Without fail, clients will ask for a program designed to target a certain area or muscle group. Female clients will usually ask to “tone” their stomach, thighs or buttocks (what they’re really asking for is muscle growth; “toning” just makes it sound more feminine – but that’s a different topic for a different post), while men will often express the desire to build muscle in their arms, chest, and legs. But there is one extremely important muscle that nobody ever asks to work on. It’s a muscle that is crucial to everyday living and one that will directly impact the growth of other muscles as well as your cardiovascular endurance abilities. It is arguably the easiest and most pleasant muscle to train and by doing so your entire body will function better. No, it’s not your heart. No, it’s no your brain either. It’s your diaphragm, the muscle responsible for your breathing (not the birth control…).
Your diaphragm is connected to your rib cage. It enables your rib cage to expand and contract in order to draw in oxygen. In simple terms, the better your diaphragm functions, the more oxygen you are capable of drawing in with every breath ensuring that your muscles get sufficient supplies of oxygen to function at optimal levels. (For a 1 minute video illustrating how the diaphragm works click here.)
The “use it or lose it” principle applies to your diaphragm just like it does with every other muscle. Your body directs its limited resources wherever they are needed and that need is determined by usage. So if you use a muscle, your body registers that as a “need” and will send energy supplies to keep that muscle functioning. If a muscle is under appropriate amounts of stress it will grow and become stronger to adapt to the demand. Conversely, if you don’t use a muscle it will atrophy.
If you are reading this you might be thinking to yourself: “I’m breathing, therefore I’m using and exercising my diaphragm right now, right?” Well, only kinda sorta. Let me explain.
If you watch a baby breathing, you will see her stomach rise and fall with every inhalation and exhalation. As we get older, gain weight, workout less and become more stressed, we tend to become chest breathers, not belly breathers. As this happens, our breathing becomes shallower and faster. This means that we draw in less oxygen with every inhalation. Additionally, bad posture can affect the chest muscles and restrict movement of the rib cage, preventing the diaphragm from working properly. While chest breathing may bring enough oxygen into your body to get you through the day, it will likely cause a great deal of difficulty when working out. The harder your muscles work the more oxygen they need. When you breathe efficiently you are ensuring better oxygen supply to your muscles. And better oxygen supply to your muscles will improve your cardio respiratory endurance, your mobility, and your overall performance.
I experienced the difference between chest breathing and belly breathing first hand recently. A couple months ago I attended a training seminar and the instructor had us perform various assessments on one another. Then, he had us practice our breathing for 3-5 minutes and perform the same assessment again. The results were surprising – many of us improved our scores just by letting more oxygen flow to our muscles. Not a bad deal!
The physical stress your body endures during a workout is the positive kind. It allows the body to respond, adapt and, in turn, become stronger. Properly preparing for this kind of stress is the key to a safe and productive workout. Often a client will come in for a workout frazzled from a hectic day at work or from a crazy morning with the kids eager to jump right in to the session. As excited as you may be to tackle your training session (or as some might say, get it over with), it’s really important to ease into your workout in a way that awakens your central nervous system, lubricates your joints and increases your internal body temperature. That starts with correct breathing.
Here is a good way to start:
- Lie on your stomach with your hands together and your forehead resting on your hands. Make sure your chin is not tucked in towards your chest or that your neck is not hyperextended.
- Breathe in through your nose as deep as you can. Make sure to fill your abdominal area up with air so your stomach is pushing against the floor and your waistline expands evenly on both sides.
- Breathe out through your mouth
- Pause for 2-3 seconds after you fully exhale.
If you are uncomfortable on your stomach, try lying on your back with your knees bent and placing your hands on your stomach to feel the rise and fall of your abdominals as you breathe.
Taking a few minutes to fully acitvate your diaphragm through breathing exercises will help you refocus your attention on yourself, your body and what you are about to accomplish. Yes, Every single workout is an accomplishment! And with better breathing you’ll get even more bang for your buck during your workout.
Try it and let me know how it goes…