Why I Swapped Crunches for Balloon Breathing

The first time I was introduced to balloon breathing was by a colleague of mine, Chris Gaines (owner of Performance Gaines). I remember him sitting me down excited to teach me everything he learned from attending a certification from Postural Restorative Institute. 

Before we get into my "alarming" first experience with balloon breathing, let's first discuss some key factors:

Breathing. Seems important right? Especially since we unconsciously do it every day (roughly 23,000 breaths a day) to keep ourselves alive and well. Well, if you're not familiar with breathing mechanics, here's a quick rundown of the basics. We have two lungs (the right side happens to be larger and slightly heavier). As we inhale, our diaphragm contracts and descends. The contraction of the diaphragm opens up more space in our upper chest and allows our lungs to expand. As we exhale the diaphragm relaxes and actually ascends (moves upward into the upper chest compartment). 

So what happens when we lose the ability to move our diaphragm effectively? Well, we could manifest a plethora of symptoms including:

  1. Fatigue

  2. Brain fog

  3. Weight gain

  4. Cravings

  5. Pain

  6. Depression

  7. Anxiety

  8. Lack of motivation

  9. Decreased performance

  10. Injury

Why? Well, breathing is foundational to how we move (similar to defining our values as being foundational to our happiness). If you don't breath well, you probably exhibit one (if not multiple) of the symptoms above. Our brains need oxygen to survive. If we're not getting O2, we're probably performing sub-optimally. Everyday decisions are more challenging and foods become more tempting (the body will require more energy to function, thus it'll naturally resort to quick energy sources, like sugar to provide a boost). 

To my surprise, I struggled and failed to blow up a balloon with Chris. Meanwhile, five times a week I was loading my spine through deadlifts and squats, without ever really feeling my abs. For being a fairly "competent" lifter, I couldn't blow up a balloon for the life of me (and thus move my diaphragm and recruit my abdominals).

I tried and recruited pressure from my head. I tried again and the same thing...pressure in my head and lightheadedness. Over and over again we tried and I just couldn't fire the right muscles, send the right signals from my brain to my body, and also pressurize from anything else than my head. This was a pivotal moment that opened up doors for me to adjust my training methods. 

Thankfully, with the patience of Chris, we tried again the following week. We practiced more cues and broke down where I was compensating from. I was a chest, trap and neck breather, and it would take more than one session with Chris to reprogram how my brain was trying to gain oxygen from. 

Balloons are a great tool to help recruit the muscles we tend to not utilize to their full capacity. They essentially prevent us from "cheating". If you're beginning to explore your breathing practices, I would start with the following:

  1. Become aware of where you're breathing into (chest, neck, traps, belly etc)

  2. Become aware of how breathing mechanics may change with different stress levels

  3. Mindfully practice how to breath into different "compartments" of the body (lateral breathing- which can best be isolated in a child's pose, upper back breathing- video below).

  4. Be patient

  5. Assess and reassess (I would encourage you to assess something prior to completing a breathing exercise, then immediately reassess to see if there is a change. Do you feel the same or different?)

So in conclusion, we breath often-- it's necessary-- and can easily be performed inefficiently. I would encourage you to be patient with yourself. You may need more reps to help "un-chunk" how your brain is getting oxygen (ex. how I was breathing through my neck and head).

Once you feel ready, purchase yourself some balloons to play around with at the gym. I'm sure it'll stir up some questions from fellow gym goers;) You can just tell them you've swapped out crunches for balloons. 

Here is a quick demo of a breathing exercise utilizing a balloon.