Are You Breathing Properly When You Work Out? Why It Matters

Are You Breathing Properly When You Work Out? Why It Matters

(Last Updated On: April 13, 2019)

image of Cathe Friedrich working and breathing hard during a kickbox workout during the Glassboro road trip

With so many things to concentrate on when you train, you probably don’t focus on how you’re breathing. In fact, you might be tempted to trivialize how you breathe. After all, how much difference can HOW you breathe really make? Just move air in and out of your lungs and let it happen naturally. But, breath is an important part of any kind of physical activity, and athletes and amateurs alike often don’t breathe correctly. Unfortunately, this can negatively impact their performance.

Some of the most common mistakes people during exercise is breathing too shallowly or quickly or not using the correct timing when they breathe. Even worse, some guys and gals hold their breath when they lift a heavy weight. You don’t make that mistake, do you?  Holding your breath is particularly undesirable as when you don’t breathe, you limit air exchange at a time your muscles are most in need of oxygen. So, how do you breathe correctly to maximize performance? The strategy for optimal breathing varies with the type of exercise you’re doing. Let’s take a closer look at how to breathe properly when you’re doing various types of exercise.

Breathing during Strength Training

The correct breathing technique for weight training is to inhale during the eccentric portion of the movement, when you’re relaxing your muscles, and exhale during the concentric portion when the muscle is contracting. In other words, exhale when you’re doing the hardest work and inhale as you’re returning to the starting position. Let’s use biceps curls as an example. When you contract the muscle and bring the weight up toward your shoulders, slowly empty the air from your lungs. As you bring the weight back down in a controlled manner, inhale air in.

How about a pushing exercise like bench press? Exhale as you push the barbell away from your body. Then, inhale as you move the weight back to toward your chest in a controlled manner.  You should be able to inhale and exhale in a smooth, controlled fashion, regardless of the exercise. If not, lighten up on the weight until you get the breathing right.

The worst thing you can do when strength training is to hold your breath. When you don’t breathe, especially if you take a deep breath and hold it, the pressure inside your thoracic cavity rises and blood flow back to your heart decreases. This can lead to a dangerous rise in blood pressure. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that with the leg press exercise, subjects who held their breath had an average blood pressure during the exercise of 320/250 mmHg.  Another study found that blood pressure rises were greatest with squats and lowest with single armed curls. Plus, when you start breathing again, blood pressure drops rapidly and this can cause lightheadedness or fainting.

Even if you don’t use a perfect rhythm when breathing as you lift, the most important takeaway is to breathe, as not doing so could be hazardous to your health, especially if you have high blood pressure. One way to ensure you’re breathing is to count each repletion out loud. It’s difficult to count without taking in and exhaling air. It also helps, when you’re learning how to breathe, to exaggerate breathing in and breathing out a bit to increase awareness of how to inhale and exhale properly.

What about those powerlifters who take a deep breath and hold it before lifting? They do this to give their spine more support when they lift a heavy weight and to keep their spine from bending when they do squats or deadlifts. Doing this can, in some cases, help them lift more weight.  However, it’s not uncommon for powerlifters using this technique to experience problems, like rupturing a blood vessel in the back of their eye during a lift.

It’s also not unheard of for bodybuilders and powerlifters who hold their breath to pass out while lifting a heavyweight. As mentioned, holding your breath reduces blood flow back to the heart and to other organs, including the brain. Less commonly, powerlifters can experience brain injuries when holding their breath during a heavy lift. Don’t try this at home.

High-Intensity Workouts and Cardio

Are you a fan of high-intensity interval training? No wonder this type of training is so popular. It’s a way to get a highly-effective workout in a short period of time with little or no equipment – and breathing properly helps you get more out of a HIIT session. The most important thing to remember during HIIT training is to keep the air moving and not hold your breath. The breaths you take should be steady, rhythmical, and not too shallow. Breathe in through your nose, to avoid drying your mouth, and out through your mouth.

How about steady-state running? Many fitness trainers recommend breathing in with every two or three steps that you take and breathe out as you take two or three more steps. Then, get into a rhythm of doing this. It’s also important not to breathe too shallow, for obvious reasons, you’re trying to deliver oxygen to your muscles. When you inhale, your diaphragm contracts and moves downward. At the same time, your chest muscles contract. These movements expand the size of your chest cavity, so you can draw in more air. Many people don’t contract their diaphragm enough and force their chest muscles to do too much of the work. As a result, they take in less air and deliver less oxygen with each breath and fatigue more quickly. Learn to contract your diaphragm fully with each breath, a technique called diaphragmatic breathing to maximize oxygen delivery during aerobic exercise.

Ladies, Watch Your Breathing!

If you’re a female, it’s especially important that you focus on breathing properly and not holding your breath. Women have a smaller lung capacity than men, meaning, ladies, your lungs are smaller and have less surface area for gas exchange. In fact, a woman’s lung capacity is almost a third smaller than a male’s. Due to differences in lung capacity, females take in less air with each inhalation. To make up for this, women have to take more breaths to compensate. As a result, respiratory muscles have to work harder. This, of course, leads to earlier fatigue. So, work on pulling as much air as you can into your lungs with each breath using diaphragmatic breathing.

The Bottom Line

Don’t underestimate the power of breathing properly. It can improve your performance when you do endurance exercise and it can help you avoid excessive fluctuations in blood pressure when you lift weights. Most importantly, make sure you ARE breathing. Don’t make your muscles cry out for air.


References: “Holding Your Breath? It Could Be Harming Your Health and Weightlifting Form”
The Journal of Physiology, 2015; DOI: 10.1113/jphysiol.2014.285965.
Circulation. 2007 Jul 31;116(5):572-84. Epub 2007 Jul 16.
J Appl Physiol (1985). 1985 Mar;58(3):785-90.
J Hypertens Suppl. 1989 Dec;7(6): S72-3.
J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Aug;27(8):2338-45.


Related Articles:

Resistance Training and High Blood Pressure: How Does Weight Training Affect Your Blood Pressure?

Why It’s Important to Breathe When Lifting Weights

Why Your Blood Vessels Love Strength Training

4 Ways Your Heart Adapts to Aerobic Exercise

One thought on “Are You Breathing Properly When You Work Out? Why It Matters

  1. I’ve been wondering about my breathing during cardio/HIITs. I’ve worked out for YEARS, and I still end up above my target range on my heart rate monitor quickly. It’s so frustrating. Just an intermediate workout can have me at 165+ within a few minutes. Could it be breathing? Any tips on improving my heart rate?

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