Don’t Forget to Breathe.

As first legitimate posts go, I figured this was a pretty good topic to write on since it hits so close to home for me.  In all areas of my life I am constantly having to remind myself to breathe!  It sounds like a silly thing to have to remind yourself to do but you may be more like me than you think.

You may be thinking to yourself that I sound crazy right now. You may be thinking if I, or you, had to constantly remind yourself to breathe that there would be no way anyone could live long enough for it to be an issue.  Well you’re right, so let me clarify.  You, and I, need to remind ourselves to breathe the RIGHT way! That’s right, there is a right and a wrong way to breathe!

The Wrong Way

The wrong way to breathe is the easiest, and simplest to understand because you are already doing it day in and day out!  The wrong way has three characteristics.

First, it is too fast and shallow.  Typical adult breathing fills a surprisingly small amount of your lungs with air.  Wikipedia defines the total volume of the average adult male respiratory system as 5.8 liters, and the average adult woman as 4.2 liters, that is a lot of air! The average adult inspiratory capacity is 3.5 and 2.4 liters for men and women respectively.

It makes sense that our lungs can not be fully collapsed, but even so the average person has the ability to expand and deflate their lungs by 60% of their total air capacity.   Obviously you aren’t gasping for air on each breath though, the average adult however, only breathes in 0.5 liters of air per breath and they breathe between 12 and 20 times per minute.  That means the average person is only utilizing 15-20% of their lung capacity for a given breath, but breathing much more rapidly to compensate.

The second characteristic of the wrong way to breathe is chest expansion.  When you breathe in and your chest is forced out, or more specifically you use your chest muscles to breathe in you are not expanding the lower regions of your lungs so even if you wanted to take a large breath, you will always be using less than 100% of your total lung capacity.

The third characteristic of the wrong way to breathe is weak exhalation.  When you use the wrong muscles to breathe you are not effectively expelling the old stale air from the bottom of your lungs which effectively lowers the total amount of oxygen that your lungs can absorb into your blood stream by not providing fresh air to all parts of your lungs.

The Benefits

Now that you have an idea of what “breathing wrong” entails, let me describe the benefits of the correct way of breathing just to make sure you’re a believe before you read too much further.

First it’s important to note that breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth is important.  The nose is a very important part of the breath cycle and bypassing it can contribute to many respiratory problems as described at #2 below.

There is a large fitness benefit to breathing the right way for those of us that are active.  The correct breathing cycle promotes muscle relaxation, clarity of mind, and a stronger connection between your mind and your body.  This is especially important for sports and martial arts as it promotes the necessary clarity of mind to “react without thinking”.  Now don’t think to yourself, “I don’t participate in sports or martial arts so I don’t need to bother with this crap!”, everything described so far is not only useful to people who participate in competitive physical activities, it is also extremely useful to those of us that have to sit in the same chair and think all day!

Correct breathing can allow the software developer to more effectively fight that 2pm slump by providing more air to the body to promote energy levels, can relax your body to relieve the stress of having a deadline looming over your head (#3), can give you the mental clarity to write better code, and plan out your projects more elegantly.  The benefits are practically endless.

The Right Way

So here is the technique that I use to train correct breathing habits in my day to day life.  My breathing training in the Dojo is quite different but still fundamentally based on the same principles.

Slow Abdominal Breathing Practice

From standing or sitting, while maintaining correct posture, inhale as deeply as you can through your nose, by using your abdominal muscles to expand your lungs, this inhalation should take 3 to 4 seconds, and you should see a sizable expansion in your abdomen.  Hold this breath for 1 to 2 seconds, and then exhale through the mouth for another 3 to 4 second period.  The total length of the breath should be between 7 and 10 seconds. As you practice this breathing technique more try to see if you can extend the length of each breath, this will strengthen your lungs, abdomen, and help train the feeling of deep abdominal breathing.  To start out you can perform this breathing for a few minutes a couple times a day, and try to extend your practices with time.

Fast Abdominal Breathing Practice

From standing or sitting with correct posture, inhale as deeply as you can through your nose, by using your abdominal muscles to expand your lungs. This inhalation should take 1 to 2 seconds, and you should see expansion in your abdomen. Hold this breath for .5 to 1 second, then exhale through the mouth for 1 to 2 seconds.  This whole breath should take between 2.5 and 5 seconds.

Overall Goals

These exercises are designed to help you do two things.  First, slow down your breathing, and second, transition to breathing deeply using abdominal muscles all of the time.  As you transition away from shallow chest breathing you can drop the fast Abdominal breathing practice and focus on the slower practice.  If you are an athlete or martial artist however then I’d recommend not only continuing the fast exercise but try to decrease the time it takes you to perform a fast abdominal breath.  Fast abdominal breathing skills are very beneficial for martial artists who do not wish to project their breathing when sparing, additionally in sports and martial arts when your body is being stressed to a great extent you want to be able to provide a high volume of oxygen to your muscles as quickly and efficiently as possible.  For less active people this isn’t as important.

With a slower deeper breathing cycle your lungs will be more efficiently utilized, you will be more efficiently oxygenating your blood, your muscles will be more relaxed, your mind will be more alert, and you will be less stressed through out the day.

Please comment below if this is something that you feel strongly about, or if this has helped you in your daily routine or martial arts and sports training.


Obviously there has to be a disclaimer so here goes. I am not a doctor, and this is not medical advice. If you become dizzy, woozy, or otherwise sick feeling at any point in time during the breathing exercises I described, stop the exercise immediately and consult a physician.