The Breath-Stress Relationship

Today I want to give you a very practical example of how breathing and stress are interwoven.

Below I’ll give you a classic example of a client who walked into our gym last week. He’s been under a great deal of stress, and just by looking at the amount of tone he has in his body, it’s evident that his breathing isn’t going to be optimal.

Let’s examine the relationship between breathing, stress, and “tone,” so you can get even better results with the clients and athletes you train.

A Quick Primer on Breathing

Let’s take a quick look at how breathing should play out, and then we’ll discuss some of the common compensations we see.

When you take a deep breath, your diaphragm should descend down. This is why you get a “Buddha belly” when breathing effectively.

There’s been a lot of talk about diaphragmatic breathing lately, and why you should breathe into your belly. But that’s really only the starting point of the discussion.

When you inhale fully, not only should you get a Buddha belly, but your lower ribs should expand slightly and your upper ribs should fill as well.

So instead of there being just one component to diaphragmatic breathing (i.e. the belly fills), there are really three components to an effective breathing pattern:

  1. The abdomen/core fills,
  2. The lower ribs expand, and
  3. The upper ribs (apical section) fills.

So this is what breathing should look like. What do we actually see?

I’m glad you asked!

Here are just a small handful of the most common breathing issues we see at IFAST:

  • Ineffective diaphragmatic breathing. When the alignment of the diaphragm and pelvic floor isn’t optimal, this leads to poor diaphragmatic function. Typically the client falls into an anterior pelvic tilt/increased lumbar lordosis and begins using the hip flexors and parapsinals to help them respire.
  • An inability to exhale fully. Hyperinflated clients and athletes walk around all day, everyday with their chest puffed out and what I called “permanent lat syndrome (PLS).” Quite simply, they can’t get the air out of their body.
  • Poor apical expansion on one (or both) sides of the chest wall. Quite simply, they can’t fill their chest when taking a deep breath.
  • Excessive use of the neck musculature to promote breathing. End game here is a head forward posture.
  • Paradoxical breathing. Instead of the belly expanding upon inhalation, the client actually does a “draw-in” type maneuver.

When you breathe poorly, this affects your body on a very primal level. Whether you know it or not, your body senses that something is wrong.

It knows you’re not breathing well, and it’s going to find any way possible to make sure you keep breathing!

Think about it like this: Do you think your Lizard-brain really cares if you are breathing with your belly, versus your chest muscles or you neck?

Two words: Hell no!

All it cares about is that you keep breathing and stay alive. This is survival instincts at its finest.

The first step to fixing any of these issues is teaching a client to fully exhale. In case you haven’t seen my video on the topic, watch this first:

Before we get back to our client, let’s talk about one more key concept – tone.

The Concept of “Tone”

When assessing our client, he presented with a very “toned up” posture.

Notice the tone in his lats and paraspinals. This is his “relaxed” posture!

The guy weighed in at 140 pounds but he looked like he was ready to hit the bodybuilding platform because big muscles like his spinal erectors and lats were all fired up and ready to do work. It literally looked like he was posing when we took his posture photos!

Tone is kind of an esoteric term, but think of it like this – your muscles are like light switches with a dimmer.

There are certain times you want to shut the lights off completely (i.e. when you’re sleeping).

There are other times when you want the lights on full blast (i.e. when you’re training).

Last but not least, there are times where you’re in between the two.

People that are chronically “toned up” have their lights on full blast, all day everyday. They literally cannot shut them off, even if they want to.

This is problematic, especially if you do want to do things that normal human beings do. You know, like relax, sleep, enjoy life, etc..

In practical terms, this is how “toned up” clients would describe themselves:

  • I’m Type A.
  • I’m very busy.
  • I have a lot of stress.
  • I don’t sleep well.
  • I can’t seem to relax.
  • I have a lot of little health issues.

Just a visual assessment of the client’s tone told us that he needed some work to be done. But let’s bring this whole thing together and talk about his breathing patterns, and how this drives stress, and vice versa.

The Breathing Assessment

We are assessing breathing throughout the course of our assessment. Whether it’s static posture, gross movements, or anything in between, we know that breathing drives everything that happens (good and bad) throughout our body.

Quite simply, it’s the most fundamental and important thing we do all day, every day.

The two primary tests we do at IFAST are:

  • A general breathing assessment. Ask the client to take three deep breaths, and assess the quality of their respiratory patterns. Remember, they should be filling the belly, the lower ribcage and the upper ribcage as well. Everything should move as a unit.
  • An apical expansion test. I can’t describe this in detail here, but essentially you lock down one side of the rib cage to see if a client can effectively fill the opposing side of their chest wall. For more information on the test, please refer to the Postural Restoration Institute.

