As a personal trainer and weight loss coach, I constantly answer my clients’ health and fitness questions, on social media and in our Start TODAY Facebook Group. In this column, I address some of the most common questions and obstacles that trip people up on their journey to establishing a health and fitness routine.
I hear conflicting recommendations on how to breathe when I exercise: Inhale through your nose, exhale through your mouth? Going in and out through the nose? Let my breath flow naturally or inhale and exhale for a while? Which is it?
Our breathing is a powerful tool. Certain breathing techniques have been shown to help lower blood pressure, combat anxiety, and improve sleep quality.
And the benefits don’t stop with our fitness routine. Connecting to our breath as we move the body is extremely important. Depending on your goals, it can be used to help release tension and de-stress, cope with tough exercise, or last longer during cardio activity.
The truth is, none of the breathing recommendations you hear are wrong (unless, of course, someone tells you to hold your breath!), they just get different results. And there are certain ways to control your breathing that are best suited for specific types of exercise. Our breathing serves a different purpose during, say, running than during yoga.
Here are some guidelines on how to breathe most efficiently during different types of exercise:
How to breathe while stretching
As a certified yoga instructor, I encourage my clients to use stretching time to connect with their breath as a form of moving meditation. Therefore, I recommend inhaling and exhaling through your nose. This method allows you to control and pace each inhale and exhale you take as you sink into each stretch and movement.
Using proper breathing techniques while stretching allows for better circulation, helping to relax the body into the stretch rather than being tense and rigid. Taking time to focus on each inhale and exhale also helps ease the mind and body so you can focus more on the stretch.
As a personal trainer, I typically instruct my clients to inhale through their nose and exhale through their mouth during cardio and strength exercises. And many personal trainers still have their clients breathe this way for stretching. But as a yoga instructor, I like to combine modalities so you can get the best value for your exercise. So, during stretching, especially to cool down after exercise, I advise inhaling and exhaling through your nose.
How to breathe while doing cardio
When doing cardio, getting enough oxygen is essential. This allows the body to deliver more oxygen to your muscles when you really push them during a run or HIIT workout. Deeper breaths involve filling your lungs to capacity so more oxygen can fuel your muscles as you train.
For running or brisk walking, timing your breathing with some sort of rhythm is essential. Remember to coordinate your inhalation and exhalation with your steps. It doesn’t have to be every step you take, as it can lead to hyperventilation or dizziness. Instead, try inhaling for a few steps, then exhaling for the same number of steps. Practice this until you reach a comfortable breathing rate. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth.
Make sure each breath goes through your stomach rather than your chest. This will ensure that you are using the entire diaphragm of your lungs to inhale plenty of oxygen for your cardio workout. (To make sure you’re breathing correctly, check that your whole stomach expands with each breath, not just your chest).
How to breathe while weight training
The way you breathe during strength training is equally crucial. As with cardio exercise, every breath you take during strength training should fill your diaphragm so your body gets as much oxygen as possible for a more effective workout.
Inhale deeply during the eccentric movement of your lift. Eccentric movement or contraction refers to when the muscle lengthens and contracts during a movement. For example, the lowering motion of a squat or lowering the dumbbells to the starting position during a bicep curl.
Exhale during the concentric movement of your lift. Unlike the eccentric contraction, the concentric motion refers to the part of the motion that pushes against gravity or a resistance load. For example, pushing off a plank from a pushup, standing up after a squat, or lifting the dumbbells up to your shoulder for a bicep curl.
A simple way to think about it is this: inhale deeply through your nose as you lower the weight and exhale as you lift the weight. Practicing this is the key; this will eventually become second nature when performing any strength training exercise.
The Bottom Line: Use Your Breathing to Your Advantage
Focusing on proper breathing techniques can make a huge difference in your fitness routine.
In general, inhaling and exhaling through the nose is reserved for relaxing movements, such as stretching and yoga. The nose is designed to filter, moisten and regulate the oxygen we inhale.
Inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth is generally the best approach for cardio and strength training activities, and it can dramatically improve your overall performance. Your body needs oxygen to function, but it also works harder during these movements, so exhaling through your mouth is advisable. A lack of oxygen will lead to faster muscle fatigue and stress on the brain and muscles.
The good news is that with so many variables in our fitness routine, our breathing is something we have complete control over. By using these breathing techniques, you can instantly feel more relaxed and able to release tension during yoga and stretching, and stronger and more in control during cardio and strength training.