you to develop flexibility in your core.” After years of breathing incorrectly, your abdomen might not expand much when you try to breathe from your belly, which Vranich likens to using a shortened range of motion on lifts in the gym. On the exhale, pull your stomach in toward your spine. Over time, Vranich says you’ll be able to take bigger belly breaths.
Dedicate 15 minutes on your days off from the gym to practicing what Vranich calls a “bellows breath.” “It’s the same breathing you see Rickson Gracie do in [the documentary] Choke,” she says. From a seated position, breathe in as slowly and deeply as possible through your belly. When you can’t take in any more air, exhale, sucking your waist in. Breathing like this enhances recovery by hyper-oxygenating your blood and lowering cortisol.
During training, there’s another breathing tip you can use to enhance strength and prevent injury. You may be familiar with the Valsalva maneuver, in which you take a deep breath and raise your tongue to the roof of your mouth to prevent air from escaping. The technique creates intra-abdominal pressure, which stabilizes your spine under heavy loads. But Vranich says most people do it incorrectly by not contracting muscles that make up the pelvic floor.
Doing so is as simple as squeezing those muscles that cut off your urine stream (the same ones women activate when doing Kegel exercises). Before attempting any heavy lift, take a deep belly breath and contract your pelvic floor—then brace your core as if you’re about to get socked in the gut. “You’ll feel the tension rise up into your face and ears,” says Vranich. This is a good thing, as it means you’ve stabilized your core optimally. Perform your rep, let the breath out at the top, and repeat.
“If you don’t use the pelvic floor when you do a Valsalva, you miss the point,” says Vranich. “That’s how weightlifters get hernias. Lower-back pain is related to the pelvic floor, and you can keep going to the chiropractor, but until you learn to use your pelvic floor it won’t help.”
More efficient breathing isn’t just helpful for training. A more mobile abdomen helps alleviate acid reflux, and greater oxygen in the blood lowers blood pressure.