What is the proper way to breathe when exercising?
It’s a question that’s commonly asked in fitness forums. Now that you’ve learned breathing exercises it’s time to put what you’ve learned into exercise breathing. Breathing exercises are great but you’ll spend a much larger percentage of your life in motion and being active.
Why does exercise breathing matter?
Let’s start by looking at the musculature of breathing, specifically the muscles of forced exhalation. Why do I specify “forced”? When you’re not exerting yourself and you’re breathing normally, exhalation happens effortlessly as a consequence of the diaphragm no longer contracting. When the diaphragm retracts to it’s resting state, it raises back up into the chest cavity, increasing the air pressure and passively forces the air out. There’s no need to consider the muscles of exhalation when quietly breathing.
When you’re actively exhaling, however, an important group of muscles are getting the job done. The muscles you use for active, forced exhalation are:
- Transverse Abdominus
- Internal Obliques
- External Obliques
- Rectus Abdominus
- Intercostal muscles
Do these muscle names sound familiar to you? If you’ve ever taken a personal training, pilates of GYROTONIC® session, your instructor most likely threw those names out there a couple of times. These are your primary core stabilizing muscles. When they contract, they make your waist narrower, increasing intra abdominal pressure thereby increasing trunk stability. Also, along with the three erector muscles and the quadratus lumborum, they transfer motion and power from the pelvis to the rib cage. These muscles are recruited in core stabilization and in forced exhalation. Are you starting to see a connection to exercise and how you breathe when exercising?
One motion, one breath
Another thing you’ll notice in the video above is that I’m exhaling with every repetition. This principle of “one motion, one breath” is generally the most effective way to incorporate purposeful exercise breathing into your training. If you’re engaged in a heavy weight training session and you’re huffing and puffing, breathing with no purposeful pattern, you’re not able to engage your core muscles effectively on each repetition, opening yourself up to thoracic/lumbar instability and injury.
With every repetition, you want to be strong and narrow, to engage your torso as a pillar of strength. By purposely, strongly exhaling with each motion, you’ll narrow your waist, engage the rib cage musculature, lift the pelvic floor and ensure core strength.
Additionally, by having a full cycle of breath with every repetition, you’ll decrease your recovery period between sets. If you’re holding your breath, your body will need time to refuel with oxygen and eliminate the carbon dioxide your body has created during your exercising. Continuous, rhythmic breathing, one breath for each repetition allows this process to happen continuously, reducing the time needed for the body to regain functional readiness.
Exceptions to these general rules
As always in physical fitness, while guidelines like this will hold for the vast majority of cases, there are some exceptions. One exception I want to cover is very heavy deadlifts and squats. One motion, one breath still applies and exhaling during the effortful portion of the motion (extension of the hips and knees, ie. returning to upright) also still holds. However you’ll want to focus on how you’re inhaling to begin the motion.
On exercises that are unlikely to put the lumbar spine in a potentially compromised position, such as bicep curls or lat pull down, you would inhale during the “negative” portion of the exercise, when returning to the starting position. However, when lifting heavy weight in squats and deadlifts, both the downward motion and the upward motion require a solid core and torso. Your exercise breathing in this case would involve inhaling as you’re preparing to descend, then holding your breath & bracing your torso and abdomen as you descend, then exhaling as you return to upright. Completely “holding” your breath is almost never beneficial when exercising, but placing a purposeful “hold” of your breath during a specific portion of a single repetition can definitely be of use. Just remember that for each repetition, there is a complete cycle of breath.
“What if my trainer doesn’t have me focusing on my breathing?”
Hire a new trainer.
And I’m not being facetious. As I’ve written in several places, everything you do at the gym trains your body for everything you do when you’re not in the gym. If you’re physically working your body and putting no focus into your breath, you can expect the same results as you’d get from anything else you put no focus on… none. No results. Stagnation. Decrease. Eventual failure.
There is nothing in your life that you have direct control over that is more important than breathing. As is said in The Science of Breath: “Man may exist some time without eating; a shorter time without drinking; but without breathing his existence may be measured by a few minutes.” It’s estimated the average person takes about 20,000 breaths per day. That’s about 14 breaths per minute. You’re either breathing or you’ve died. You can either work to maintain, strengthen and improve your breathing or you can allow entropy to slowly decrease your vital capacity. I don’t see the choice. Your trainer shouldn’t either.
It’s your turn.
What do you think? Do you focus on breathing every time you exercise? If you use a trainer do they guide you to focus on your breathing? If not, are you ready to seek another trainer?