If you’ve ever struggled with the “right” way to breathe while exercising, you’re not alone. In working with clients for over 15 years, one of the questions I hear most often in weight training is: “How am I supposed to breathe?“
Following proper breathing techniques during weightlifting can feel as challenging as the workout itself.
The workout itself is just as challenging. You either feel like you’re breathing too hard, or you find yourself holding your breath. The good news is that there are a few simple rules to follow when lifting weights to build breathing skills that will help you get a better workout.
Rule 1: Be mindful of your breathing
Your body is able to breathe whether you realize it or not, so learning proper weightlifting breathing technique starts with being aware of your breath. In his book Think Like a Monk, bestselling author and former monk Jay Shetty explains that the first thing young monks learn is how to control their breathing.
“When our breathing and our bodies are out of tune, we experience stress and anxiety,” he explained. “Simple breathing techniques can help us calm the mind, relax the body, and create a sense of clarity in our lives.”
Practice breathing in for the same amount of time as you breathe out, gradually increasing each time as your heart rate slows and your mind calms down. It is also a technique used to relax the body and prepare for meditation. Emily Fletcher, author of Less Stress, More, teaches this breathing style in her Ziva meditation workshop. As Fletcher explains, this simple yet powerful technique can help you get rid of stress and become more present. “Acute, short-term, intentional stress can be great and help build your strength,” she says. “But low-level chronic stress is what makes us stupid, sick and dull.”
Practicing proper breathing techniques throughout the day will help you learn more about your natural breathing rhythm so you can have more control while exercising.
Rule 2: Exhale while contracting
We all think we know how to breathe until we find ourselves struggling under a heavy bar, or trying to push our body weight off the ground. During these times, we suddenly don’t remember whether to inhale or exhale during exercise. Simple solution is. Exhale during contractions.
When you exhale, your core muscles engage as your diaphragm contracts. A tighter core gives you more strength and more stability to lift weights, which is why it’s better to exhale while contracting (lifting) the weight. Exhaling when lifting weights also helps release pressure on your torso, preventing the kind of blood pressure changes that can lead to dizziness and fainting. Plus, this proper weightlifting breathing technique helps focus your energy on the hardest parts of your movement, giving you a mental and physical “lift” during your movement.
To identify the constricting portion of any exercise, think about the moments when you do the most. For the squat, it’s when you stand up. For push-ups, it’s when you push your body off the ground. For pull-ups, it’s when you pull your body onto the bar. Anytime you feel your muscles contract is a good sign to exhale. This can also help prevent muscle cramps or spasms. Exhaling relieves tension, and since your body is about to replenish oxygen, if you find yourself tense or forgetting to breathe, you can trigger your body to inhale.
Rule 3: Save Holds for Heavy Lifts
In weightlifting, there is a breathing technique called the Valsalva maneuver that is used by strength athletes to help them lift more weight. What it does is try to exhale with the airway closed, creating more stability in the torso to lift heavier loads. If you’ve ever found yourself holding your breath while trying to complete your final move, it’s likely your body is trying to trigger this technique.
To properly perform the Valsava when lifting weights, take a deep breath and close the glottis (the back of the throat) to prevent air from escaping. Do this during the eccentric phase of your exercise. Next, on the concentric portion of the lift, exhale into the closed airway. Make sure you open the glottis and release the trapped air once you’ve done this.
Since this weightlifting breathing technique increases intra-abdominal pressure, the Valsalva maneuver is only suitable for the heaviest max lifts, and only if you don’t have any heart or blood pressure conditions that could be negatively affected by this technique.
Rule 4: End your workout with your breath
Use your warm-ups and cool-downs to connect with your breath and make you aware of it. If you start your workout with a few minutes of light cardio, try to match your inhalation rate to your exhalation rate, inhaling for a count of four and exhaling for a count of four. Learning to control your breathing during cardio is especially useful for runners and endurance athletes, so it’s great to practice this proper weightlifting breathing technique as much as possible.
Use the same controlled breathing to help you lower your heart rate after a workout. Your body responds to the stress of fitness the same way it responds to being chased by a 10-foot bear. While this stress can make you stronger, you must take the time to normalize your breathing and heart rate to avoid the kind of long-lasting chronic stress that can be damaging. For more ways to relax and combat chronic tension, try this 10-minute stress-relief stretching routine.