How to Breathe Properly During Your Workout

How to Breathe Properly During Your Workout & Why It’s So Important

How to Breathe Properly During Your Workout & Why It’s So Important

trainer helping a member focus on their breathing as they exercise

Did you know that proper exercise form includes the way you breathe?

Yep. All of those intentional inhales and exhales serve a purpose in your workouts.

Yet, holding our breath and forgetting to breathe – one of the most innate bodily functions we have – seems to be really common when working out.

And depending on what type of activity you’re doing, there’s likely a right way to breathe and a wrong way.

In this article, we’ll deep dive into how to breathe properly during your workouts, the benefits of breathing during exercise, and the dangers of holding your breath when working out.

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Why Breathing is Important During Exercise
How to Breathe Properly During Your Workout
Shallow Breathing
Holding Your Breath

Breathing During Exercise

Imagine you’re doing bicep curls. After a few reps, the weight has become very challenging (although possible), and simply beginning another rep takes all of your efforts.

Why are you suddenly tempted to hold your breath in order to give your last bit of energy? Should you follow that temptation?

Short answer – No. Here’s why…

Breathing properly – along with factors such as moving slowly and maintaining good posture – is a fundamental part of proper exercise form. Correct and intentional breathing:

  • Strengthens the diaphragm (it’s a muscle!) & nervous system
  • Relaxes the muscles in your neck and shoulders
  • Increases the body’s ability to tolerate intense exercise (can you say perfect?)
  • Increases oxygen to the circulatory system for working muscles
  • Reduces blood pressure and anxiety
  • Strengthens respiratory muscles which improves performance in endurance and high-intensity sports
  • Increases the duration of exercises and reduces feelings of fatigue
  • Increases stabilization of body (example: tightened core)
  • Increases nitric oxide, which relaxes arteries to increase blood flow

Similar to the other pillars of proper form, breathing properly is easy at the start of an exercise but progressively challenging as you move towards fatigue.

This begs the question: what does proper breathing look like? Also, what happens if you hold your breath while training?

How to Breathe Properly During Your Workout

There isn’t a universal single way to breathe, but our Trainers at The Perfect Workout have a suggested approach.

We recommend using continuous diaphragmatic breathing, or “belly breathing.”

This is where you breathe in, filling the belly then the chest, and completely exhale. (To learn more about the anatomy of belly breathing, check out this informational video.)

Using this style of breathing, the diaphragm contracts to allow maximum lung capacity and the belly pushes out.

The lungs are able to expand down toward the abdominal cavity which allows air to get to the bottom 1/3 of the lungs where perfusion (circulation) is best.

Watch this video and pay special attention to how she breathes constantly and intentionally throughout the entire exercise.

Notice how in the lifting phase, she inhales and exhales several times. There’s no need to time the breathing pattern any specific way, as long as you are continuously breathing.

Breathing continuously becomes more challenging when moving close to Muscle Success.

The natural tendency is to hold your breath to get an extra push. Avoid that temptation! Instead, breathe continuously.

It’s better to sound like a panting dog than it is to hold your breath (don’t worry, we won’t judge!).

Don’t Be a Shallow Breather

Another mistake we make during exercise is shallow breathing.

Clavicular breath, or “chest breathing” is when we take shallow breaths, only filling the top ⅓ of our lungs.

By shorting our breath ⅔ of its capacity, we miss out on optimal circulation. And it requires more energy and more frequent breaths.

To gauge whether or not you’re using chest breathing vs. belly breathing, try this exercise:

  1. Place a hand on your belly, and the other on your chest.
  2. As you inhale, notice where you feel movement under your hands.
  3. Does the hand upon your chest only move? This would mean you’re using chest breathing.
  4. Does the hand upon your belly only move? This would mean you’re using belly breathing.
  5. Do both hands move? This is a sign you're using belly breathing and taking deep enough breaths to where you’re filling your lungs completely. This is okay too. You want to try and breathe into the belly, filling that first, then the chest!
body builder holding their breath while lifting

Don’t Hold Your Breath During Exercise

In our experience, most people instinctively hold their breath when their exercises become challenging. The formal name for this is the Valsalva maneuver.

