The best routine to reap the benefits of better breathing and a stronger, longer core.
A daily dose of some purposeful breathing coupled with dynamic movements designed to lengthen and strengthen your muscles can have a powerful influence on your body and your life as a whole. Stress relief, better posture, back pain relief, increased lung capacity and better-oxygenated blood flow are just some of the benefits achieved.
The following stretches are designed to be done in sequential order building in intensity and then winding back down to a relaxed state. However, you can choose to do any or all of these stretches in any order and still accomplish some of these great benefits.
A classic yoga movement used to loosen and lubricate the spine, cat-cows are perfect for warming up the muscles of the core and focusing on deep breaths. Beginning on your hands and knees spaced shoulder and hip distance apart respectively, relax the spine in a neutral position. Inhale deeply through the nose as you push your belly toward the floor, open up the chest and lift the chin upward completing the cow position of this move. Focus on filling the lungs down into the belly before seamlessly transitioning to the cat pose. Pull the abdomen inward, arch the spine upward — like a black cat on Halloween — and tuck the chin down to the collarbone. As you complete this motion, push all of the air out of your lungs with fervor. Repeating this transition from cat to cow positions while simultaneously deeply inhaling and exhaling will warm up the spine, core muscles and lungs preparing them for exercise further or simply the day ahead.
Pec to Rhomboid Stretch
From a standing position, stretch the arms out into a T-shape with your palms facing forward. Press your arms back gently, pinning open your chest and squeezing the shoulder blades together. You should feel a stretch through the pectoral muscles and fronts of the shoulders. Hold this stretch as you inhale deeply before reversing the move to stretch the rhomboid muscles of your upper back. Exhale fully as you bring your hands together in front of your chest, clasping your hands and rolling your shoulders forward. Arch the spine outward and focus on spreading your shoulder blades away from each other as much as possible. This should result in a strong stretch of the muscles between your spine and shoulder blades. Repeat this transition multiple times trying to accomplish a deeper stretch with each try.
Toe Touch to Overhead Reach
Begin standing relaxed with shoulders rolled back and a straight spine. Inhale deeply through the nose as you reach your arms out away from the body and then up over your head making a large semi-circle with each hand. Exhale as you reverse the motion and continue into a dive downward toward your toes. This stretch can be modified by spacing the feet narrow or wide depending on preference and flexibility.
To start this motion, you will position yourself in a warrior yoga pose. Your feet should be spread approximately 3 to 4 feet apart. Your back leg should remain straight with your toes angled slightly inward. The forward leg should have a bend in the knee ranging from slight to a full 90-degree angle depending on your individual leg strength, familiarity with the pose or desired workout level today. The foot on the forward leg should be pointed straight so that you can see your toes when looking down past the forward knee. To complete your warrior position, twist the torso from above the hips so that your chest faces forward over your bent leg and raise your arms up over your head.
For the sweep, bend at the hip bringing your chest down toward your forward leg while simultaneously bring your extended arms to the floor and sweeping your fingertips against the floor. In a controlled motion, slowly bring yourself back to your original positioning to complete one full sweep. This move has the bonus of working on leg strength while strengthening and stretching the core.
With feet either touching or just 1 to 2 inches apart, start your windmills bent at the hip reaching toward your toes. Leaving one hand on your shin, toes or floor reach the opposite hand up and over your shoulders aiming your fingers toward the ceiling. Your chest should open up, and your shoulders should be stacked on top of one another forming a straight line with your arms parallel to your legs. Windmill your lifted arm down and then rotate the other arm up into the same position. Be sure to inhale while your chest is opening and your arm is reaching toward the ceiling. Exhale during the time that both hands reach downward before opening up to the opposite side.
Beginning in the same all-fours position as you did with cat-cows, reach one arm and the opposite leg out away from the body forming a straight line from fingers to toes. Take multiple deep, full breaths while holding this bird dog position. Switch to the other arm and leg, find your balance and repeat on this side. Focus on stretching the raised hand and foot away from each other and elongating the spine while breathing deeply. This move works to strengthen the muscles of the back while encouraging long, full breaths.
Seated Side Reaches
From a seated position with legs crossed comfortably and a straight spine, place one hand on the floor next to your hip. Stretch the other arm up over the head trying to reach the fingertips as high in the air as you possibly can. While maintaining this maximum reach, lean toward the hand planted on the floor and stretch your arm over the ear and toward the opposite side of your body. Focus on keeping your hip from lifting off the floor as you reach as far as is comfortable and take several long, slow breaths. You should feel the rib cage expanding on the stretched side each time you inhale. Come back slowly to a straight spine in between each side lean.
To stretch the front of the rib cage and abdominals, try pressing into a cobra pose. Start laying flat on your tummy with your hands placed palms down on the floor near your armpits. Push your head and shoulders gently off of the floor until you feel the front of your torso stretching. With this stretch, you are also accomplishing some arm and back strength. Try breathing deeply several times at the highest point you can comfortably hold this position before relaxing and trying again at an even higher point.
Lying flat on your back with your feet placed flat on the floor beneath your knees and your arms on the floor at your sides, press your palms and feet into the floor and lift your hips up toward the ceiling. This bridge position strengthens the low back, glutes, and hamstrings while stretching the abdominals and front of the rib cage. Inhale deeply as you raise your hips up as high as you can and exhale fully as you lower back to a relaxed position.
Supine Full-body Stretch
Sure to be one of your favorites, this full-body stretch is great to end a workout or start the day with. Lay flat on your back with arms extended overhead. Focus on stretching your feet and hands as far away from each other as you possibly can. The whole body should be active in pulling itself in opposite directions stretching out the midsection and rib cage. For added stretch, try wiggling side-to-side gently to lengthen the side body and separate the ribs.
These dynamic movements work to stretch and strengthen the muscles of the core while expanding the rib cage. Encouraging the lungs to inhale deeply and completely throughout these motions will increase lung capacity and help you achieve a full, restorative breathing pattern. Remember that all of these motions take practice and patience. At first, you may not feel flexible or strong enough for all of them. However, it won’t be long, with some daily practice, before this routine is helping you start, end or revitalize your day. Give these stretches a try to begin your journey to better breathing, posture and lung capacity on top of working toward a healthier and fitter you.
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