During any form of physical exertion, most people don’t think about breath until they’re gasping for it. The most advanced exercisers among us are conscious of trying to breathe lower, into their bellies. But there’s an even better way, and making this simple switch will get more oxygen into your blood, faster.
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We all know that you need extra oxygen as you exercise (and, y’know, to be not dead). You need plenty of it in your blood to keep your muscles happy as you expend energy. Once the muscles aren’t getting enough oxygen, fatigue sets in mighty quick and the whole thing comes grinding to a halt. Also, let’s be honest, nobody likes it when there’s massive amounts of lactic acid spreading throughout your body. You know your lungs are what deliver oxygen to your bloodstream, but let’s take a quick look at how that happens.
First a quick refresher on how breathing works. When someone talks about their “lung muscles,” know that they are speaking colloquially. The lungs have no musculature of their own. They’re really like limp bags, hanging in your chest. So what fills them with air? A vacuum, basically. The lungs are covered with the inner pleural membrane. There is also an outer pleural membrane which is attached to your diaphragm (below your lungs) and intercostal muscles (muscles that wrap in and out of your ribs). Between the two membranes are a fluid, which is not easily compressible or expandable. So, when the diaphragm and intercostals pull away from the lungs, the membranes pull on each other via suction, and the lungs expand along with the expanding cavity they’re in (assuming you’re letting air in through your mouth or nose). The lungs are very stretchy, so the main point of limitation is how far you can expand the cavity that they’re in.
Your lungs absorb the oxygen through a series of bronchial tubes inside them, which are fascinating in and of themselves. Speaking to Gary Logan, director of the Academy for Classical Acting at George Washington University/The Shakespeare Theatre, he spoke of the bronchial tubes as proof that we are built to take in much more oxygen than we typically do. “Every stalk of bronchial tube splits up into two more, and then each of those spit up into several more, and then those split up, and so on,” Logan said. “If you took the original stalk, and cut it to measure the circumference of that circle, then went to its two off-branches, and cut and measured them, the circumference of those two together adds up to more than the circumference of that first stalk. This is true all the way down. So even as the tubes get ever and ever smaller, even to microscopic size, they are ever and ever increasing their capacity for oxygen absorption. Which is kind of amazing.”
It is! So how do we get more oxygen into them?
The chest-breathers among us are the worst off, as they expand only around their upper ribs. It’s a shallower breath and much less efficient. Gut-breathers (or diaphragmatic breathers) are moving in the right direction, since your distended belly can certainly push out pretty far and create a larger pocket for your lungs, and as a result of your chest being in between your gut and mouth/nose, it, too, expands. This is about as far as most of us get in the refinement of our breathing, and it’s not bad, but we can do better. Not by extending out further from the belly, but by extending out in more directions, namely, from your back and sides. In other words, we’ve been putting all our focus on the diaphragm, but we’ve neglected the intercostals.
“We think of the breath as being almost all diaphragmatic, or pulmonic from the front,” says Logan. “But, you can take attention to the major and the minor intercostals that weave inside and out of the ribcage. And by allowing their expansion you can expand the lungs further.” In other words, by expanding not just from your front, but from your back and sides, too, you can fill your lungs (and thus, your blood) with far more oxygen.
It’s a very simple adjustment with tangible rewards, but it can take some practice to become habitual.
For most of us Americans, our lower backs are very locked up, especially those of us who spend a lot of time sitting at a computer. It may even feel like you couldn’t possibly expand your lower back and sides, but you can.
Start by standing up, feet shoulder width apart, knees straight but not locked. Now, let your head gently tilt forward, and allow it to lead you down, vertebra by vertebra, until you’re hanging all the way over. If you have a partner with whom you’re comfortable, it helps to have someone gently tapping with their fists along the sides of your spine, as each vertebra folds over. Don’t try to muscle further than you can go; just let yourself hang naturally where your body stops you.
Now try to breathe into your lower back. You’ll find it’s easier to do in this position because your stomach and chest are collapsed, so you have no where to expand but your back and sides. Try to stay down for a minute or so, really getting used to what it feels like to breath into your lower back, and then slowly roll back up, vertebra by vertebra, starting with your tailbone. Once you’ve come back to standing, try to keep breathing into your lower back and sides. Repeat as necessary.
Another great stretch that’s perfect for working on this is the one you see above. Again, breathe into your lower back and lower sides. Don’t push too hard, and make sure you do both sides.
Not only does this stretch help to relax your lower back, but it stretches your obliques and lower intercostals as well. When you unfold, try to be conscious of where your breath goes. If it wants to run back up into your chest, try to redirect it back down into your back. If you can get your lower back and sides to play ball, your diaphragm and chest will follow unconsciously.
Perhaps you’re wondering what exercise this can be incorporated into. The answer is pretty much anything and everything. All physical activities require a little extra oxygen, and all of them can benefit from more of it. Runners will find they don’t get winded as quickly and weight-lifters will find that they can get more power with a fuller, more supported breath. I just recently rediscovered this for myself on a long bike ride. I wash hunched over in a low position (using aerobars), and found myself struggling to get enough air because I couldn’t fully expand my stomach or chest. But I thought back to my voice lessons, all those years ago, and started breathing into my lower back. It really was like magic. I could suddenly get all of the air I needed, and the quality of my ride improved dramatically. I was barely winded at the end of it, despite it being the longest ride of my life.
And while we may have unlearned this sort of breathing, it’s actually the most natural thing in the world. Says Logan:
When runners run and are really heaving, they typically don’t arch their back and lift their chin up to the sky to catch their breath. Instead they hang themselves over, they brace their hands on their knees like flying buttresses to support their torso, and they round out their back. And if you’ve ever seen someone at the hospital with emphasima or a similar affliction they do the same thing — they hunch and round the back. So, there’s something natural about feeling that you can take more breath in when your back ribs are free. And even though they’re really always free, there are certain things we do to inhibit them.
Hopefully, we’ve helped you uninhibit them a little.
Big thanks to Gary Logan for all his help.