How to do Thoracic breathing

Breathing during Pilates is called thoracic, Lateral or intercostal breathing  

Breathing exercises have been used in the belief it provides health benefits or enhance physical performance. Personally I used controlled breathing in my stressful previous job before I discovered Pilates when I was hyperventilating though stress, and through the labour of both my children and during any sports challenges – I found by focussing on my breath the pain or endurance was not as bad! 

There are positive effects of better breathing with benefits ranging from relaxation and decreased stress to lowered blood pressure, improved focus, activation of specific muscles, better circulation and respiration, and even lowered risk for cardiovascular disease.  

Pilates uses breathing in various ways through lateral / thoracic breathing, please try and practice this breathing especially if you tend to speak quickly and your breathing is shallow also if you breathe into your belly, as it creates abdominal pressure.  

What is Lateral / thoracic or intercostal Breathing?  

Lateral breathing emphasizes the lateral expansion of the rib cage expanding the intercostal muscles while maintaining a consistent inward pull of the deep abdominal muscles during both in and out breath. This is in contrast diaphragmatic breathing emphasizes the lowering of the diaphragm during inhalation with the abdominal muscles relaxed so they are allowed to push outward. Lateral breathing is to help maintain abdominal contraction while performing Pilates exercises during which keeping a stable core is important for successful performance and for protection of the body. 

Many Pilates exercises have a set breath pattern to help activation of the transversus abdominis the deep abdominal muscle and the breath pattern can help establish the dynamic, or rhythm, of a given Pilates exercise. During Pilates the exhalation also tends to be on the start of the movement to prevent holding the breath and if you exhale as you perform an abdominal curl it encourages oblique activation, whilst we encourage people to inhale as they extend their thoracic spine (such as with a swan dive). Some people will also find it easier to feel their core muscles activate as they breath out, while others will find it easier to activate their core muscles before breathing in and out voluntarily. 

How to perform diaphragm breathing: 

–       Lie on your back relaxed with your hands on your lower ribs and your eyes closed (Posture is of great importance for diaphragm efficiency)  

–       As you breath in, fill the air up under your hands and allow the ribs and belly to expand up and outwards.  

–       Don’t let the upper chest or shoulders rise  

–       Relax the air out without squeezing the abdominals  

–       Continue this for 3 minutes and be mindful of putting this technique into practice through the work day and while exercising. A great tip is to set reminders on your phone or computer to remind you to stop, take a break and think about how you’re breathing throughout the day to help you curb your habits of shallow, stressed breathing. 

Active Breathing


A special case in which breathing may dramatically influence the dynamic of an exercise is active breathing. In signature exercises such as Hundred, the breath is pushed out not only more forcefully during exhalation but also with a percussive emphasis so you actively contracts the abdominals and particularly the internal intercostals in stages. On the inhale, the breath is drawn in with a percussive emphasis in stages, highlighting the external intercostals. Hundred, for example, requires five beats during inhalation and five beats during exhalation. Active breathing may help activate target muscles and inject a higher energy. ” Think of it as inflating a balloon and then releasing as much air as possible through a small opening in a constant, steady stream.

The diaphragm, plays a vital role in core stability, stress control, sporting performance and management of disorders such as high blood pressure, sleep apnea and reflux, to name a few.

Anatomy of the Diaphragm   

The Diaphragm includes the Sternum, ribs, diaphragm and intercostal muscles – The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle, somewhat like an umbrella, that sits below the lungs and above the abdominal cavity. Our brain is in control of performing breathing at a subconscious level continuously throughout the day. However, we also have voluntary control over this muscle, which helps us to alter our breathing depending on our environmental demand- think holding your breath underwater versus blowing out a candle.

So how does it work?  Pretend the trunk is like a coffee plunger, the space above the diaphragm(lungs) is filled with a certain pressure and the space below the diaphragm (abdominal cavity) is also filled with a certain pressure. As the “coffee plunger” is pushed down, the pressure above decreases and the pressure below increases and vice versa. Hence, to inhale the diaphragm contracts down towards the stomach to decrease the pressure in the lungs which sucks air into them from outside. As the diaphragm relaxes, it moves back up to its original position and decreases intra-abdominal pressure and increases the pressure within the lungs, to help force the air out to exhale. The diaphragm will also contract hard and fast to help expel air from the lungs with a cough or sneeze to help get rid of any irritants present in the airways.

When we are stressed, our body goes into “flight or fight” mode, our heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate all increase and we breath more shallow, taking in less oxygen and blowing off more carbon dioxide. When stress is present for long periods of time, the body adopts these altered breathing patterns as the “norm” and our body begins to change the way it functions on a daily basis, causing the diaphragm to weaken through poor recruitment. Poor diaphragm recruitment can cause over activity in the accessory breathing muscles (the scalenes in the neck and obliques) and using the shoulders to breathe instead of the diaphragm will eventually lead to neck and shoulder pain. 

Please practice this.

Thanks Hannah  

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