By: Natasha Lowe Osho MD, FACOG, NASM-CPT
Since our first breath out of the womb, breathing is an activity we do every second of the day without giving much thought to “how” it occurs. No one really teaches us how to properly breathe. It is merely an event that goes unnoticed if it works well. Did you know that our breathing pattern can affect us physically and mentally? If done properly, it is a technique that can relieve anxiousness. It can also add to our stress level if done incorrectly. The goal of this guide is to bring awareness to how we breathe and demonstrate proper technique.
By definition, breathing is the process of moving air into and out of the lungs. Breathing occurs in two phases: inhalation (air moving into the lungs) and exhalation (air moving out of the lungs). The air we breathe contains 21% oxygen. With healthy lungs, oxygen is able to be transferred into the bloodstream for use by the body. During pregnancy, this process is even more efficient allowing the same 21% of oxygen to support you and your baby!
The primary muscles for breathing are the diaphragm and intercostal muscles. The diaphragm is a huge muscle that sits below the lungs. It separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity. On inspiration (air moving into the lungs), the diaphragm contracts downward to allow the lungs to expand and capture air. On expiration (air moving out of the lungs), the diaphragm relaxes upward to push carbon dioxide out of the lungs. The intercostal muscles are found in between the ribs. On inspiration, these muscles contract, causing the rib cage to expand out so the lungs can fill with air. On expiration, the intercostal muscles relax and brings the rib cage back to normal position. Knowing that proper breathing involves using muscles to expand and relax the diaphragm and rib cage, we can very easily check our own breathing technique. This self-check can be done in different body positions, but we will start with a standing or seated position.
Step 1: Stand or sit upright. Make sure your posture is good, and your head and shoulders are aligned. Make sure your shoulders are not hunched forward.
Step 2: After checking posture, find the lower edge of your rib cage on each side of your body. Place your little finger along that edge. You should be able to feel a good portion of your rib cage with your other four fingers. Your thumb will point towards the back.
Step 3: Take a deep breathe in. What do you feel? Did you feel your rib cage expand outward? Did your rib cage not expand at all? Did you feel your stomach expand outward? Did you shrug your shoulders? If you are in front of a mirror, did you see the muscles in your neck activate?
Step 4: Now exhale. What do you feel? Did your rib cage move inward back to the original position? Did you tighten your abdominal muscles? Did you lower your shoulders?
With proper breathing technique, you should feel and/or see the following:
1) Correct posture: The ears should be in line with the shoulders. Avoid rounding the upper back as this limits the room needed for your ribs to expand on inhalation.
2) Expansion of the rib cage with inhalation: When you inhale, your fingers should be able to feel the rib cage expand outward. This expansion should occur without elevation of the shoulders, use of neck muscles, or movement of the stomach.
3) Relaxation of the rib cage with exhalation: When you exhale, your fingers should be able to appreciate the rib cage returning to its starting position. This relaxation involves minimal movement of the shoulders and stomach.
If you found yourself using your abdomen, neck, or shoulders to help with breathing, unfortunately this is an incorrect technique. These muscles are called secondary muscles. This simply means, because your diaphragm and intercostal muscles are not working properly, these muscles have to “help out” to make sure you are getting enough oxygen. The issue is, these muscles are smaller than the diaphragm and if they have to work too hard, it can lead to neck and shoulder tightness. This can manifest as bad posture (for example, hunching over), neck pain, shoulder pain, and headaches. Also, use of your secondary breathing muscles can increase your cortisol (aka stress hormone) levels.
By utilizing proper breathing technique, you can help your body become more efficient in supplying oxygen to your tissues. During pregnancy, this helps your body provide oxygen to your growing baby without adding extra stress. Proper breathing is also important after delivery for tissue healing. Do you want to learn more about proper breathing techniques? Do you want to learn how to apply this technique to your everyday activities? At Bump Fitness Club, our mission is to help you “Train for your Birth Day and Beyond.” Join the club!
Click HERE for a video demonstration.
Natasha Lowe Osho MD is a Board Certified OB/GYN, National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) Certified Personal Trainer, Certified Prenatal and Postnatal Fitness Specialist, and Founder of Bump Fitness Club. I founded Bump Fitness Club to help women have healthier pregnancies. Our mission is to provide a safe, supportive, and supervised environment for exercise during pregnancy with the goals of helping women perform their daily activities, build strength and stamina for the physical demands of labor and delivery, and assist with postpartum recovery while building relationships and providing encouragement throughout the pregnancy journey. For more information, visit bumpfitnessclub.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clark, M. (2018). NASM Essentials of Personal Fitness Training, Sixth Edition, 62-63.
How the Lungs Work. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/how-lungs-work
Dysfunctional Breathing and Its Affect on the Kinetic Chain. National Academy of Sports Medicine. https://blog.nasm.org/fitness/dysfunctional-breathing-and-its-affects-on-the-kinetic-chain#:~:text=As%20breathing%20becomes%20harder%2C%20breathing,more%20air%20is%20brought%20in.