This Is Why Breathing Is So Important in Pilates




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Practicing Pilates is an excellent way to build a better mind-body connection. The foundation of Pilates’ effectiveness relies on breathing appropriately during exercises. This begs the question, why is breathing so important in Pilates?

Breathing in Pilates activates the body’s core muscles during movement. Your core muscles are essential for providing stability and safety while physically active. Breathing in conjunction with your core muscles provides better muscle control, blood flow, and protection when you’re active.

Not only is breathing the foundation of Pilates, but it’s also fundamental to everything we do in life. In this article, I will discuss what Pilates breathing is, why it’s essential, and how to do it appropriately. Let’s get started!

How Does Breathing Activate the Core During Pilates?

Many muscles are active when breathing to ensure the lungs function correctly. For our lungs to fill with enough air, our ribs and diaphragm must move out of the way.

Breathing also facilitates tension and relaxation in our muscles. In Pilates and many other activities, the inhale occurs when we produce tension, while the exhale occurs when we relax. Giving conscious effort to the rate at which we inhale and exhale strengthens the mind-body connection.

Without conscious control, our core muscles and diaphragm do minimal work to ensure we have enough oxygen. However, with deliberate control, we can activate our muscles further to increase oxygen intake and create stability while we exercise.

While breathing activates the core a little, conscious effort transforms breathing into the foundation of Pilates. Breathing activates the muscles needed to produce core strength and trunk stability necessary for Pilates by consciously directing the breath during exercise.

In fact, a specific breathing pattern used in Pilates allows you to create core stability and strengthen your pelvic floor. This technique is known as Pilates breathing.

What Is Pilates Breathing?

Pilates breathing, also known as “lateral breathing,” is a technique used to activate the core muscles and create a pressurized trunk, boosting stability. Not only does pilates breathing build a strong core, but it also increases circulation and core body temperature during the exercise.

Typically we learn about diaphragmatic or deep breathing, a technique used to maximize oxygen turnover and promote relaxation. While this is a great way to close a Pilates session, it isn’t the most optimal breathing technique when we want to be active.

Pilates breathing involves consciously directing airflow to the sides and back of the lower ribs. Breathing this way allows the lungs to expand fully into the abdominal cavity, promoting maximal oxygenation to your blood.

Furthermore, it allows you to activate a whole network of core muscles for exercise. Not just the rectus abdominis (visible abs) but also the transverse abdominis, oblique muscles, intercostals, pelvic floor, and many other trunk stabilizers necessary for safe movement.

Rather than allow these small but significant muscles to remain idly by, you engage them in a synchronized harmony with trunk power, which is necessary for low-to-mid intensity exercise.

How Does Pilates Breathing Boost Core Stability?

Pilates breathing allows you to create a pressurized tube around your spine to boost protection and stability. The abdominal cavity (AC), or space around your spine, is essentially a tube with a variable volume.

The volume of the AC depends on your transverse abdominus or how far out your belly extends. For example, if you breathe into your belly fully and let it extend out, the transverse abdominis becomes fully relaxed. A fully contracted transverse abdominis is equivalent to sucking in your tummy as much as possible.

Overall, you can directly control the pressure of your spine by contracting the transverse abdominis with Pilates breathing. By breathing into your lateral ribs and “setting” the volume of the AC, you create a fixed container for air to go into when you breathe.

As you breathe into a fixed core, you create a pressurized tube around your spine that prevents injury, increases muscle activation, and allows you to move more efficiently. You don’t need maximum pressure, just enough to feel strong and stable.

How Is Pilates Breathing Different From Deep Breathing?

While deep or diaphragmatic, breathing is an incredible way to reduce stress and increase blood flow. Deep breathing is not necessarily the best breathing pattern during intense exercise. The primary differences between Pilates and deep breathing are activation of the core and the physiological effect each breath has during exercise.

As I mentioned before, the core is a pressurized tube that we can adjust by how much space we give our lungs to expand. During Pilates breathing, the core is set so that air coming in and out creates pressure that protects our spines and increases muscle activation during exercise.

During deep breathing, the lungs are given space to expand, with the belly filling up maximally and all core muscles becoming relaxed with each exhale. The focus is on muscle relaxation rather than contraction.

As mentioned, deep breathing isn’t the most efficient practice during intense exercise as it calms us down and promotes relaxation. However, it is an excellent way to start or end Pilates sessions and is very common in other physical practices such as yoga.

Overall, both breathing techniques are essential when doing Pilates but serve different functions. Knowing how to do both is essential for a holistic Pilates practice.

What Are the Benefits of Pilates Breathing?

Engaging in Pilates breathing is an excellent way to activate the core that carries over to many other areas in life. However, what does the science say about the effectiveness of Pilates breathing?

Pilates breathing increases lung volume, deep core muscle activation, and trunk activation for those using the technique. These benefits help maintain a stable core during exercise, boosting efficiency and safety.

I’ll detail these benefits and explain how they can boost your Pilates performance in the following sections.

Pilates Breathing Increases Lung Capacity

Pilates breathing helps prime muscles for exercise and deliver necessary oxygen to our muscles and organs. However, does it increase our lung capacity and oxygenation?

