There are lots of things to think about when you are lifting weights or working out, but one of the often overlooked components of exercise technique is when to inhale and exhale during exercise.
Learning how to breathe while working out can help improve your strength, power, and comfort during exercise and can potentially even reduce the risk of injuries while lifting weights or engaging in high-impact, high-intensity exercises like running and plyometrics.
So, how did you breathe while working out? When do you inhale and exhale lifting weights or exercising?
In this article, we will discuss why breathing technique during exercise is important, as well as when to inhale and exhale during exercise.
We will cover the following:
- Is There a Right Way to Breathe While Working Out?
- Why It Matters How You Breathe During Exercise
- When to Inhale And Exhale During Exercise
Let’s dive in!
Is There a Right Way to Breathe While Working Out?
Before we get into how to breathe when lifting weights, you might wonder, “Is breathing technique while weightlifting important?“
Breathing while weightlifting may seem like yet another thing to think about when you are already using up the majority of your mental capacity focusing on other key aspects of exercise technique.
For example, when considering how to breathe while squatting, you might be putting your focus on other aspects of squat technique and execution, such as achieving the proper squat depth, foot positioning, keeping your knees from extending beyond your toes or collapsing inward, and keeping your core tight and back straight.
After all, the breathing technique during exercise can seem like a trivial aspect of proper weightlifting technique when there are “bigger fish to fry” in terms of aspects to focus on when trying to execute an exercise correctly.
While it is undeniable that there are quite a number of form cues and execution steps to master when you are learning how to properly do any exercise, when to inhale and exhale during exercise is also an important skill to master.Therefore, whether you are a beginner or an advanced weight lifter, consciously paying attention to how you breathe while lifting weights should not be overlooked.
That said, how you breathe during exercise can play an important role in your ability to generate force, your endurance, your performance, and even your risk of injuries.
Why It Matters How You Breathe During Exercise
Proper breathing during exercise can increase the amount of oxygen available for your muscles, reduce the carbon dioxide buildup in an efficient manner, increase the stability of your core and spine, and improve performance.
Depending on the type of exercise you are doing, your muscles will need oxygen in order to generate ATP, which is the energy form that cells use.
Muscle cells require ATP in order to contract and produce force.
Below your anaerobic threshold, or at moderate levels of exertion, your body is able to continue to take in enough oxygen and use it to create usable energy at a fast enough rate to support your workout.
However, during high-intensity, explosive, short-duration power exercises, your body relies on anaerobic glycolysis and the creatine phosphate system to generate ATP.
This is not to say that breathing no longer becomes important when you are doing high-intensity exercises such as powerlifting, sprinting, plyometrics, heavy weightlifting, or other explosive exercises.
You still need to be able to breathe properly while lifting weights or during maximal exercise to ensure that your muscles are getting the oxygen and glucose between reps or sets to power the next repetition or to deliver oxygen to make up the oxygen debt created during the anaerobic bout.
Furthermore, the other side of the breathing equation—exhalation—becomes especially important during power, speed, and high-intensity weightlifting, plyometrics, and sprint workouts.
When we exhale, it is the only way that we can readily eliminate the metabolic byproducts of anaerobic metabolism (carbon dioxide) from the body.
During high-intensity exercise, your muscles produce lactate and hydrogen ions.
Although the lactate can be shuttled to the liver and converted into pyruvate for further use, once you are breathing enough to provide oxygen, the hydrogen ions need to be buffered.
Otherwise, you will experience the dreaded burning legs feeling and tremendous fatigue associated with high-intensity exercise.
Carbon dioxide is a byproduct of this buffering process and must be exhaled.
Even when you are doing moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or lifting weights at a low enough intensity that you can breathe throughout each set, your body still generates carbon dioxide as a waste product.
After all, studies show that the relative concentration of carbon dioxide in your bloodstream is a large determiner of your breathing rate.
Exercise will feel significantly harder and will leave you feeling out of breath if you are not able to efficiently rid your body of the carbon dioxide that accumulates.
Thus, it is important to learn when to inhale and exhale during exercise of any intensity in order to ensure your body is getting adequate oxygen and nutrient delivery, and carbon dioxide waste removal.
When to Inhale And Exhale During Exercise
So, we’ve established that your breathing technique during exercise matters, but how should you breathe when working out? In other words, when do you inhale and exhale during exercise?
Breathing During Workouts At a Sub-Max Intensity
If you have worked with a personal trainer before or have spent much time researching fitness and exercise techniques, you have probably heard the general advice for breathing during exercise that states: breathe in on the way down and breathe out on the way up.
Or, said another way, inhale during the concentric or shortening contraction and exhale during the eccentric or lengthening contraction.
This exercise breathing pattern works fine, especially if you are working with light or moderate weights and moving at a tempo that corresponds with an appropriate breathing rate.
Some fitness professionals get even more specific with these recommendations for how to breathe while working out.
For example, depending on the type of exercise and the of your workout, it is sometimes recommended to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth in the pattern just described.
This generally works for weightlifting with moderate loads, such as during hypertrophy training with 65 to 85% of your 1RM, because you can still get enough air in through your nose at this intensity.
Similarly, with moderate-intensity cardio exercises such as brisk walking or easy stationary cycling, you may be able to get away with doing all of your inhalations through your nose.
However, at higher levels of intensity with aerobic exercises, such as running, you may need to use both your nose and mouth when you’re breathing in order to maximize your oxygen intake.
The mouth is significantly larger than the nasal passages, so combining nose and mouth breathing when you inhale allows you to take in oxygen more efficiently so that you’re not hyperventilating or needing to breathe super fast.
Breathing During Workouts At a Near-Maximal Intensity
While inhaling through the concentric or lifting portion of the exercise and exhaling during the eccentric or lowering portion of the exercise works for most weightlifting exercises, with heavy lifting, you may need to abandon this normal exercise breathing technique in favor of the powerlifting breathing technique.
When you are lifting heavy weights–typically anything over 80% of your one-repetition maximum (1RM)–the normal breathing technique for exercise does not provide enough stability.
When you exhale, the air leaves the lungs, and the diaphragm relaxes.
As this occurs, the stability of the core is reduced since the pressure generated within the thoracic cavity and abdominal cavity drops.
This decreases the ability to properly brace your core under a load to protect your spine.
Thus, most strength coaches actually recommend holding your breath during the entire rep of a powerlifting exercise (squats, deadlifts, cleans, bench press, etc.) with near-maximal loads.
After the rep, you can take a full breath before beginning the next rep in your set.
Holding your breath during exercise, which is known as the Valsalva maneuver, will help you brace your core as if you are preparing to get punched in the stomach.
The purpose of the Valsalva maneuver while lifting weights is to maximize the stability of your spine and trunk under the load of the barbell or other weights with heavy lifts (>80% of your 1RM).
Otherwise, when lifting lighter weights or doing other forms of submaximal exercise, you can follow the regular protocol for how to breathe while working out.
Want tips for making breathing easier during running? Check out our guide to breathing while running here.