How to Breathe During Exercise (According to Research)

There is a lot of conflicting info when it comes to the subject of how to breathe while working out. Many trainers, websites, and books say to exhale when you are lifting and inhale while you are lowering. Others say that you should hold your breath or even use the Valsalva maneuver to get a max lift.

As a general rule, while exercising you should breathe in a way that’s normal for you. The most important rule is to keep the air moving in and out at whatever rate feels right to you, whether your inhales and exhales are in sync with your movements or not. Just do not hold your breath during workouts.

Why no breath-holding, and why not sync your breathing with your movements? I’m going to show you the problem with each of the 2 most common methods after going into more detail about what is recommended.

Breathing Techniqes for Strength Training

typically small breaks between sets to recover and lower heart rate. So getting out of breath should not be an issue unless you are going for supersets.

When you are trying to crank out that last rep it’s tempting to hold your breath to ‘pop’ that last rep – don’t do it!

Please remember, Don’t hold your breath!

Don’t pause or hold your breath. Don’t breathe in sync with anything.

Breathing for Cardio Training

Breathe as slow and deep as you can for the current heart rate to avoid fast, shallow breathing. This is true for walking, running, cycling (road biking, mountain biking, or spinning indoors), or any other low impact, high duration type of exercise. Syncing breathing to the pace you are going can make sense, but is not always possible or required.

There are many reasons and goals associated with doing cardiovascular training. Your cardio target may be to hold your heart rate at a certain level for a certain time. I found that my optimal heart rate for aerobic training is just at the limit of the air intake I can manage only through my nose.

With running and walking there is a very distinct rhythm of your feet touching the ground. It is an easy way to sync your breathing, especially warming up and getting into your grove starting your run. As you get deeper into your run your breathing will start picking up and accelerating, even if your pace is not doing the same. I found that depending on my daily form, the incline of my route, and the weather my breathing and my pace can vary.

You may have seen or heard cyclists or runners have a conversation. This is not necessarily a sign of low intensity, but more often than not a sign that they have their unsynced breathing dailed.

Often there is just no benefit to sync breathe. Focus on keeping your respiration rate as constant as possible, not paying attention to what rhythm my feet or hands are going at.

HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) Breathing Techniques

It is unlikely that breath-holding is an issue during high-intensity workouts. More likely the issue is getting enough air into your lungs while exercising hard with very little to no breaks between sets.

Some people like to breathe really fast and shallow like a steam engine locomotive going up a steep mountain, if you do this just be careful that you don’t hyperventilate.

I found that keeping my breathing in sync with my movements helps me keep my rhythm in check. This way I don’t start hyperventilating during tough workouts and still can go hard.

Why holding your breath is bad for weight lifting

Holding your breath while working out makes your blood pressure go up drastically. High blood pressure can cause lots of problems, some of them very dangerous and some just annoying. So, high blood pressure is not something you want to have whenever working out regularly.

Still, using the Valsalva maneuver is not uncommon in the weight room. It’s basically a fancy way of saying that you are holding your breath while pushing hard. Powerlifters often use the Valsalva maneuver but typically only when going for a one-rep max. More often you encounter this “technique” with beginners, who have not quite got their breathing under load dialed and hold their breath thru the entire set. If you ever lifted weights, chances are you have done this yourself at some point (I know I have) and probably felt dizzy afterward.

This is because holding your breath raises blood pressure, as I said before. High blood pressure can cause this dizziness, nosebleeds, getting red-eye, or even passing out completely. (You may have seen viral videos of powerlifters passing out right after their lift). These symptoms are immediately noticeable. High blood pressure can cause much more serious long-term problems though. You might get retinal detachment or hemorrhaging in your eyes and go blind, or you might have a stroke and die.

Granted, the chance of those things happening is pretty low if you are young and healthy. Still, everything you do in life is a risk/benefit analysis. The older your internal plumbing is, the riskier raising your blood pressure is. YOU need to decide for yourself if the marginal gain in 1RM lifts is worth putting yourself at an admittedly small risk of very serious health problems. For someone trying out for the Olympic team, it’s clear, they need every possible edge and their careers depend on it so they are going to use the Valsalva maneuver. For regular training with the goal of becoming fit and healthy for life the risk/befit may probably fall on the other side.

