Respiration is gas exchange between the organism’s cells and the external environment. If you want, in figures it looks like this; The man at rest inhales about 12 to 16 times per minute, daily about 22000 times. There’s no need to worry about that number. Nature has a great design. Respiration is a spontaneous, rhythmic mechanical process. The contraction and relaxation of the muscles during breathing creates oxygen transfer from the atmosphere into the tissue cells and the transfer of carbon dioxide in the opposite direction.

Breathing has several functions:

  • Oxygen intake into the body
  • Removing carbon dioxide from the body
  • Regulation of body temperature
  • Regulation of acid-base balance in the body.

Stages of breathing


Breathing is divided into the phase of the inhalation and the phase of the exhalation. When sitting at rest inhalation is quiet and simple. The diaphragm and external intercostal muscles are activated in this type of breathing. In exercise the person has a deeper breath, i.e. it needs more oxygen and therefore breathes harder. Now the action includes muscles that can lift ribs; sternocleidomastoid, pectoralis major, scalenes, levator costarum, serratus posterior superior. In highly intensive exercise, when there is an extremely high need for oxygen (air hunger), in addition to all the listed muscles, the stabilizers and the elevators of the shoulder rim are also included which directly or indirectly elevate ribs: levator scapulae, upper trapezius, rhomboids, pectoralis minor.


Our body works very economically, so the normal quiet exhalation is passive (no muscles are activated). The lung tissue contains elastic fibers that are stretched during inhalation and in exhalation returned to their starting position. Forced exhalation requires the activation of muscles that withdraw ribs, compress the abdomen and lift the diaphragm: rectus abdominus, external obliques, internal obliques, transversus abdominus, quadratus lumborum and serratus posterior inferior.

Diaphragmatic versus thoracic breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing is the most efficient and economical type of breathing. When the diaphragm is contracted it descends and increases abdominal pressure. The lungs expand and the air from the environment flows into the lungs. Diaphragmatic breathing in which we have simultaneous contractions of the diaphragm, transversus abdominal and pelvic floor muscles increases the pressure in the abdominal cavity (AP). The AP acts as an inflated balloon between the pelvis and diaphragm, ensuring additional support from the spine. An increase in AP leads to increase of the abdominal cavity, which provokes eccentric contraction of the abdominal muscles, and not their relaxation.

What we often see is the wrong breathing pattern with inhalation through the mouth, with excessive elevation of thorax that creates tension in the cervical spine. Thoracic breathing requires more energy and is less effective than diaphragmatic breathing. Less air comes into the lungs, so the person must breathe rapidly. A few centuries ago, it was fashionable for women to wear tight belts around their waist. Aesthetically, they received a smaller waist, but the quality of breathing was reduced. As they breathed only thoracically it is no wonder that stories of women losing consciousness were often described in the literature of that age. Today we have the so-called designer jeans syndrome. Tight clothing and clenched belts inhibit diaphragmatic breathing and force the person to breathe thoracically. Extremely obese people and women in late stages of pregnancy also have problems with diaphragmatic breathing. Postural irregularities such as increased thoracic kyphosis, kyphoscoliosis, osteoporosis can result in inadequate breathing.

In the last few years, breathing gained a lot a publicity. Gray Cook who designed the FMS (Functional Movement Screen) indicates the importance of breathing during exercise and warns coaches and therapists to monitor how their clients are breathing and to see changes in their breathing rhythm. Gray believes that once a regular breathing pattern is established, results on the FMS tests are repaired. A group of authors in the book Muscles-Testing and Function with Posture and Pain, claim that improper breathing leads to different postural irregularities. They all agree that breathing helps to reduce stress, reduce pain, help regulate multiple body systems: neural, endocrine, digestive, lymphatic, muscular, respiratory.

Pilates and breathing

If after this text you realize that your breathing technique is not what it should be suggestion is to try Pilates. Joseph Pilates in his book “Return to Life through Contrology” concludes: “…and above all learn to breathe properly.”. We will not convince you now that breathing is the most important principle in Pilates, it would be like choosing which child is our favorite. They are all equally essential – breathing, control, precision etc., and all together make the unbreakable chain. Only when we connect them, Pilates becomes Pilates.

What we want to emphasize is how important was breathing for Joseph Pilates. He has been influenced greatly by the eastern and Western forms of exercise – yoga, tai chi, aikido, karate, weightlifting, etc. Controlled breathing enables better focusing, quicker activation of specific musculature, better circulation and reduction of risk of heart disease.

When performing Pilates exercises with the proper activation of diaphragm and intercostal muscles (primary breathing muscles) there is no relaxation of abdominal muscles. The breathing pattern we use in Pilates activates deep trunk stabilizers. Simultaneously, transversus abdominis, pelvic floor muscles and multifidus are activated. They are connected through the thoraco-lumbar fascia and together contribute to the stability of the pelvis and spine, especially of its lumbar part. In most Pilates exercises the breathing pattern is predetermined, i.e. it is known which part of the exercise is for inhaling and for exhaling. That prevents you from holding your breath, especially in more demanding exercises. Breath holding is often associated with increase in muscular tension and unnecessary increase in blood pressure. When we need more power exhaling can be helpful not to stop our breathing. A relaxed, deep breathing pattern focuses our thoughts and allows for better concentration when performing exercises. It is essential that the respiration and stabilization of the trunk occur before the movement. First we need to stabilize the trunk and then perform the movement in the hip, or knee…

Breathing gives us the dynamics and rhythm of exercise. What is music in the group Pilates, it is the rhythm of breathing. Every exercise has its rhythm. Some exercises or at least parts of them are slow and we slowly move from one movement to another, while others are dynamic and strong. These differences enrich Pilates and make it closer to the demands of everyday activities.

In Pilates, after a certain period we also transfer the same breathing principle to our daily lives. Breathing then becomes normal and natural.

Now that you know all this, try Pilates class, because it will certainly help you to spread your lungs wide open as quickly as possible.


  1. Cook, (2010). Movement, FMS: Screening, assessment and Corrective Strategies
  2. Kendall, F.P. i suradnici (2005). Muscles testing and function with posture and pain
  3. Lippert, (2006). Clinical kinesiology and anatomy.