Breathe Light with Coach Antonio
Whether you’re in the middle of a lift, moving through an aerobic workout, or scrolling past another new age post on Instagram, you’ve probably had someone tell you to “BREATHE!”, but for something that all humans subconsciously do, it may seem strange that we even have to talk about it.
However, our modern, stressful life has led to some shifts in the way that most people breathe, and with so much conflicting information on the when’s, why’s and how’s of breathing, it can be hard to tell fact from fiction. Without getting too much into the dry science or implications, I’m going to introduce a core concept of breathing and oxygenation of our body: the Bohr Effect
When we breath, two main things are happening:
- Respiration: the inhalation of oxygen and exhalation of CO2
- Changing the position and structure of your body
While the second point is extremely important when it comes to movement and lifting weight, this post is going to mostly focus on the first aspect: respiration, oxygen, and CO2. Let’s first briefly define some concepts:
Oxygen or O2: Essential for all of our body’s energy systems. It reacts with fats, sugars, and proteins in our cells to produce energy and carbon dioxide.
Carbon Dioxide or CO2: The auto-regulator of breathing; one of the byproducts of our aerobic energy system, when glucose reacts with O2 to release energy, CO2, and water.
Bohr Effect: The bond between hemoglobin and oxygen molecules is inversely related to the concentration of CO2 in the bloodstream. In other words, your blood is better at releasing oxygen into tissues, organs, and muscles when the concentration of CO2 is higher.
The Bohr Effect may seem like it’s only relevant if you’re trying to pass a biology exam, but you may recall that the human stimulus to breathe is not at all related to our oxygen concentrations getting low but rather our carbon dioxide levels getting high and this is especially true when we exercise. As we demand more of our body’s energy systems, we break down more glucose, releasing more CO2, and increasing the stimulus to breathe.
As humans have adopted a more stressful, less active life, we’ve tended to take breaths (typically through the mouth into the chest) that are much bigger and more rapid than our body actually needs. Rather than increasing our blood oxygenation levels (which in most healthy individuals will be near maximal regardless), these big, stressful breaths deplete our blood carbon dioxide levels, which thanks to the Bohr Effect, reduce our blood’s ability to release oxygen into the muscles and tissues that need it.
There’s actually a well-known term for what happens when we breathe so much that blood CO2 levels get dangerously low:
Hyperventilation: When our breathing removes more carbon dioxide than the body is producing
But even if we’ve never experienced the symptoms of acute hyperventilation, we may still be chronically over breathing. Our body and nervous system are always trying to adapt to our lifestyle, and our body’s natural reaction to carbon dioxide concentrations are no different. Over breathing becomes a negative feedback loop when our nervous system grows accustomed to this new, lower CO2 level and your own body starts telling you to breathe more often than it actually needs to, simply due to a heightened sensitivity for CO2.
If we can train better breathing techniques, we can reverse this sensitivity and develop habits that can be maintained even when we’re working hard. Better breath control and a more efficient aerobic system allows your body to recover faster, which in turn, will allow you to do more work in a shorter period of time. Below are some breathing concepts to apply at rest and when working out; don’t worry if some are difficult to maintain (like breathing through the nose, for example). Just try when you can and over time, you will see huge improvements in your ability to control your breath.
Tips for Better Breathing
- Breathe through the nose.
- This habit is easy to practice and helps tremendously with breathing dysfunction. When exercising hard, it’s okay to breathe out through the mouth, but ideally, we want to fight to calm the breath.
- Breathe with rhythm
- Regardless of whether we’re resting or working, we want to find a consistent rhythm of breathing. When trying to calm your breath and heart rate, slow your breath down as much as you can but still maintain a consistent rhythm.
- Breathe light and slow
- If we’re chronically breathing too much and too often, than it follows logic that we need to take fewer and less voluptuous breaths. One way to practice lighter breathing is to lie on the ground with a hand on your belly and a hand on your chest. Ideally, the hand on your chest should never move and the hand on your belly should be moving as slightly and slowly as possible.
- Breathe into your abdomen
- Imagine there is a balloon centered between your pelvis and ribcage that we’re sniffing the air into. We want to inhale the air not just into our belly but also into our obliques and low back, expanding in all directions while shoulders and chest remain motionless. This breathing technique allows for a much more stable trunk and doesn’t compromise the upper body when you’re holding weight like chest breathing does. One thing to keep in mind that breathing into your abdomen doesn’t mean taking the biggest breath you can possibly take and trying to see how far you can stick your gut out. Remember the previous point and breathe as lightly as possible even when practicing diaphragmatic breathing.
- Practice holding your breath with all air exhaled
- As we learned above, our body gets sensitive to lower CO2 concentrations when we spend our lives breathing stressfully, but thankfully, adaptations can be reversed. Keeping the previous healthy breathing tips in mind, take a normal breath, exhale all of the air out of your lungs and then hold your breath until you first notice your nervous system telling you to breathe.
For more in-depth information about the concepts covered in this post, check out the book, “The Oxygen Advantage” by Patrick McKeown.