When you’re in the squat rack, fighting to stand up under a couple hundred pounds, how you’re breathing is probably the furthest thing from your mind. That’s a mistake, though, because proper breathing can make a surprising difference in your performance in the gym. And improper breathing can drag you down, limiting your performance and causing you to fall short of your potential.
If you’ve never paid attention to your breathing during a workout, don’t worry. These tips will get you on track.
The difference correct breathing makes
Correct breathing helps you perform at your maximum potential, no matter how you like to exercise. Proper breathing during cardio helps your muscles get the oxygen they need to keep going, allowing you to go longer and harder without getting winded. And during heavy lifting, proper breathing technique helps to stabilize your core, allowing you to push or pull with maximum power while protecting your back from injury.
Here’s how to breathe correctly during various types of exercises:
Proper breathing during heavy lifts
For lifting heavy weights—at or near your maximum—you’ll want to use what’s called the Valsalva maneuver. This is a technique where you take in as much air as possible at the start of your lift and then bear down with your abdominal muscles, like when you’re using the bathroom (don’t actually do that, though!). This pushing braces your core, which helps provide maximum stability, protects your spine, and allows you to deliver the maximum amount of drive to the barbell.
You don’t want to hold your breath through the entire lift—this can actually lead to fainting. Instead, hold your breath through the sticking point, and then exhale. Make sure you keep your core braced through the entire lift, though.
For less strenuous lifts, you’ll want to follow a rhythmic tempo with your breathing, breathing in at the bottom of the lift, and exhaling as you push or pull. Exhaling during the lift can help generate more power for the lift.
Proper breathing during cardio
Proper breathing is just as important for cardio as it is for lifting. Whether you’re a runner, cyclist, swimmer, or just like to hit the treadmill after your lifts, good breathing technique will help you get more out of your workout.
You’ll want to focus on rhythmic breaths, inhaling and exhaling for roughly equal amounts of time. This helps ensure a steady flow of oxygen. If you’re out of shape, or just new to running or cycling, this can be hard. If you find yourself getting too winded, try lowering the intensity of the exercise and focusing on your breathing. As your cardiovascular fitness improves, it’ll become second nature, and you can focus on other things, like your running form.
Are you breathing correctly?
Proper breathing, whether you’re exercising or not, should come from the belly, using your diaphragm. Many of us have gotten used to breathing from our chests, though. You don’t want to do this. This recruits unnecessary muscles into the process and only fills your lungs partway, preventing you from getting the maximum amount of oxygen per breath.
When you breathe from your diaphragm, on the other hand, your stomach will rise before your chest. This allows you to fill your lungs fully, take deeper breaths, and get the most oxygen possible for your muscles.
An easy way to practice and get a feel for this is to lie on a flat surface and place an object on your stomach, like a pencil or a notebook. Nothing too heavy, though! Now breathe in and out slowly, focusing on making that object rise and fall. If you’re breathing from the chest, the object won’t move much at all. Once you have an idea of what breathing from your diaphragm feels like, you can practice while you’re sitting at your desk or waiting in line. Before long, it’ll be second nature.
Proper breathing is crucial to maximizing your performance in the gym, and these tips should get you off to a great start. Keep practicing and you’ll be an expert in no time.