Muscles rely on Oxygen as a source of energy whether you are working out or at rest. This is even more pertinent when we’re training and working hard.
When you breathe in, air goes from your lungs into your bloodstream where it takes roughly 45 seconds to circulate through the body and return to the heart. During exercise, the body’s oxygen demands increase due to heightened levels of exertion, so we need to make sure that we continue to supply our body with the necessary fuel so that it continues to perform. When we breathe efficiently our body performs safely, and effectively.
What Happens If You Breathe Improperly When Working Out?
Improper breathing not only hinders performance by causing you to fatigue faster and recover more slowly, but it can also leave you vulnerable to injury from fatigue;
“During high-intensity exercise, when the respiratory muscles become fatigued, the body switches to survival mode and “steals” blood flow and oxygen away from locomotor muscles. As a result, these locomotor muscles become fatigued and performance can suffer significantly.” (1)
Improper breathing when working out can also cause dizziness and high blood pressure. By breathing improperly —using shallow “chest breaths”, misuse of the Valsalva maneuver, or generally holding your breath or forgetting to breathe — we starve our muscles and our brain of energy that it would normally derive from deep, healthy breathing patterns.
How to Breathe Properly When Working Out
There are a variety of breathing techniques that are all valid and vary based on the activity being performed. For example, we use a different type of breathing technique for things like yoga or a cool down, then a completely different means for things like running or sprinting. It’s important to choose the breathing technique that fits the task at hand and to do it correctly in order to maximize our intent of performance and execute the activity safely.
Both the mechanics of the breathing technique, as well as the timing of the inhales and exhales can make a difference in performance.
Cool Down and Recovery Breathing
For cool down/recovery aim for abdominal/belly breathing (also referred to as diaphragmatic breathing), allow the abdominals to expand, think of a balloon filling up inside of you, and focus on not letting the chest rise. An easy way to feel this is by laying on your back with knees bent with one hand on your chest and one hand on your abs.
Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth as if blowing gently on a hot drink. If your chest hand rises, you are breathing with your accessory muscles and taking shallow breaths. Try to instead focus on puffing up the abs, the ab hand should rise with the abs and the chest hand should be still. It may take some practice as with all muscles, your respiratory muscles can atrophy from disuse, “Use it or lose it!”
The Valsalva Maneuver
This breathing technique is used to brace and stabilize the spine when lifting very heavy loads, like those in the range of 1 rep max, or in powerlifting. If lifting light to moderate weights for multiple reps and sets is not only unnecessary but limits your performance.
To perform this technique, take in a breath of air and close your mouth and throat. Push your abdominals out as if you want to exhale while simultaneously tensing the abs (think about bearing down while having a bowel movement) and hold for the duration of the lift. This should only go for a few seconds.
Similar to the valsalva maneuver in the sense that this technique also stabilizes the spine, it does not involve holding the breath but relies on engaging your core muscles to create a brace while continuing to breathe steadily.
To do this breath you must learn to “draw in” your abdominal walls and keep them drawn in while breathing through the lateral and posterior rib cage. Imagine your abdominal muscles acting as a weight lifting belt while allowing you to continue to take normal breaths. Your body will be able to relax the muscles it doesn’t need to use, allowing you to conserve energy and focus your effort where you need it.
How to Breathe While Supporting Your Core
Proper core support will enable you to execute challenging core movements in activities ranging from weightlifting to dance. Abdominal breathing is a good breathing technique to use while the body is in a relaxed state and there is the minimal load placed on the spine besides gravity but is not a safe or effective breathing technique in situations where there is a load placed on the spine — like in a plank for example, or during weight training. Instead, supporting the core by learning how to use the body’s internal back brace is the best option.
Here is how to properly engage the core to support breathing when resistance training:
- Begin by lying on the floor with your back with knees bent and feet flat. If you have access to a floor mirror lie down in front of it, if you do not have one you can still learn to do this using self-cueing (continue reading)
- Inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth, observe what parts of your body move when this happens. Do not force the breath, try to breathe naturally. Then place your hands around your waistline with fingers toward the front of the body and thumbs toward the back, take a breath, and push your abs into your hands as you inhale. Continue to breathe this way until you feel comfortable.
- Now begin to press your low back into the floor as you breathe out, time the two actions so that they are in sync, and see if your abs “bulge” into your hands. If they do, try to shrink your waistline by making the waistband of your pants loosen slightly. This may seem very difficult at first but with a little bit of practice it is possible. Once you can do this, continue to inhale and expand the abs into the hands, exhale and narrow the waistline simultaneously while pressing the low back into the floor. Keep going until it feels natural.
- Once step 3 feels natural, with the hands still around the abs, exhale and narrow the waistline and feel with your fingers. The abs should feel taut, but you should not be flexing them. On your next inhale, DO NOT let your abs bulge, instead keep them cinched tight and let your RIBCAGE expand laterally. Learning to separate these two things is the tricky part.
To make it easier, slide one hand up to the ribcage, thumb toward your back fingers toward the front. Keep the opposite hand around your waistline. Feel, or watch if you are using a mirror, the ribs expand laterally into the palm. Think about the way a fish flares its gills when it breathes. Do not let your chest rise, try to expand the sides of the ribcage. Continue until it feels natural, inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth.
Tips: If you have a balloon lying around, you can try to blow up the balloon to get a sense of how the abdominals contract around your midsection. You’ll notice if you blow up a particularly stubborn balloon that the abs seem to shrink in around your waistline, making it appear temporarily smaller. You can also use a regular belt and buckle it so that it’s just a little bit too tight, around your natural waistline.
Once you get the hang of this type of breathing while lying on your back, progress to a bent knee or straight leg raise hold:
If your abs “bulge” like there is a french baguette underneath your shirt, you have released your deep abdominal muscles which you need to engage to support and stabilize your spine. Make sure you are able to flatten them with your legs in this position.
From here test yourself and go into alternating toe taps, see if you can keep your abs cinched in, and breathe at the same time. If you can do this well, try lowering and lifting both legs at the same time. Keep your eyes on your abs and make sure they stay flat.
Watch out for:
- Abs bulging, “french baguette” effect, you may be disengaging your transverse abdominis.
- Shoulders shrugging- this is your body trying to “cheat”, control your shoulders by continuously reaching toward your heels with your hands
- Low back-arching- this is a sign that your abs need work, if your back arches stop and take a break before trying again, and only lower the legs as much as you can keep your back flat against the floor.
- Holding your breath is a bad habit many of us have. When you learn this type of breathing you will be using muscles you have never used, it is normal to feel like you can’t take a deep enough breath or like you are out of breath. Keep practicing and your respiratory muscles will strengthen just like your other muscles.
Mechanics of Breathing When Working Out
Think of our lungs as simply a pair of sacs designed to diffuse oxygen into the bloodstream. They cannot work without our respiratory muscles, pictured below
When inhaling our diaphragm tends downward, creating a vacuum caused by negative pressure which draws air into our lungs. On the exhale it tents up, helping to push the air out. Here is a simple video from MEL Chemistry that illustrates this concept:
There has been a lot of debate as to when to breathe in and when to breathe out, a widely held practice is to exhale on the effort and inhale on the relaxation. However, studies show that there isn’t an advantage to doing this (2) so breathing however comes naturally to you is just fine as long as you are breathing appropriately for your task.
1. Want to Improve Your Performance? Breathe! (2021). Retrieved 30 April 2021, from https://www.acefitness.org/certifiednewsarticle/633/want-to-improve-your-performance-breathe/.
2. McGill S. Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance.