Breathing – the first Pilates Principle

Breathing is a huge component of Pilates.

We push the meeting of mind and body to get a better outcome and the breath becomes an integral part of that.


Why is breathing correctly such a big part of Pilates?

Breathing allows us to use our breath to facilitate how we move and also to be connected and focus on our body.

It allows us to make our practise more effective and deliberate, and the way we breath can help us either control and activate our core more or allow us to utilise our breath to improve movement.

The lungs are housed within the rib cage to protect them along with other internal organs, and our muscle system such as the diaphragm, intercostal muscles between the ribs and core muscles work in unison with the big external muscles such as the pecs to help with breathing.


We can breathe in many different ways:



The way most men breathe is through this method – the stomach or abdomen will rise and fall – so they tend to be stomach breathers – using more the base of their lungs.



This is where most women breathe – we use just the top section of our lungs so our breathing comes mainly from the top half of our lungs and rib cage. Think of a pump type actin where the ribs move up mainly in the top and front area of the chest. The diagram below (credit – Grey’s Anatomy) shows the pump handle on th eleft picture – the sternum or breast plate will rise and fall



Lateral Costal

This is more a learnt way of breathing and means that we use the outside or lateral part of our ribs – think of like a bucket handle style of breathing…the bucket handle rises up and down…as in the picture above on the right hand side. This allows us to get more air into our chests and lungs and therefore increases our lung capacity when we breathe.



Where we target mainly the back and lower aspects of our lungs and rib cage – again mainly a learnt pattern but also very used when we have to catch our breath after exertion such as when we lean on our arms hunched over or rest our hands on our knees whilst standing to recover our breathing.


Breath Holding/ Bracing

Is a big NO NO in Pilates! If you hold your breath or effectively just brace with your lungs holding the air tight – then you are not able to access any muscles of respiration and your core muscles, but more importantly you rib cage stays rigid and doesn’t allow for any movement.


Breathing to help movement:

When we breathe in, the body will naturally expand and lift through the rib cage as our lungs fill up with air. In terms of movement this action allows us to gain more range of movement into and upright or extended type movement of the chest (think leaning backwards), and also  laterally as we bend to the side ( think as in mermaids).

When we breathe out the opposite happens. Our chest and ribs collapse inwards and get smaller as we tend to want to fold in the middle – hence we tend to use our breath out on exercises such as roll downs where the chest is leaning into a c- curve position as we follow the natural movement of the ribs.

Try it for yourself. Breath in and feel your chest rise up and out  as your chest ‘stands proud’, then breathe out and feel how the chest wants to crumple and bend towards your stomach.

This is one of the reasons we cue breathing as important for movement – it is helping you by using your bodies natural movement and breathe, so it will facilitate and be easier for you to move and help you gain better range.


Breathing for Core Activation

Breathing well and at the right times helps you activate your core – its closely linked to your core muscles such the deep transversus abdominis muscle which takes  attachment from the diaphragm and lower ribs, and also into the hip. Using these deeper ‘core muscles’ along with the pelvic floor and mulfidi muscles of the back is what is commonly referred to as the deep core muscles. They also allow us to get movement by adding in the obliques for example.

We cue a breathe OUT to help you activate the core better due to these connections, and hence the harder aspects of an exercise are taught on a breath out to try and get better core control.

Remember the cue -…inhale to prepare, exhale to move…

** breathe  from you lower lungs to help activate the core

** try making a ‘hiss’ sound to assist you  if required so you get to know what that should feel like

** exhale to help your core activate

** avoid breath holding as you are just ‘bracing’ and using internal pressure to achieve stability


Breathing is there to have meaning and purpose in a Pilates class – no to confuse you and make it a real struggle – if in doubt and you really cant co-ordinate just breathe naturally and when you want to and as you get used to the different ways of moving and listen to different cues you may just get it!

And YES – we do switch up the breathing pattern just to challenge you! 🙂


Homework – take 5 and just breathe

you may also be interested in what the core does here

and also what the core muscles are here



About Saree Hewlett (135 Articles)
Saree has 20 + years as a physio, training in the UK and completing her Masters in Manual Therapy in Perth, UWA. She has integrated Pilates into her practise having trained in the Polestar method and currently owns and runs two Studios in Perth's Northern Suburbs. A previous international Artistic Skater she understands the needs of sports people and also those suffering from chronic pain and reduced function - we all want the same thing - to be the best we can be! She is married with two active young boys!

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