How to Do Lateral Breathing in Pilates

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

 Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Also Known As: Lateral thoracic breathing, intercostal breathing

Targets: Breathing

Level: Beginner

In Pilates, you will learn several breathing techniques but lateral breathing is emphasized above all others. In this technique, you draw the breath upward and out of the low belly and focus on redirecting the breath into the back of the body and the sides of the ribcage. As one of the six original Pilates principles, the breath is a foundation of Pilates movement. You will frequently coordinate your exercises with inhale and exhale pattern and use the breath to initiate and support movement. Keeping the abdominal muscles pulled inward and upward and also taking a great big inhale at the same time can feel like an exercise in advanced coordination. But that's exactly what will happen and you'll be an expert in no time.


All exercisers should breathe fully, taking advantage of every breath cycle to draw in lots of fresh air and subsequently rid the lungs of every bit of stale air. The goal is to oxygenate the blood, increase the overall circulation, and experience the rejuvenating sensation that a full, deep breath delivers. Learning the specific lateral breathing technique will not only establish good form for beginners but also enhance and improve results for more advanced-level practitioners. Adding lateral breath to your usual diaphragmatic breathing will increase your overall breathing capacity.

When the abs are pulled in properly, they protect the spine and act like a supportive corset for the whole trunk. Knowing how to breathe well while keeping the abs contracted gives you extra support throughout an exercise. As you practice lateral breathing, you will find that you are able to perform Pilates exercises with greater ease. It helps make the scoop of abs easier and enhances the sense of lengthening the spine with the breath.

Step-by-Step Instructions

Use this exercise to train yourself for lateral breathing. Sit comfortably.

  1. Place your hands on the sides of your body around the rib cage.
  2. Take a deep breath through your nose into the sides and back of the body. Remember that your lungs sit inside your torso and your ribs can expand with each breath. Feel your ribs pushing your hands outward as you inhale.
  3. Exhale through your mouth. Your ribs will contract and the hands will draw back towards each other.
  4. Repeat this breathing pattern several times until you feel the ribs expanding and contracting.

Common Mistakes

Understanding different breathing patterns will ensure you are using lateral breathing when it is most appropriate. Avoid these errors.

Using the Typical Breathing Pattern

The typical deep diaphragmatic breathing pattern relaxes the abdominal muscles during both inhalation and exhalation, which is not optimal for Pilates exercises where you want your abs to be engaged. Here's the way you may be breathing in the course of an ordinary day. Place your hands on your low belly. Take a deep breath and let your abdominals expand outward into your hands. Now exhale and empty the air watching your hands draw into the waist. Take a few more breaths just to feel the natural rise and fall of the belly. There's absolutely nothing wrong with this breathing pattern, but lateral breathing will serve you better when ab training.

Continuously Using Lateral Breathing

While lateral breathing is the technique to use when you want to keep your abs in during an inhale, reserve it for when you are training the abs. You don't want to have your abs contracted all the time. Diaphragmatic breathing, with a natural extension of the belly on an inhale, is still the healthiest way to breathe regularly.

Forcing Your Inhalation

You should breathe in comfortably and deeply, but do not force it and overexpand your lungs.

Upper Body Movement

The movement should be in your ribcage only, with no movement of your shoulders. Be sure to relax your neck and jaw and keep your spine straight.

Modifications and Variations

It can take practice to be sure you are using lateral breathing as a beginner and are continuing to use it correctly as you advance.

Need a Modification?

If you have nasal congestion, you won't be able to breathe in fully through your nose as is typically directed. In that case, breathe in through your mouth.

Up for a Challenge?

This alternate exercise will help you feel the lateral expansion of the ribcage with the breath:

  1. Wrap about 3 feet of exercise band around the lower part of your ribcage. You can also use a length of elastic or just wrap your hands around your ribcage.
  2. Hold the band closed in front of your chest.
  3. Inhale: Let the breath travel down your spine and expand into your back and sides so you feel the band is stretched, side and back, by your breath.
  4. Exhale: Actively draw the ribs towards each other as you slowly let the breath out.

Safety and Precautions

Lateral breathing should be safe for most people to practice. You should not feel any dizziness or lightheadedness when practicing your breathing. If you do, return to your normal breathing pattern.

Try It Out

Incorporate this move and similar ones into one of these popular workouts:

By Marguerite Ogle MS, RYT
Marguerite Ogle is a freelance writer and experienced natural wellness and life coach, who has been teaching Pilates for more than 35 years.