By Jenny McCoy-Self
Working out can be tough and tiring. Of course, challenging yourself a little more each time you exercise is necessary if you’re trying to reach a specific fitness goal. But don’t forget about the other, smaller tweaks that can improve your workout performance and, by extension, your results. One of those small things that can make a big difference is paying attention to your breathing.
“When you [think about] the rate, quality, and control of your breathing in your training, you can get better results,” Mike Clancy, C.S.C.S., an NYC-based strength coach, tells SELF. That’s right: Breathing, something you do all day every day, can impact your athletic performance.
If it sounds simple, well, in a way, it is. After all, breathing is something you are born knowing how to do, and your body typically does it on autopilot. But there are different ways to breathe, which can be adjusted depending on a variety of conditions, and the respiratory process that goes on inside your body to regulate every single breath is seriously complex.
If you can wrap your head around it all (which we’ll help you do right now) it can help you use your breath to your advantage—both in everyday life, and especially in exercise. Here’s everything you need to know about your breath and how it can impact your workouts.
Each time you inhale, you take in oxygen, which your body needs to function. The more that you move, the more oxygen you need.
Think of oxygen as a sort of fuel for your muscles. In order for you to do anything—talk, walk, exercise—you need to get oxygen to your muscles, Sadia Benzaquen, M.D., pulmonologist and director of the interventional pulmonology program at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, tells SELF.
Assuming you are at sea level, the air that you breathe in is approximately 21 percent oxygen and 78 percent nitrogen, explains Benzaquen. Once this air enters your mouth, it passes through the larynx (the organ commonly known as the “voice box”), then the vocal cords, then the trachea (the windpipe), then the right and left main bronchus (passageways that bring air to the lungs), then the bronchiole (smaller branches of the bronchi) and then to the alveoli, which are tiny air sacs in your lungs that separate the air into oxygen and carbon dioxide, explains Benzaquen. The newly separated oxygen is then pumped to the heart, brain, and other muscles through the body, and the carbon dioxide is expelled through the mouth or nose.
The more activity you do, the more oxygen your body needs to sustain these activities, says Benzaquen. And the more efficiently that you can deliver said oxygen to your muscles, the harder and more efficiently you can work, which leads to better results, Marta Montenegro, M.S., C.S.C.S., adjunct professor of exercise science at Florida International University in Miami, tells SELF.
For these reasons, proper breathing should be one of your main focuses during exercise, says Clancy. Proper breathing can help you lift heavier; it can give you more muscular endurance in weight lifting and cardio-centric activities like running, swimming, and biking; and it can help you recover more quickly during high-intensity activities and sports like basketball and soccer, he says.
So, what does proper breathing even mean? Whether you’re exercising or at rest, it’s best to use a method called diaphragmatic breathing.
Your diaphragm is a muscle located between your thoracic cavity (chest) and abdominal cavity, and it should be the main workhorse that powers your breathing, whether you’re exercising or not, says Montenegro. Yet many of us don’t fully engage this muscle when breathing, and instead take shorter, more shallow breaths that begin and end in the chest. Breathing in this shallow way, you won’t be able to deliver as much oxygenated air to your lungs. This increases your heart rate and blood pressure, says Montenegro, which can ultimately increase feelings of anxiety and stress, and even make you feel short of breath.
Diaphragmatic breathing, on the other hand, is your best bet for efficient, effective breathing. This specific type of breathing, which engages the diaphragm muscle with every breath, involves slowly breathing in through the nose or mouth (preferably the nose), filling up your abdominal area (versus your chest) with air, and then slowly exhaling as the stomach collapses, explains Clancy. When exercising, diaphragmatic breathing can help ensure core activation and that you’re breathing deeply enough to deliver enough oxygen to the muscles, which prevents them from fatiguing earlier, says Montenegro.
Driving your breath from the diaphragm can also help you avoid those dreaded mid-workout side stitches, or abdominal cramps, which are typically the result of “using [the wrong] muscles to drive respiration,” Dean Somerset, C.S.C.S., Edmonton, Alberta–based kinesiologist and exercise physiologist, tells SELF. Though researchers still don’t fully know what causes them, Somerset suggests that breathing deeply, using the diaphragm, may help minimize the chances you’ll get a side stitch.
You can practice diaphragmatic breathing by lying on the ground with one hand on your chest and the other on your belly, Mark DiSalvo, C.S.C.S., NYC-based strength coach, tells SELF. As you breathe in slowly through your nose and exhale slowly out your nose, notice if your chest rises or if your belly rises—or both. With diaphragmatic breathing, just the belly should rise and fall. Think about originating the breath deep within your belly, and stay mindful of this as you continue inhaling and exhaling. You should aim to do 10 deep breaths in a row where just your belly moves, says DiSalvo.
