The question: I get winded easily when I work out, and I have really bad neck and shoulder pain. I have been told this is because I don't breathe well. How do I improve my breathing? I want my neck pain to go away!
The answer: I know it can seem odd having to relearn something as natural as breathing, but you are definitely not alone in your quest.
Clients – ranging from newbie exercisers to athletes – regularly tell me that their physiotherapist wants me to help them relearn how to breathe. I have also had to tweak my own breathing.
Ideal breathing is often referred to as "three-dimensional diaphragmatic breathing," where the body is able to pump more air throughout itself.
Unfortunately, due to stress and improper posture, people can become "chest breathers," which means they breathe primarily into their chest and neck. This leads to their neck and shoulder muscles becoming overworked, and relatively less air being pumped through the body,
To breathe better, start by lying on your back. Place a light book on your stomach, with one hand on the side of your waist so that your fingers reach slightly under your lower back. Place your other hand on your upper chest and neck. Breathe into your diaphragm, expanding the air equally into the hand that is placed on your side and into your stomach. The book should rise up slightly toward the ceiling and the hand on your chest should not move. The image I use is an expanding umbrella: Aim for your midsection to expand in three directions like a well-functioning umbrella – not like a wind-beaten umbrella that only expands in one direction.
Once you can breathe properly on your back (it's a great first step, but is not very functional) practice in different positions. Try proper breathing while on all fours, standing, sitting or walking.
Trainer's tip: If you are not sure what type of "breather" you are, test yourself by standing in front of the mirror. Breathe in and see what happens.
Your torso should expand slightly, but your chest and neck should stay fairly relaxed. If, as you breathe in, all of the muscles pop out of your neck and your chest rises before your torso expands, you are probably chest breathing (and possibly breathing too aggressively).
Kathleen Trotter has been a personal trainer and Pilates equipment specialist for 10 years. Her website is www.kathleentrotter.com.