Breath and Movement Coordination

By: Gina Conley, B.S. Exercise Science

Breath coordinated movement is a powerful means to improve function.  Breath is how we stabilize!  When we inhale, we breath down and out.  This increase in pressure stabilizes the spine.  When we exhale, we breath up and in.  This increase in muscular activation also stabilizes the spine.

So how do we coordinate this with movement?  Generally, focus on exhaling during exertion movements.  Inhale on whatever the opposite movement is.  For instance, exhale on the most difficult portion of the lift; whether it be the squat, the deadlift, the press, the pull.  The part where you are preparing for the lift, the lowering of the bar in the squat, deadlift, bench press, is the portion where you should focus on the inhale.

For example, on the descend of a squat, inhale either at the top or while you lower.  Then exhale as you rise out of the squat, ensuring to lift in the pelvic floor.  Avoid breath holding!!  Breath holding tends to result in bearing down.

What is bearing down?

Bearing down is when you exhale down and out, and put a lot of pressure on the pelvic floor.  Think about when you are pooping or trying to pee, when you push down; that is bearing down.  You could see how this could be an issue, since exhales involve muscular activation.  When we exhale down and out, we have both the combination of muscular activation and an increase in pressure that pushes on our pelvic floor. 

During pre-pregnancy bearing down may feel like a reoccurring habit every single time you lifted a weight (this still doesn’t make it a good habit).  During both pregnancy and the post-partum, you are working with a slightly compromised pelvic floor.  If you continue to bear down during lifts, you will probably reach a point of failure in the pelvic floor much quicker than pre-pregnancy. 

What does failure look like in your pelvic floor?

Pelvic floor failure is pelvic floor dysfunction, or a reduced ability to properly function.  This could mean pelvic organ prolapse, incontinence, or pelvic pain.  Pelvic floor dysfunction tends to be a pressure management issue.  So, maybe don’t bear down on your pelvic floor during lifts?  This includes picking up your kid.

During pregnancy, the pelvic floor already has an additional load (yo baby) on it that makes puts it in a compromised state.  Think as if it were your ankle, you wouldn’t want to keep rolling an injured ankle; that would make it worse and worse until it failed to function.  Then in the postpartum, we are healing from pregnancy.  Same ankle analogy, if we finally healed our ankle, we wouldn’t immediately go and roll it on purpose.  We would probably injure it again or cause further injury. 

We use the following drills to help train breath and movement coordination

1)     How to Breath Drill: First, we need to learn to breath properly

The drill we like to use in our studio to help pregnant moms learn to diaphragmatically breath is to wrap a theraband (or any thin resistance band, your hands would do fine too if neither of those is available) around the bra strap line, and to sit on a partially deflated pilates ball. 

First, focus on inhaling and expanding into the theraband, both sideways and backwards.  Don’t focus as much on expanding forward into the belly.  Exhale, allow the ribs to relax and come back to center, releasing the tension in the band.  Repeat this for ten breaths, focusing solely on the ribs expanding and relaxing.

Next, focus on inhaling and expanding into the deflated ball.  Feel your pelvic floor push into the ball during an inhale, and then gently lift away as if you were picking up a blueberry with your vagina, but don’t crush it!  Repeat this for ten breaths, focusing only on the pelvic floor expanding and relaxing.

Finally, try to sync the two movements together.  Inhale, both ribs and pelvic floor expand outwards, exhale, both ribs and pelvic floor relax and return to their starting point.  Repeat this for ten breaths. 


2)     Perform Unweighted Movements to Reinforce Breathing Pattern: Exhale on Exertion AKA Exhale on the Hardest Part of the Movement

We like to have our clients first try movements unweighted, or even supported, prior to loading.  This allows them to explore breathing with movement without any additional variables. 

Squat: We like to start with either a kneeling squat, supported or assisted air squat, or an unweighted box squat to teach breathing with the squat.

Deadlift:  We like to start with the PVC Hinge or banded good morning to teach breathing with the hinge movement.

Push:  We like to start with an elevated push up or floor press to teach breathing with a push type movement.

Pull:  We like to start with a ring row or banded pulls (rows, face pulls, pull aparts) to teach breathing with a pull type movement.

For core exercises, we tend to start supine to teach the movement with breath, then gradually move to kneeling, half kneeling, seated, and then standing.  This includes the pallof press and diagonal banded pull downs.

Coordinating breath with movement is the best way to support optimal function.  The more we can coordinate our breath while we move, the better we set up ourselves to properly stabilize and function throughout our days.  We want to move with comfort throughout pregnancy, recover in the postpartum, and meet the demands of motherhood with strength and ease.  This coordination is the first step towards that.

Gina Conley