When people begin a fitness program, they understandably have lots of questions, from how to perform certain moves to which exercises are most effective. One question that everyone seems to ask is how to breathe properly when working out.
I know what you are thinking. “Who would need instructions on how to breathe?” Breathing doesn’t take thought; it is involuntary, just like blinking your eyes. Shouldn’t we stop thinking about it so and just let it happen? Yes and no. Trainers or exercise instructors regularly need to remind their clients to breathe because so many people tend to hold their breath when they work out.
But holding your breath isn’t the only problem people face during exercise; their breath is often too fast, too slow, too deep or too shallow. Sometimes they even inhale and exhale at the wrong times, and while that will not make or break your workout, it can affect the exercise itself, how well you perform it, and your mind-body connection.
In our daily lives, breathing comes naturally and doesn’t require any thought. We need oxygen, so we inhale, and we need to rid our bodies of carbon dioxide, so we exhale. However, few people use their lungs to their full capacity. It has been reported that at rest, people use just 10%-15% of their actual lung capacity, usually a result of quick, shallow breaths that make the chest rise and fall.
When you exercise, however, your working muscles demand greater amounts of oxygen and you create more carbon dioxide waste as a result. This results in an automatic increase in your respiration rate. But exercisers—especially new ones—shouldn’t take this process for granted. Becoming more aware of your breath can help you feel more comfortable (breathing too slowly can increase your heart rate and affect your perceived intensity), prevent complications (like dizziness or faintness that can result from a lack of oxygen), and get more out of your workouts. Here’s what you need to know to breathe properly during five common types of exercise.
Cardio (Aerobic) Exercise
When you are walking, running, biking, Spinning, or doing any other form of cardiovascular exercise, try to breathe deeply. “As to whether you breathe through your nose, mouth, or a combination of the two, is a personal preference,” says SparkPeople’s Nancy Howard, a certified running coach. “Most runners find that mouth breathing provides the body with the greatest amount of oxygen,” she explains, and this may be the case for other exercisers, too. Make a conscious effort to keep your breathing both deep and relaxed. Ideally, we should all practice diaphragmatic breathing or “belly” breathing during cardio activities, which contrasts considerably with the shallow chest breaths we do while at rest. Diaphragmatic breathing allows for deeper, fuller breaths and better oxygen delivery during intense exercise.
- Relax your abdominals slightly. Pulling them in too tightly or sucking in your stomach will limit how fully your can breathe.
- Breathe deeply enough that your belly—not your chest—rises and falls as you inhale and exhale.
- Continue this technique at your own pace to meet your oxygen needs during exercise.
If this does not come naturally, you can practice belly breathing by lying flat on your back with a book on your abdomen. Slowly inhale as you watch the book rise, then lower the book by slowly exhaling. This takes focus, but over time you will find it easier to do this type of breathing during your workouts. If your breathing is short and shallow, you might be working too hard or you may have not developed a good breathing pattern for your activity. But keep in mind that your breath will not always line up perfectly with your movements when doing cardio, and you shouldn’t try to force it to. For example, a swimmer may take a breath on one arm stroke and exhale after three arm strokes, but there is no rule that you have to breathe in for three steps while walking and then out for three steps. The key is to find a breathing pattern that is comfortable for you and stick with it.
Like cardio, strength training increases the body’s need for oxygen and automatically results in a faster breathing rate. However, many people have a tendency to hold their breath during strenuous activity like weight lifting. Known as the valsalva maneuver, this can limit oxygen delivery to the brain and cause dizziness, fainting, a spike in blood pressure and other complications. During strength training, the most important thing to remember about breathing is to just do it! Never hold your breath; be aware of how you are breathing at all times, whether through the nose or mouth.
Beyond that, fitness experts recommend that you exhale on the exertion phase of the exercise and inhale on the easier phase. The exertion phase is typically the hardest phase of the exercise—lifting, curling, or pushing the weight. The easier phase brings you back to the starting position by lowering or returning the weight. To help, all of SparkPeople’s exercise demos explain when to inhale and exhale based on these recommendations. By focusing on breathing in on the return and breathing out on the exertion phase of each exercise, you’ll also prevent yourself from holding your breath. However, don’t get too caught up about when to inhale and exhale. Breathing in reverse is much better than not breathing at all.
Properly breathing while you stretch after your workouts helps your body relax so that you can return to a resting state, in addition to aiding in the mechanical removal of waste byproducts of exercise. It may also allow you to increase your flexibility because proper breathing during stretches will help you to relax more fully and therefore stretch more deeply. Many people tend to hold their breath during stretching or to take short and shallow breaths, but ideally, we should take deep, relaxed diaphragmatic breaths. Most experts recommend inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth when stretching. On every exhale, try to relax more fully or give into the stretch a little further, but make sure that you never stretch past a seven on a scale of 1-10.
Joseph Pilates used to say, “Even if you follow no other instructions, learn to breathe correctly,” which is why breathing takes center stage during his mind-body exercises. Pilates typically involves lateral or ribcage breathing, which differs considerably from the diaphragmatic breathing explained previously. With your abdominals engaged (naval pulled toward your spine), inhale deeply through the nose without allowing your belly to rise; instead, think about the air filling your lungs and expanding them laterally and into your back while your belly remains tight and flat as if you are wearing a corset. On your exhale, open your lips slightly and push all of that air out of your mouth both forcefully and slowly, making your exhale audible (like a “whoooooo” or “seeeeeeee” sound). This style of breath keeps the abdominals engaged and helps you to perform Pilates exercises with greater ease and better control.
Like strength training, you will most often exhale during the phase of an exercise that involves the most exertion. However, breath is used in Pilates as a way to hold your attention; your instructor will ask you to exhale on the part of the exercise where they want you to focus your intention, which may or may not always be the hardest part of the exercise. It’s OK if you mess up when to inhale and exhale in Pilates, but do you best to maintain this lateral breathing technique. Over time, it will get easier to breathe properly and at the correct times during your exercises.
In yoga, “breathing serves a variety of purposes,” according to Stepfanie Romine, a certified Ashtanga yoga teacher. Like Pilates, yoga has a unique form of breathing known as “ujjayi” breathing. During this slow, even breath through the nose, one should inhale for 4-5 heartbeats, pause slightly, and then exhale for an equal length of time. The back of the throat constricts slightly to allow the air to create an audible sound. The audible breath serves as a “moving meditation” during a yoga practice, Romine says, meaning that when poses get difficult, the mind can focus on the rhythm and sound of the breath to stay calm. This breath, which sounds like the ocean, helps you stay in the moment and centered while practicing yoga. In addition, “the breath serves as a metronome for the body, each movement timed to the length of an inhalation or exhalation,” Romine says.
In yoga, each pose (or new movement within a pose) should start with an inhalation. Inhalations are used for movements that involve standing taller or lengthening in a folded pose. The exhalation is used to go deeper in a pose: sinking lower into a lunge in Warrior pose, getting the nose closer to the knees while folding; exhalations are also used to get out of a pose.
There is a lot more to proper breathing than just going with the flow. Keep in mind that you may need to consciously practice these various techniques for a while before they become automatic, but your workouts will improve dramatically if you are able to perfect them. When all else fails, just breathe!