Respiration for exercise

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Respiration is essential for human beings to exist with an increased rate of respiration allowing a higher intensity of exercise to be attained. Inhalation is initiated by the diaphragm, supported in times of need by the external intercostal muscles and further accessory muscles. On contraction of the diaphragm the ribcage expands and the abdominal region is moved downward resulting in an expanded thoracic volume and negative pressure. This negative pressure in the chest pulls air into the lungs. Exhalation is passive, generally, as the lungs natural elasticity forces a recoil effect following the stretch of inhalation resulting in air flow out of the lungs.

Respiration allows gas exchange between the environment and the body’s circulatory system, this occurrs at the point where the alveoli in the lungs meet the pulmonary capillaries. Oxygen is allowed in while carbon dioxide and other metabolic waste are removed . During aerobic exercise oxygen requirement and so respiration rate increases, anaerobic exercise also increases the rate of respiration as a large amount of metabolite waste needs to be removed as a result of the high intensity exercise.

Efficient respiration requires optimal respiration mechanics for both aerobic and anaerobic exercise potential to be reached. Put another way if we fail to breathe optimally we will be unable to fulfil our exercise potential. From an early age it is possible to pick up bad breathing habits resulting in sub-optimal respiration patterns. For example, when asked to breath in deeply some people will rely on their chest rather than their diaphragm. This chest breathing pattern fails to use the lungs full capacity and so can limit exercise potential, potentially both aerobic and anaerobic.

The clip clearly shows the reduced lung capacity of a ‘chest breather’. Chest breathing is inefficient as it mainly relies on the accessory muscles (see above) in the effort of breathing. Further, chest breathing can also exasperate stress, while deep diaphragmatic breathing can ease stress. Re-learning to use the diaphragm to breathe can improve a person’s capacity to exercise and so is very desirable in the martial arts and any high-tempo sport.

I used to train with someone who was a chest breather (CB), whilst still fit and a decent martial artist the chest breathing did not help as CB was working toward shodan. Occasionally, CB would hyperventilate when sparring too long and particularly if hit a bit too hard, panic would set in and CB would get tearful. CB felt pretty stupid when this happened and clearly it was pretty limiting, not just in terms of aerobic and anaerobic capacity but was something to be avoided in the upcoming black belt test. By rectifying the chest breathing pattern this problem was circumvented and CB managed to pass the test reasonably comfortably.

Good respiration is essential for martial artists, sports people and regular human beings to achieve their physical potential, chest breathing should be avoided with abdominal breathing retraining adopted if necessary. Breathing exercises promoting diaphragmatic breathing will be discussed in the follow up to this post.

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4 thoughts on “Respiration for exercise

  1. As always Jon, love your work – breathing is such an important aspect of martial arts, and I’ve been paying particular attention to mine of late when my sensei made the comment during one of my classes that I looked like I was about to explode due to my irregular breathing whilst trying to maintain maximum effort!

  2. Pingback: Gisoku Budo

  3. Since starting yoga and Pilates, I have had my attention drawn to the fact that abdominal breathing is not about inflating your stomach. If you place your hands on your ribs at the side you should be able to feel them expanding and contracting to demonstrate that you are doing it correctly.

    If you breathe through the chest, the ribcage moves up and down. If you breathe too much through the stomach, the ribcage remains stationary. The teachers talk about ‘breathing wide’ to open everything up.

  4. Noticed this a lot when cycling, if you breath too heavily it can actually restrict your performance and cause you to slow down when pushing yourself harder.

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