For the most part working out should be hard and fatiguing; Challenging yourself a little more each time you exercise is a necessity if you’re trying to improve or reach a specific fitness goal. But don’t forget about the other, small tweaks that can improve your workout performance and, by extension, your results. One of those small things that can make a big difference is paying attention to your breathing.
It sounds simple, and in a way, it is. After all, breathing is something you are born knowing how to do, and your body typically does it on autopilot. But there are different ways to breathe, which can be adjusted depending on a variety of conditions, and the respiratory process that goes on inside your body to regulate every single breath is seriously complex.
If you can wrap your head around it all (which I’ll help you do right now) it can help you use your breath to your advantage—both in everyday life, and especially in exercise. Here’s everything you need to know about your breath and how it can impact your workouts.
Think of oxygen as a sort of fuel for your muscles. In order for you to do anything—talk, walk, exercise—you need to get oxygen to your muscles. Once air enters your mouth, it passes through the larynx (the organ commonly known as the voice box), then the vocal cords, then the trachea, then the right and left main bronchus, then the bronchiole and then to the alveoli, which are tiny air sacs in your lungs that separate the air into oxygen and carbon dioxide. The newly separated oxygen is then pumped to the heart, brain, and other muscles through the body, and the carbon dioxide is expelled through the mouth or nose.
The more activity you do, the more oxygen your body needs to sustain these activities and the more efficiently that you can deliver said oxygen to your muscles, and therefore the harder and more efficiently you can work, which leads to better results.
For these reasons, proper breathing should be one of your main focuses during exercise. Proper breathing can help you lift heavier; it can give you more muscular endurance in weightlifting and cardio-centric activities like running, swimming, and biking; and it can help you recover more quickly during high-intensity activities and sports.
So, what does proper breathing mean? Whether you’re exercising or at rest, it’s best to use a method called diaphragmatic breathing. Your diaphragm is a muscle located between your thoracic cavity (chest) and abdominal cavity, and it should be the main workhorse that powers your breathing, whether you’re exercising or not. Yet many of us don’t fully engage this muscle when breathing, and instead take shorter, more shallow breaths that begin and end in the chest. Breathing in this shallow way, you won’t be able to deliver as much oxygenated air to your lungs. This increases your heart rate and blood pressure which can ultimately increase feelings of anxiety and stress, and even make you feel short of breath.
“Diaphragmatic breathing, on the other hand, is your best bet for efficient, effective breathing.”
Diaphragmatic breathing, on the other hand, is your best bet for efficient, effective breathing. This specific type of breathing, which engages the diaphragm muscle with every breath, involves slowly breathing in through the nose or mouth (preferably the nose), filling up your abdominal area (versus your chest) with air, and then slowly exhaling as the stomach collapses. When exercising, diaphragmatic breathing can help ensure core activation and that you’re breathing deeply enough to deliver enough oxygen to the muscles, which prevents them from fatiguing earlier.
Controlling your breathing during strength training, for example, can help you lift more weight and exert more power with less effort. Aside from the gas exchange element of getting more oxygen into your body, breathing can help create core pressure that stabilizes your spine, which helps you lift heavier.
For strength training in general, breathing out on the concentric phase of the lift (when you’re doing a bicep curl, the concentric portion is when you lift the weight toward your shoulder, and the eccentric portion is when you lower it back toward the ground) is the most commonly recommended technique. That’s because when you exhale and squeeze the air out, you increase core engagement. In strength training, a tight core equals more power and more stability—and you want to have that extra help on the most challenging part, the lift.
The core is the base of tension with which the rest of your body gets strength. The more tightly your core is contracted, the less leakage of tension there is from the rest of your body.
But core engagement isn’t the only benefit of a strategically timed exhale. Breathing out also acts as a sort of pressure release valve to help prevent a significant drop in blood pressure during the movement which could happen if you held your breath. In other words, exhaling on the concentric portion of a movement, in general, can help stabilize and power you during a lift and protect against lightheadedness post-lift.
“… exhaling on the concentric portion of a movement, in general, can help stabilize and power you during a lift and protect against lightheadedness post-lift.”
While breathing is one of the most natural, automatic processes in the body, paying attention to your breath during a workout can help make sure you’re breathing as efficiently and effectively as possible. The techniques above can be intuitive for some people and a learned skill for others which is why it’s important to become mindful and stay mindful of your breathing as you move.
If these techniques don’t come naturally, don’t sweat it. Breathing is something we do so much of in one day, and as with any type of exercise or movement, your muscles respond to repetition. With breathing, you have so many chances every single day to practice proper technique. With time, it’ll start to feel more and more natural.
Written By: Ashley Dunwell, MS, NASM-CPT