There is a teeny bit of validation to this technique when used for professional or competitive lifting because it creates pressure in the abdominal cavity which leads to increased power output and provides core support to the lower back.

However, it is NOT recommended for most styles of strength training or people.

Strength training is a very safe activity when performed with a trainer, on machines, and with a slow tempo (like we do at The Perfect Workout). The Valsalva maneuver comes with a slew of risks.

A few studies examined the impact of the Valsalva maneuver during strength training. In those studies, a few concerns were noticed.

Elevated blood pressure

Normally, blood pressure increases a little during exercise and then decreases after the workout.

The Valsalva maneuver increases the rise in blood pressure during exercise. Holding your breath can elevate systolic blood pressure (the first number in a blood pressure reading) by an additional 16 mmHg (Linsenbardt, Thomas, & Madsen, 1992).

This additional increase could be concerning for those with heart disease (Hackett & Chow, 2013).

Increased intra-abdominal pressure

Similar to blood pressure, intra-abdominal pressure increases during exercise and decreases afterward.

Breath-holding intensifies the increase in intra-abdominal pressure (Blazek et al., 2019).

Why is this a concern?

Excess pressure in this region could compress blood vessels in the kidney and interfere with bladder function.

And nobody, nobody, wants a bladder function problem in the middle of leg press.

Reduced brain blood flow

Using the Valsalva maneuver during exercise also reduces brain blood flow velocity, by anywhere from 21 to 52%, compared to normal breathing techniques (Blazek et al., 2019).

This could pose a health concern for people with high blood pressure or brain abnormalities.

Increased Intraocular Pressure

In some cases, holding one’s breath during exercise can lead to dramatically increased intraocular pressure. Read: Pressure and pain around your eyeball – yikes! Advanced stages of intraocular pressure can also cause nausea and vomiting.

It’s especially important for those at high risk for glaucoma to practice diaphragmatic or belly breathing to avoid the progression of that disease. (Vera et al., 2020).

Trainer coaching male member on the chest press machine

Key Takeaways

Although tempting, avoid holding your breath when strength training. Breath-holding, also known as the Valsalva maneuver, causes a number of health concerns. These include a big increase in systolic blood pressure and a reduction in blood flow to the brain.

Instead of holding your breath, breathe continuously throughout the entire exercise. Take several breaths when lifting and several when lowering the weight.

As you start to reach fatigue, if you make any changes to your breathing, pick up your breathing pace and inhale/exhale more frequently through your mouth to combat the urge to hold your breath.

Thankfully, at The Perfect Workout, your trainer will also pay attention to your breath and coach you to breathe properly. Safe exercise is, of course, our biggest priority.

  • Blazek, D., Stastny, P., Maszczyk, A., Krawczyk, M., Matykiewicz, P., & Petr, M. (2019). Systematic review of intra-abdominal and intrathoracic pressures initiated by the Valsalva manoeuvre during high-intensity resistance exercises. Biology of sport, 36(4), 373.
  • Hackett, D. A., & Chow, C. M. (2013). The Valsalva maneuver: its effect on intra-abdominal pressure and safety issues during resistance exercise. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 27(8), 2338-2345.
  • Linsenbardt, S. T., Thomas, T. R., & Madsen, R. W. (1992). Effect of breathing techniques on blood pressure response to resistance exercise. British journal of sports medicine, 26(2), 97-100.
  • Vera, J., Perez-Castilla, A., Redondo, B., De La Cruz, J. C., Jiménez, R., & García-Ramos, A. (2020). Influence of the breathing pattern during resistance training on intraocular pressure. European journal of sport science, 20(2), 157–165. https://doi.org/10.1080/17461391.2019.1617354