When assessing our client, not only did he present with a paradoxical breathing pattern (belly button draws in on inhalation), but he couldn’t fill either side of this chest wall.

The only way this guy could take a breath was if he used his hip flexors and paraspinals to deepen his lordosis.

We had our work cut out for us!

The Big Pay Off

Here’s what you’ve been reading for. Remember this guy is not only “toned up” but he’s also got a ton of stress outside of the gym as well.

What came first, the chicken or the egg?

Stress drives poor breathing, and poor breathing drives stress

Did this client have poor breathing patterns, and that drove his stress?

Or, did he have high levels of stress, and his body adapted to a new posture?

And in all honesty, it doesn’t matter – this cycle will continue until you break the pattern!

The take home message here is simple:

The way you breathe (20,000 reps every day!) will affect your posture, your movement, and your alignment.

Failure to assess breathing, and correct faulty breathing patterns when necessary, means your programs will not be as effective as they should be.

On the flip side, managing stress outside of the gym is critical as well. If you don’t work to manage stress via working out, relaxing, getting good sleep, etc., your body is going to respond.

Implications for Training Programs

Looking back on our old programs at IFAST, it’s no wonder we got great results. We were always chasing the right things.

We wanted to shut off or inhibit the hip flexors and parapsinals.

Furthermore we knew that building strength in the anterior core, glutes and hamstrings corrected pelvic position, reduced back and knee pain, and generally had our clients moving and feeling awesome.

But when started tying it all back into the breath, that was the icing on the proverbial cake.

I would urge you to make proper respiration a foundational component of your physical therapy, fitness or strength and conditioning programs.

Chances are the second you do, you immediately get more bang for your training buck.

All the best


P.S. – If you’re interested in learning more about how we assess breathing patterns, or how you can get better results with the clients and athletes you work with, I can’t recommend our Diagnosis Fitness seminars highly enough.

Bill dedicates an entire module to the role of respiration, and our goal is to make sure you understand not only how to assess respiration, but the implications it will have on the clients and athletes you work with as well.

The early-bird rate is only around for a few more days, though, so please register now before the rates go up!


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  1. Hi Mike,
    I wanted to send you this message as I thought this post on breathing & stress was brilliant. It was clear, thorough and I learned. I believe this is the best I’ve read from yourself. Thank you.
    Ian Willows, S&C Coach, Notts UK.

  2. Mike-Great post on a very important topic. It seems that the overwhelming majority of the athletes we’ve assessed have some sort of breathing pattern dysfunction. When something is that pervasive, I can’t help but think there may be something else driving it. Stress, as you mentioned, is a probable culprit. Because I’ve noticed that injured athletes almost invariably tend to exhibit a faulty pattern, I think that the injury causes a shift toward a more sympathetic state, which changes breathing mechanics. In other words, the driver for the poor mechanics is the ANS shift resulting from the injury. It’ll be interesting to dig into a few case studies and see if athletes with fairly good breathing patterns exhibit some dysfunction after a late night, really tough training session, “tweaking” something, etc. Sorry for the rant. Thanks for sharing!

    • Kevin – Great points and I agree wholeheartedly. I’ll keep working to explain this better – I’m still trying to wrap my brain around all the different levels to this stuff 🙂

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. This is a really great post- really a tutorial! As a yoga teacher- and also trainer and coach- I am lucky enough to have some training thru my yoga studies in the three part yoga breath you describe here. One thing I just wanted to mention is that paradoxical breathing is very common in middle aged women. They unconsciously hold their stomachs in all day for fear of looking fat, so never get a full inhale. Combine that with pregnancies, c-sections or other abdominal surgeries, and this really sets women up for many musculoskletal issues as well as pain syndromes like hip and back pain. So- thanks for reminding us all that in the midst of all of our crazy, fun, challenging workouts that we create for our clients, success always comes down to the basics.

    • Great points Kathy! When you add structural dysfunction/surgery on top of the issues I discuss above, you have a recipe for disaster. Great point!

  4. Mike and IFAST team,

    Loving all the great information about breathing. Quick question: When performing challenging lifts, should you take a deep diaphragmatic breath and hold it throughout the set or take a new breath between each rep?

  5. Great article on breath. I’m no salesman, but have you heard of the o2 trainer? I’ve used it for a few months now and it’s really helped my breathing. Just thought I’d share it, keep up the good posts! Really enjoy reading what you post, Mike. Thanks.

  6. Very interesting and stimulating article.

    I’m not a trainer or fitness professional, just a college athlete, what sort of exercises could I do to improve my breathing?

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