Athletic development specialists dedicated to the art and science of excellence in movement

Coaching Breathing: Putting Theory into Practice

How can I teach breathing?  When I try to teach my athletes breathing mechanics, they think it is a waste of time and we should be doing “real” training instead…

I got this question recently and it is an issue that I have worked through myself.  In general terms, breathing is a form cue.  Every exercise has a set of form cues, and breathing happens to be one associated with every exercise.  You may also think of breathing as an audit, which we described more thoroughly in Breathing: An Audit for Quality Movement and Conditioning

We’ll start with kids.  There’s no doubt that traditional breathing assessments can spark mayhem in a group of kids.  There’s a technical term for attempting a breathing assessment with a large group of kids…it’s called herding cats.  Good luck trying to get them seated and relaxed for more than ten seconds.  If you are successful corralling them, it probably means they went to sleep! 

Hopefully we don’t need to spend ANY time of rudimentary breathing patterns on youngsters whose movements haven’t yet been corrupted by modern life, but unfortunately the growth of “gaming posture” along with overzealous coaching and the abomination known “speed camp” have foisted adult dysfunctions and medical conditions on the younger generation.    

In my opinion, the best way to introduce breathing to kids is via games or creative imagery.  Play a game pretending they’re sumo wrestlers by taking a big breath to “get fat!” and then push an object away like a sumo wrestler tries to do.  

For adults, all the standard assessments apply.  The real question is obviously, “what shall we do with the information?”  Every individual is different, but I think we can bucket these athletes into different categories:

Can do it…just not doing it when needed.  Yogis often fall into this category.  They’re capable of taking great big relaxed breaths if they have been exposed to quality yoga instruction.  Although we’re often critical of commercialized yoga practice, as a group yoga instructors are some of the best educated in terms of coaching the breath.  Studio owners and gym owners often bastardize the practice to appeal to the mass consumer, but the knowledge base exists to teach this skill. 

If someone CAN breathe correctly, the next question is whether the loss of breath control is pattern specific or global?  Maybe this person can give you a giant diaphragmatic breath on the ground, but ask them to move their body and they go right into a shallow breathing strategy, no matter what movements they do.  Sometimes they sacrifice breathing at higher levels of load; other athletes may make sacrifices at higher levels of movement complexity.  This is where movement screening is critical, as you can observe the breath in the context of individual patterns that you consider important enough to screen.     

A common strategy is to sacrifice respiration for stability.  Plank is a perfect example.  If someone can’t breathe through a plank, they’re likely using the breath to provide additional support for missing core stability.  Sometimes they may shut off respiration to gain mobility, which is a variation on the same theme.  Watch someone do a toe touch and then cue a big breath at the bottom of the movement: if they lose a few inches on their toe-touch, its evidence of creating stability via restricted respiration to gain mobility. 

Can’t do it…but requires a little more coaching.  With some athletes, all they need is a little nudge.  The classic hand on belly is an old standby, but sometimes cognition doesn’t work.  You might also try child’s pose, which takes away costal (chest) breathing as a strategy. 

Another step is to recruit tactile cues.   Band breathing with a Theraband around the diaphragm is one option.  If you have a good enough rapport with the athlete, you can put your hands around the diaphragm and have him or her breathe out to feel the expansion.  Having them hook their own hands under the ribcage to feel the diaphragm expanding can also work.  (See, All You Need to Know About Inspiratory Muscles, for a complete systematic approach to breath screening and correction).    

Sometimes the hardest part is getting the diaphragm to actually move in the first place.  In fact, the focal point might not be the diaphragm itself but instead the learning process of getting the brain to coordinate properly.  I’d also recommend Anatomy of Breathing for the best explanation of breathing and various progressions.  A key message is that exercise positions can facilitate activation of the breathing muscles, even without cueing. 

Again, you don’t have to make breathing an entire session, but you can certainly incorporate into exercise cues and as part of warm ups and cool downs.  If this person brings a history of shoulder or back related problems, the connection between breathing and overall function offers a buy-in to the importance of breath control.           

Can’t do it at all.  Sometimes you need to call in reinforcements and get a manual therapist to release the diaphragm.  Much of the time there is some neural connection that is causing tension in the diaphragm that could be resolved through better movement in an ideal world.  Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world, and all your wonderful breath coaching can go for naught when the athlete goes right into an intense practice, drives home in their car, and sits at the computer stressed with crappy posture.  Manual work to release the diaphragm (and any other primary breathing muscles that are restricted) can accelerate the process and create a feedback loop that hopefully prevents tightness from returning.

Pain. This is its own category, though painful athletes can fall into the other three categories.  Pain deserves special treatment because breathing is unpredictable during the chemical presentation of pain.  If someone hurts, shallow breathing may become a strategy for any number of reasons.  Someone might have a shoulder injury, but exhibit shallow breathing with lower body movements because of worry about missed training, the possibility of surgery, or any other mental stressors. 

Similarly, maybe this person has been running and their brain remembers the jarring the shoulder has felt during ground impact, even if the discomfort is low level.  In general we can still help someone train lower body with an upper body injury (and upper body training with lower body injury), but don’t assume the pain is feeding dysfunction or dysfunction is feeding pain without further investigation, usually in tandem with medical staff. 


We know that breathing is important but equally important is finding the best way to use our tools of screening and correction to effectively blend everything into the training whole.  Because breathing is a lens into the nervous system, even if we don’t lay everyone on the floor and spend an hour practicing breathing, observation of patterns can provide us valuable information about the athlete.   


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