When it comes to breathing and exercise, the proper breathing pattern depends on the type and intensity of the activity you’re doing.
Breathing, though second-nature for nearly all humans, is still an active process, says Benzaquen, meaning that it does require strength and effort for your body to perform correctly. And together, all of these movements impact the mechanics of your body.
“Every inhale and exhale changes the volume of the lungs, which changes the position of the thoracic spine, the ribs, the pelvis, the shoulders, and the inter-abdominal pressure,” Somerset says. For that reason, the way you breathe can impact how hard or easy it is to get through a workout.
Once you’ve nailed diaphragmatic breathing, you can then think about what the most effective breathing pattern is for the type of exercise you’re doing.
Controlling your breathing during strength training, for example, can help you lift more weight and exert more power with less effort.
“Aside from the gas exchange element of getting more oxygen into your body, breathing can help create core pressure that stabilizes your spine, which helps you lift heavier,” says Somerset.
For strength training in general, breathing out on the concentric phase of the lift (when you’re doing a bicep curl, the concentric portion is when you lift the weight toward your shoulder, and the eccentric portion is when you lower it back toward the ground) is the most commonly recommended technique, says Somerset. That’s because when you exhale and squeeze the air out, you increase core engagement, he explains. In strength training, a tight core equals more power and more stability—and you want to have that extra help on the most challenging part, the lift.
The core “is the base of tension with which the rest of your body gets strength,” adds DiSalvo. “The more tightly your core is contracted, the less leakage of tension there is [from the rest of your body].”
But core engagement isn’t the only benefit of a strategically timed exhale. Breathing out also acts as “a sort of pressure release valve to help prevent a significant drop in blood pressure during the movement [which could happen if you held your breath],” says Somerset. In other words, exhaling on the concentric portion of a movement, in general, can help stabilize and power you during a lift and protect against lightheadedness post-lift.
When it comes to aerobic exercise, like running and biking, your main priority should be establishing a consistent breathing pattern.
The more consistent your breathing (think even, measured breaths versus short, shallow breaths), the more nitric oxide you’ll get into your body, which helps dilate the blood vessels and increases the oxygenated blood flow to the heart so that it will work more efficiently, Montenegro explains. This will also ensure that your fatiguing muscles receive the oxygen they need to keep working. And with long-distance endurance sports in particular, a steady, consistent breath can help you maintain a steady, consistent pace, Somerset adds. With running, for example, you could breathe out for three foot strikes, and in for another three foot strikes as a way to help control your strides.
Note that consistent doesn’t mean slow. “If you’re breathing very slow and relaxed, your ability to pull in more oxygen will be reduced, which will limit your ability to perform aerobic work,” says Somerset. A good breathing rate for endurance activities is inhaling for 2 to 3 seconds, and exhaling for 2 to 3 seconds, he says.
During mobility-focused activities, like yoga, extra long inhales and exhales will typically be best.
That’s because longer, deeper breaths can “help you better access your range of motion,” says Somerset. “If you’re not breathing, your body will lock up tension,” he explains, so an elongated breathing pattern can do just the opposite: release tension and help you better move through your full range of motion. That’s key when you’re trying to move deeper into a stretch or pose.
For mobility movements, it’s best to aim for inhales and exhales of 4 to 5 seconds each—or even longer if possible, says Somerset.
No matter what breathing technique you use, keep in mind there are are some key differences in nose versus mouth breathing.
“In an ideal world, you want to breathe through your nose,” says Benzaquen. That’s because you have special cilia (hairlike structures) inside your nose that help filter out pollution, allergens, and bacteria before they travel into your lungs. The nasal passage also helps you humidify the air through mucous, which can prevent irritation, he adds.
Breathing through the mouth, on the other hand, doesn’t provide the same filtering and humidification processes.
That said, you (obviously) cannot take in as much air through your nose as your mouth, which is why many people instinctively breathe through their mouths during exercise. “Nose breathing may not be good for maximum power,” says Somerset, “but it can be helpful to slow down the rate at which you breathe,” which can be helpful if you’re doing an activity like yoga where the main goals are mobility and relaxation.
The bottom line on breathing:
While breathing is one of the most natural, automatic processes in the body, paying attention to your breath during a workout can help make sure you’re breathing as efficiently and effectively as possible. The techniques above can be intuitive for some people and a learned skill for others, explains Somerset, which is why it’s important to become mindful and stay mindful of your breathing as you move.
If these techniques don’t come naturally, don’t sweat it, says DiSalvo. “Breathing is something we do so much of in one day, and as with any type of exercise or movement, your muscles respond to repetition,” he explains. “With breathing, you have so many chances every single day to practice proper technique.” With time, it’ll start to feel more and more natural.