To find out, Cancelliero-Gaiad et al. compared Pilates and deep breathing in 15 healthy subjects and 15 subjects with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). They intended to determine if either of these breathing techniques are effective therapeutic strategies for COPD and related conditions.

The study found that in regard to increasing lung capacity, deep breathing was more effective for the COPD group and showed improvements in healthy subjects. However, while pPilatesbreathing didn’t affect the COPD group, it significantly affected the healthy subjects.

These results indicate that Pilates breathing increases lung capacity in healthy individuals but may not be the most effective option for individuals with heart conditions. If you’re an individual with heart conditions interested in Pilates, contact a physician before engaging in high-intensity activity.

Deep breathing overall appears to be the best way to increase lung capacity. However, pilates breathing still goes a long way to boosting our lungs’ efficiency.

Pilates Straps

Pilates Breathing Activates Core Muscles

When we talk about our cores, we often talk about the muscles we can see in the mirror. However, our core is composed of many muscles that work to stabilize the midsection through every conceivable activity.

While we don’t think about these inner muscles often, they do a lot to prevent injury by keeping our spines neutral and protected during physical strain. Many of these muscles are coordinated with our breathing, contracting with the movement of the diaphragm.

READ MORE: Can Pilates Get You Abs?

To determine the effects Pilates breathing had on the core muscles, scientists measured muscle activation (with electromyography or EMG) in two studies.

The first study by Carvalho Barbosa et al. measured core activity in 19 subjects with no Pilates experience. The subjects performed core exercises with Pilates breathing and the same movements with normal breathing.

Carvalho Barbosa found that Pilates breathing, but not normal breathing, significantly increased muscle activation. This activation allowed individuals to perform more reps while maintaining a strong lower back.

A second 2017 study by Sung-Tae Kim evaluated 28 subjects using Pilates breathing during several medium-intensity exercise sessions. Compared to normal breathing, Pilates breathing had a powerful effect on muscle activation.

Both of these studies noted the significance of core activation with Pilates breathing and its potential to improve and prevent lower back pain.

What Are the Potential Drawbacks of Pilates Breathing?

Pilates breathing is a powerful component of Pilates, although it may not be the best option for everyone. While it boosts core activation and helps stabilize the spine, it’s also a part of low-to-mid intensity exercise and may be strenuous to some individuals.

Further, Pilates breathing and exercise increase blood pressure and heart rate, which may put certain individuals at risk. On its own, however, there are no actual risks of Pilates breathing.

Overall, Pilates breathing helps prime the body for exercise by activating the core and increasing blood flow. For individuals who find this breathing method too strenuous at the moment, deep breathing is a healthy alternative that also lowers heart rate and blood pressure.

How Do I Appropriately Engage in Pilates Breathing?

Typically, if we aren’t thinking about it, we breathe into our chests. Breathing this way limits how much our lungs can expand and how much oxygen we get. One approach to opening our lungs is to implement deep breathing.

However, as I discussed before, deep breathing limits muscle activation in the core and promotes relaxation, which isn’t practical for exercise. That’s why we use lateral breathing in Pilates.

Lateral breathing involves directing air to the sides and back of the rib cage rather than the chest or belly. As air is pulled in, the core is set to prevent complete relaxation, such as during deep breathing. Fixing the core creates a pressurized tube around your spine, boosting muscle activation and protecting your back.

Here is a video of what this looks like in practice by Rehab My Patient:

Here is a step-by-step guide on lateral breathing in Pilates:

  1. Inhale Into the Sides and Back of Your Lower Ribs: Inhaling through the nose will give the best oxygenation. To aid this process, you can place your hands on the side of your ribs to feel what’s happening. Visualize where your breath is going and feel how your lungs expand.
  2. “Set” Your Core on the First Exhale: On the first inhale, it’s okay to let the belly come out a little. However, on the first exhale, you want to set your core by visualizing pulling your belly button into your lower back. This action contracts your TA and activates all the muscles in your abdomen.
  3. Exhale, As Though You Are Blowing Out a Candle: Exhale through the mouth by blowing, similarly to a whistle but not as much pressure. This technique is known as pursed-lipped breathing and helps strengthen your lungs. You want to exhale air intentionally, but this should happen naturally, don’t force it.
  4. Maintain Your Core: Keeping your belly in is necessary to produce pressure around your spine, protecting your lower back. Remember that you don’t want too much pressure, just enough to feel stable. Avoid sucking in your navel. The trunk should be flat without caving in or out.

While these may seem like many steps, remember to go easy on yourself and take it a little bit at a time. Pilates breathing is a practice that we improve on our entire lives to be prepared for whatever life throws our way.

Final Thoughts

Breathing in pilates is essential for activating the core muscles. Furthermore, breathing promotes oxygenation during exercise and protects the spine under tension. Correct breathing fosters a great mind-body connection while boosting efficiency and safety during pilates.

While deep breathing is essential to pilates, lateral breathing is the ideal practice to engage in during your sessions because of its efficiency in activating the core while delivering adequate oxygen to the body.

If you have any questions about pilates breathing or how to do it appropriately, don’t hesitate to contact me, I’d love to hear from you!


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