Breathe easy

Learning how to inhale and exhale correctly could overhaul your workout.

You've perfected your alignment, calibrated your intervals and mastered the Reformer, but one seemingly simple skill could be keeping you from taking your routine to the next level: knowing how to breathe. The most basic life force can have a major impact on the effectiveness of your workout.

"Once you become aware of your breath, it becomes an incredible tool to generate energy,” says national group fitness creative manager Lashaun Dale, "and you can use it to mobilize the body’s ability to create and manage your energy: it can speed up your heart rate and metabolism and manipulate the function of your nervous system." And as much as it can help rev you up, it also has the power to slow you down. "You can use the phases of your breath to manipulate your physiology, impacting your thoughts, emotions, hormone levels and neuromuscular pathways.”

In other words, conscious breath isn't just for yogis. Here, experts from each fitness discipline show you how to breathe fresh air into your practice:

Strength training
It’s not just about exhaling on the exertion with strength-training anymore (although that method of training still holds true). The relatively new wave of thinking focuses on trunk stabilization and intrathoracic pressure: filling your entire midsection with air when you inhale and keeping some of that air when you exhale with control. By maintaining the pressure in your expanded belly, you provide stability to your entire core while your arms and legs do the heavy lifting. "The most exciting part is that you’re activating your abs and core muscles in ways you haven’t in past, so you might tire sooner than ten minutes at first," says national director of group fitness and Pilates Carol Espel. In other words, you’re maximizing the execution of any exercise, building your core muscles and burning more calories with every strength-training move you make.

In practice: Start in standing position and put your hand on your belly above your ribcage. Fill up your stomach as though you want it to stick out as far as you can. On the exhale, try to maintain some of that pressure. When you’re done with an exercise, take a deep breath and start over again.

While every school of yoga suggests different breathing techniques (such as the popular ujayi breath), the end goal is the same: to bring a heightened sense of awareness and control over your physiology and psychology. "An improved use of breath impacts the circulatory system, the nervous system and even the lymphatic system, so it certainly can increase strength and focus of force application and muscle recruitment," Dale says, "which positively impacts endurance and increases your ability to consciously guide asana." More specifically, breathing directly impacts your posture and spine, critical elements of the yogi’s practice. For instance, when you bend backwards, you generally support your spine best by inhaling, and when you fold forward, it’s most natural and beneficial to breathe out.

In practice: "The yogic three-part breath is a great way to expand your awareness of breathing and create more freedom in your breath,” Dale says. Choose a resting position such as on your back with your knees bent. Breathe naturally, then place one hand on your belly and one hand on your heart. Exhale, then allow a full inhale to create space in your body so that your belly rises up, letting the rib cage expand and the chest to lift; then on a natural exhale, release.

"Everything works from your center in Pilates," says national Pilates training manager Carrie Macy. "I compare it to Cirque du Soleil. In order for a performer to master any of those amazing feats, their whole core has to fire to stabilize them. Breath is a big part of that." Similarly, in Pilates, you want to fill up the belly with lots of air to create pressure and, in turn, stability in the core and midsection. That means inhaling longer than what feels normal and retaining some of that breath when you exhale. The benefits? Not only will you inevitably concentrate more on your workout by coordinating your movement with your breath — a key component to Pilates — you’re also challenging your core muscles and feeding more nutrients and oxygen to your entire lungs, which will keep them healthier as you age.

In practice: Think about breathing from the bellybutton up in order to keep the lower abdominals engaged. The Hundred is a good exercise to riff on: Start by breathing in for five counts and then breathing out for five counts. Then vary it, breathing in for six counts and exhaling for four, then inhaling for seven counts and exhaling for three and so on until you hit ten. (Mind you, the actual Hundred involves coordinating your movement with the breath as well.)

"Practicing good breathing techniques and being aware of your breathing patterns will help you work out harder, longer, more efficiently and help you understand when you are actually working too hard,” says national creative program manager of group fitness Lisa Wheeler. For endurance workouts, breathe slowly in and out through your nose. While you can gradually build up the intensity of the workout, you don’t ever want to find yourself panting. When it comes to interval training, however, it’s about pushing yourself to breathless. If you’re talking easily, you’re not working hard enough. No matter how tired you get, always maintain control of your breathing or else your performance will plummet.

In practice:For endurance training, if you can carry on a short conversation while jogging or cycling, you’re in good shape. Pick up the intensity by breathing slowly and deeply — letting the air go up to your nose and down to your belly — all the while keeping your breath controlled. For high-intensity interval training, if you’re open-mouth breathing, or even panting during the exertion phase, you’re in the right zone. That said, during recovery intervals, aim to get back to a slow, controlled pattern of breath. "The faster you get to a recovery state, the more efficient you’ve become," Wheeler says.