The Importance Of Breathing In Pilates And Exercises

How often do you think about how you breathe? I’m guessing not very often! Becoming familiar with your natural breathing pattern can have a positive effect on your mental health, emotions, reactions to stress and anxiety, and muscular tensions. Breathing more efficiently during exercise can also greatly improve your muscle activation and performance. In some circumstances it should be the first thing we work on before proceeding to more complex movements. 

 Let’s look at why breathing is so important, and especially if you can relate to these phrases below:

Do you feel tension when you are exercising? In your shoulders, stomach, ribcage?
Do you find yourself short of breath when exercise becomes challenging?

Can you take full, deep breaths throughout an exercise?

Can you connect the feeling of your core and pelvic floor moving with your breath?

 Let’s look at why our awareness of our breath is so important

At a very basic level we need to breathe to promote the circulation of oxygen around our body and up to our brain to ensure optimal brain and body functions. If our breathing is inadequate, for example if we take lots of short, rapid breaths then we restrict the oxygen and blood supply to the brain, creating stress and panic. As we panic we restrict this supply even further, reducing the optimal state of our brain and imbalancing our hormones and emotions. More of our “fight or flight” hormones will be released creating a sense of tension, and there will be a reduction in our calming hormones.

 Pilates exercises are encouraged with a natural breathing pattern to breathe in wide and full to the sides of the ribcage. This is called “lateral” or “intercostal” breathing and promotes the full use of your ribcage and respiratory muscles. Like any muscle, they need to be exercised to cope with increased physical demands. As you exhale you should empty your lungs fully and allow relaxation of the muscles and ribcage.

 This pilates breathing system of effective inhalation and exhalation allows the gas exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide to occur effectively, ensuring blood pH is maintained. Deep breaths are preferred because shallow breathing restricts the movement of the diaphragm and can cause symptoms of dizziness. Efficient gas exchange also minimises any build up of muscular tension.

 The science

The inhalation is encouraged through the nose to promote efficient gas exchange and purification through the nostrils. The nasal passage houses thin hairs called cilia, which filter, humidify and warm/cool the air to the correct temperature and protects us against bacteria or unwanted particles before this is breathed into the lungs. Inhalation through the nose also promotes breathing deep to the lower part of the lungs, where our parasympathetic nerves are stimulated. This promotes our calming hormones and reduces blood pressure, encouraging us to slow down and not over exert. If we were to inhale through the mouth the upper lungs are targeted and this triggers the sympathetic system, which can lead to hyperventilation. The exhalation is preferred through the mouth as this is a larger exit than the nose and allows greater excretion of carbon dioxide and excess waste from the lungs.

Applying the science to your exercise

Breathing is one of the main principles of Pilates and its use is further promoted so that we exhale on the aspect of the movement that requires the greatest effort. This is because the core muscles are activated earlier during expiration, Therefore by breathing out on the hardest exertion you will get the greatest engagement from your core muscles (Hodges et al. 1997). This gives local spine stability and support. Exhaling through the mouth provides least resistance and encourages more air excretion than through the narrow nasal passage, giving further ease to the exercise.

 The mind-body connection

Research demonstrates that the core muscles are controlled by a separate area of your brain, therefore to strengthen this connection you need to think about what you are doing at the time of doing it (Hodges 2008). This directs your focus, eliminates distraction and clears the mind.

These pilates breathing principles can be applied out with pilates too. Try regulating your breathing with steady deep inhales through the nose and exhales through the mouth when things get stressful or when you feel anxious and you should find that this calms you down a little. If you are gearing up for a challenging exercise or event, try adopting this regularly prior to the movement to aid a reduction in blood pressure and stress hormones, too so that you begin in a state of relaxation and continue this throughout.

Try these simple breathing exercises to familiarise yourself with your pilates breathing!

Abdominal focus:

Sit up tall and place your hands on the lower half of your ribcage with your finger tips from each hand lightly touching each other in the centre. Take a breath in and feel your ribcage widening outwards and deepening. Your finger tips will move apart from each other. Now exhale and imagine the sides of your ribcage sinking in towards each other. You should also feel your finger tips coming back towards each other.

Try this every time you feel a little stressed or anxious and repeat for 5-7 breaths, or as many as you feel necessary to return your breath to a slow, steady pace. 

Pelvic floor focus:

Continue working on the exercise above, but this time as you take a deep breath inwards focus on relaxing your pelvic floor, feeling the release of these muscles downwards. As you exhale now focus on the feeling of the pelvic floor rising upwards. Try not to squeeze your buttocks at the same time to ensure you are isolating the pelvic floor muscles.

Changing your breathing can alter how you perform an exercise and what you gain from it. Normally we aim to exhale on the exertion and inhale on the relaxation phases of an exercise. This is a great way to regulate your breath for each movement, however modifying this rhythm can change the pace of an exercise. Try these other variations and see how they influence your pilates practise:

1) Exhale on the initial exertion. Inhale to hold the movement. Exhale to return to the start position.
– This method is great when applied to stretches as the inhale phase really allows you to create length in the body and inhale to the stretch.

2) Exhale for two consecutive movements. Inhale for the next two consecutive movements.
– This method is best applied to movements completed more rapidly and encourages a more natural speed of movement with a slower breathing pattern. This would be encouraged for exercises mimicking running for example where we want the breath to remain slow but the runner to keep going!


APPI Matwork course manuals for Matwork level 1,2 and 3.
Hodges P.W., et al. 1997. J Appl Physiol. 83:3; 753-760.
Hodges P. 2008. Sports Med. 42, 941-944.