Let’s say that you one day decided to turn up the water pressure in your house from 40psi to 80psi in order to achieve a new personal record for the time needed to fill up your bathtub. If you are in a brand new house (engineered with margins in mind) you could get away with it for a certain period. But what if it’s a house passed down for generations. You would likely soon find yourself underwater within your living space.

How much breathing technique during wheight-lifting affects blood pressure

On average, holding one’s breath during heavy lifting leads to ±60% higher blood pressure compared to exhaling on exertion. In extreme cases, recorded blood pressure can double as a direct result of the breathing technique used.

These are the results of a research study published in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. The study documented rises in blood pressure related to different breathing techniques during heavy lifting.

When athletes exhaled under maximum intensity during a double leg press exercise, average blood pressure was recorded at 198/175 mm Hg. When the study subjects performed the Valsalva maneuver (holding their breath) during maximum intensity, average blood pressure was recorded at 311/284 mm Hg. This is an increase of roughly 60% for no other reason than a wrong breathing technique.

The highest recorded pressure was a dangerous 370/360 mm Hg. This is almost double the blood pressure compared to normal breathing. The study concluded that heavy resistance training is drastically safer when applying correct breathing. (Source)

Reasons not to breathe in sync when exercising

We established you shouldn’t hold your breath during exercise. Just as commonly known is what most personal trainers or PE teachers teach. It is that you breathe in sync with your movement, e.g. exhale while lifting, inhale while lowering.

Your respiration rate should not be the driving factor of your movement speed. Depending on the used muscle groups, movement speed and intensity the oxygen needed can vary greatly. While breathing can be in sync with your exercise movements, it does not make sense to always do it.

During a workout, your main focus is most likely on performing the exercise with good form and range of motion. Especially for beginners or when doing an exercise for the first time, this can easily take all of your attention. Between the range of motion, balancing weights, movement techniques, and breathing there is a lot to manage at once. It is easy then to not focus on your breathing technique.

This is why synced breathing is such a good technique to start with because if you are breathing in sync with your lifting, at least you are not holding your breath. Which is a very common issue when starting out. It seems most of the websites out there preach this type of breathing but it’s really just a learning technique for beginners.

Let’s look at the problem with sync breathing

Syncing breathing to movements is a two-way street. You either match your breathing to the rate of movement or the other way around when breathing gets heavier. The first option can be helpful, the second option is what you want to avoid at all costs.

Braking it down, this is just a simple numbers game. On average, the resting rate of breathing is about 15 breaths/minute or about 4 seconds per breath – 2 seconds in and 2 seconds out. When you are exercising hard and your heart rate is elevated, you necessarily breathe faster to provide your muscles with the oxygen needed to perform. An average of 60 breaths per minute is quite common during strenuous exercise or high-intensity training. This equates to about 1 second per breath or 1/2 second in and 1/2 second out.

If you match your movement speed to this kind of rhythm, what kind of form do you think you will use at this speed? Probably not your best one. On top of that, the actual time under tension is dramatically reduced, negatively affecting the effectiveness of your workout.

The desired movement speed depends on your goals and the type of training and should not be dictated by your breathing rhythm. Different muscle groups require varying amounts of oxygen. Just like varying levels of intensity clearly dictate the amount of air you need to suck into your lungs.

Here are the recommended movement speeds for different types of workouts:

Strength Training: 2 seconds lift, 2 seconds lowering. Regular breaks after sets.
(Sync breathing can work for smaller muscle groups.)

Functional Training: Explosive lift, slow lowering. Irregular breaks.
(It may make sense to time exhale with explosive movements, however, sync breathing is rarely possible.)

Cardio: Mainly constant pace, depending on elevation changes. No breaks.
(Sync breathing can work but don’t match your pace solely to the amount of breathing you require.)

Interval Training or High-Intensity Training: Constant movement, changing exercises. Little to no brakes.
(Sync breathing is rarely possible or even helpful. Instead, focus on a constant rhythm of deep breaths.)

Sync breathing is fine for teaching beginners not to hold their breath but the moment they get that mastered, it’s time to move on to breathing at a comfortable breathing rate disconnected from your movement speed.

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