Thursday, May 30, 2013

To Breathe or Not to Breathe

If you've been around fitness long enough, you've probably noticed a few different methods of breathing while exercising. If you haven't, then the thought probably hasn't crossed your mind yet that how you breathe matters. Fair enough -- it's not something you normally think about in every day life. That is, until you start reading about breathing, and then become acutely conscious of every single breath entering and leaving your body. Or is that just me right now?

There are four approaches to breathing that I'll be covering here.

The first is the casual, don't-think-about-it variety. This is best left for cardio. If you're activity is light enough for you to breathe through your nose without thinking about it, you don't need to think about it. Once cardio gets intense enough that you start breathing through your still probably don't need to think about it, unless you have something like asthma (nasal breathing results in slower breathing due to smaller pathways; it also results in the inhaled air being warmer, cleaner and moister by the time it reaches the lungs, which is all relevant if cold, dirty, dry air is a problem). This variety of breathing tends to become more problematic when it comes to strength training.

If you have cardiovascular issues, the safe way to breathe during strength training is to inhale on the eccentric and exhale on the concentric. Due to the strenuous nature of strength training, people often need to be reminded to breathe, as momentary strenuous work and holding your breath tend to go together. The issue for people with cardiovascular issues, especially high blood pressure, is that strenuous activity increases blood pressure, and so does holding your breath. Put the two together and it might be time to say your goodbyes. Breathe fluently throughout the exercises, on the other hand, and you might live to fight another day. This is the most common method of breathing recommended in gyms (in my experience).

The Valsalva maneouvre is literally not for the faint of heart. This method of breathing makes use of the tendency to hold your breath under strenuous load. While it depends on the lift, the Valsalva maneouvre is generally performed by taking a deep breath and holding it before the lift begins, and either holding that breath until the rep is completed or exhaling only once you've passed the hardest point in the lift. This breathing pattern allows greater tightness in the trunk than breathing in on the eccentric and out on the concentric, making it ideal for maximal strength work, but it does spike blood pressure, so only use it if your health permits.

The last method I'll mention is to take the Valsalva maneouvre but hold the breath for more than one rep. This isn't just "not breathing" while you lift -- you're strategically inhaling deeply at the right time and holding it. I personally find this is best left for moderate weight, higher rep sets than max strength work, but your mileage may vary. Depending on the exercise, I'll often get 2-5 reps at a time out of a 10+ rep set while breathing this way. This is an extension of the Valsalva maneouvre, so if it's not safe for you to do Valsalva, it's not safe to do this.


  1. Breathing is very bad for you, I would advise giving it up. Airbourne pollutants, potential for choking, all that risk, hardly seems worthwhile.
    I use a variety of breathing styles from the slackjawwed get in as much air as I can while running to the grab a lung full and work with it until I feel ready to pass out doing power work. I have learned that having rubbish lungs is a handicap that I cannot overcome by ignoring them, but still try to anyway.
    There are a number of people trying to tell you in depth exactly how you should be breathing mid rep, sharp in through the nose then out counting to three and all manner of others I have seen people saying. Truth is most of the people concentrating on breathing to that extent either have terrible form on the activity or are using valuable effort concentrating on breathing.
    Your summary is a ample, and covers breathing the way it should be, a minor but essential part of activity and life. When trying something new, getting the breathing wrong is not as bad as doing the activity dangerously, most of the time, so put it in the worry about that later file, once used to it you can assess if having a solid trunk full of air will be good for support or a slow relaxed outbreath will help you into the stretch etc.
    There are activities where the timing and placement of breathing are incredibly important, many dance moves, 1RM lifting, preparation for short sprints or actual running of longer sprints etc. But if you are taking these seriously you will have some guidance when you need it.

    1. Haha, every time you breathe you expose yourself to free radicals. Therefore, breathing causes cancer. Do not recommend. I like the dirty old joke: Sex is like air -- it's no big deal until you're not getting any.


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