By: Lyndsay Pung, SPT

How many of us have been told to put our hands over our heads to catch our breath after an intense workout? A lot of you are shaking your head yes or thinking about a specific coach who instructed you to stand up tall with an open chest. It’s natural reaction to bend over with our hands on our knees, and we could get away with that for about 5 seconds before someone corrected our posture to hands over the head. Personally, I’ve always felt it was harder for me to breathe with that upright posture but figured I would comply because there had to be a good reason for it, especially if all my coaches told me it was correct.

What is that reason? Many people believe that standing with your hands over your head opens up the chest cavity and airways and allows for better breathing mechanics. Okay, so that seems like a logical explanation at first – but is it entirely truthful? Sure, the upright posture opens up the chest cavity, but does it really improve breathing mechanics?

The correct answer is no, and Rondel King, an exercise physiologist, helps create an understandable explanation for why. Imagine your lungs are like balloons that get larger when more air is blown into them and get smaller as they recoil when air leaves. In the hands on head position, the chest wall is expanded and the lungs are in a hyperinflated state, meaning that they are like a balloon that is already blown up near its limit and you’re trying to get more air in. Not ideal for getting adequate air in and out of your lungs. On the other hand, the hands on knees position puts the lungs in a better position for expansion, meaning that they are like a balloon that’s only blown up halfway and you have more room for air coming in as you breathe. Obviously in this position, the lungs and diaphragm (muscle that directs breathing) have more room to expand for adequate air flow and heart rate is able to decrease quicker. Recovery in this position is natural for the body, and chances are you’ve noticed this after a hard workout.

A recent  2019 study provides evidence for this. Researchers set out to determine which posture was better for breathing recovery – hands on head or hands on knees. They asked collegiate female soccer players to perform a high intensity interval workout and asked some recover in the hands on head position and the others in the hands on knees position. They found that the athletes in the hands on knees position were able to decrease their heart rate quicker and expel more carbon dioxide than the hands on head group after exercise. This demonstrates that breathing mechanics to get these results is better in the hands on knees position.

The idea that we must stand up tall with our hands over our head is a common misconception that was thought to be true for decades, and if you’re an athlete you’ve probably been coached this way. So, the next time you’re out of breath and need a minute to recover, try both positions and determine which one allows you to breathe better. You’ll most likely feel that the bent over position is more comfortable as you try to catch your breath. If you see someone recovering in the upright hands on head position, take the time to educate them on breathing mechanics and let them know it’s natural to bend over, and more beneficial for them as they catch their breath!