In my ten-plus years of training and coaching, I’ve often been asked about the right way to breathe when you’re exercising. Good news, team! It’s a simple, easy answer:
With most exercise, there is no additional benefit to inhaling or exhaling at a certain point with the movement, or breathing in or out through the nose or mouth. The very best way to breathe when you’re working out is to stop thinking about it and just let your body do its thing. Your body is finely tuned to match breath with its need for oxygen, and assuming good health and clear airways, it’ll do a great job with no conscious effort from you.
However, there are two major exceptions to the “just do what comes naturally” rule:
If you’re dealing with asthma, COPD, or other respiratory conditions, the rule basically still applies: Don’t over-think your breathing patterns. Instead, make sure you prepare for a workout by using any prescription inhalers (or anything else you’ve been prescribed) at the appropriate times. And take it slow to start, both on a workout-by-workout basis, and when beginning to add more exercise to your weekly routines. Much of the shortness of breath that comes with exercising with a respiratory condition can come from poor general fitness as well as any impact a condition might have on your respiratory condition. Keep workouts to a low intensity and short duration to begin with, and be mindful of how environmental conditions can impact your breathing (hot and humid or cold weather are two common triggers for disturbed breathing). I’m always advising my clients that the goal is “Challenging but Achievable” Take it easy as you get used to a new workout, and build your fitness levels from there.
If you have respiratory or cardiovascular conditions (including and especially high blood pressure) it’s important to avoid holding your breath during exercise. This can be a tough: When you challenge your bodies, holding your breath is a natural response, especially when doing resistance training or heavy/high intensity work. This breath holding action is technically called a Valsalva’s Maneuver, in which you close your throat and contract your diaphragm and abdominal muscles. This action essentially “squeezes” your lungs. Since you aren’t exhaling, this leads to a large, rapid increase in blood pressure, and you may feel light-headed or faint. Large, rapid increases in blood pressure aren’t much good for cardiovascular or respiratory conditions, and passing out is no good in general. So do your body a favor and make a conscious effort to breathe continuously throughout your workout. This is where you may see some recommendations to inhale during the “easy” part of a movement and exhale through the “hard” part, which is a totally ok way to approach it. In the long run, pay attention to what your body does naturally, and if needed, find a breathing pattern you are comfortable with. You and your body will make more progress, more safely. And isn’t that the point?