Secrets of Proper Breathing During Exercise

Proper Breathing During ExerciseTips and Tricks for Optimizing Your Breathing During Exercise and Daily Life

Breathe in. Breathe out. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat…Breathing is so fundamental to healthy daily functionality that most of us take it for granted. The thing is, many adults don’t actually know how to breathe properly and never learn to harness the power of proper breathing for physical health, mental health, and optimal fitness. In this article we’ll give you some interesting facts on breathing and the respiratory system as well as several practical tips for getting the most out of this body function which pervades each moment of every day.

Five Fast Facts on Breathing

  • Each breath takes in about 0.5 liters of air; when exercising vigorously, that number jumps up to 3 liters per breath.
  • Your average number of breaths taken per minute at rest is between 12 and 15.
  • Your total number of breaths taken during any given day is around 17,000.
  • That adds up to about six million breaths per year!
  • Many people don’t know how to breathe properly, and bad breathing can wreak havoc throughout the body (don’t worry, just keep reading the article to learn how to fix bad breathing!)

BONUS Fact! Sweating and peeing aren’t the only forms of water loss. You exhale up to 17.5 milliliters of water every hour. That’s over a tablespoon! Gives you a new level of respect for the importance of drinking water first thing in the morning and all throughout the day, right?

How Does Respiration Work?

How Does Respiration Work?Let’s take a quick fly-by tour through the respiratory system during the flow of one breath. As you inhale, air enters your system through your mouth and nose, rushing through the pharynx, larynx, and trachea toward the lungs. Once in the lungs proper, the air splits into ever-smaller branches: first bronchi, then bronchioles, which are only the width of a hair, then into tiny terminal sacs called alveoli. In these six million individual alveoli, gas exchange takes place. A tiny web of capillaries surrounding each alveolus allows oxygen-hungry red blood cells to suck up oxygen from the air taken in while offloading their cargo of carbon dioxide. As you breathe out, carbon dioxide flows out the same way the fresh air flowed in, this time in reverse: out of the tiny alveoli sacs, into bronchioles the width of a hair, into the larger bronchi, and finally up and out through trachea, larynx, pharynx and finally nose and mouth.

How Does Exercise Change Your Breathing?

The major physiological change during exercise is a spike in carbon dioxide levels and hydrogen ions (H+). The blood becomes acidic, which results in an accelerated breathing rate. Believe it or not, it’s this influx of waste products that triggers faster breathing during exercise, even more so than the increased demand for oxygen. When you undertake a course of exercise over time, your respiratory system learns to be more efficient to cope with the demands you’re regularly placing on it. Kind of like when a muscle gets stronger the more you use it. You might be surprised to learn that training doesn’t significantly increase your actual lung capacity, though it may feel like it does as your respiratory system becomes more efficient, your performance increases, and you’re no longer gasping for air on your runs.

Sad Outcomes of Improper Breathing

improper beathing during exerciseThe outcomes of bad breathing are so sad because they are so avoidable! Proper breathing is our birthright and can greatly improve our quality of life. Improper breathing, on the other hand, can contribute to and/or cause the following:

  • Chest pain
  • Back & neck pain
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Poor exercise performance
  • Weakness of the pelvic floor
  • Weakness of the low back
  • Improper movement patterns in the shoulders, upper spine, and neck

The first several are nasty enough on their own, but when we get to the muscle and movement boo-boos, you’re putting yourself at risk of potentially serious injuries. Not to mention the mental and emotional effects of ongoing lack of adequate oxygen. Your body’s stress response is running around the clock when you do chest breathing.

So What IS Improper Breathing?

Put simply, improper breathing happens when you use your chest to breathe rather than your diaphragm. Many, many of us default to chest breathing for various reasons. It can be related to stress, poor posture, bad habit, and other factors. When you chest-breathe, the muscles of your neck and upper rib cage become chronically tight from overuse. You also don’t get enough oxygen for optimal brain and body function. Check right now if you’re chest breathing: wherever you’re sitting or standing, put one hand on your chest and the other hand on your belly. Take a normal breath as you usually would. Which hand moved more, the chest hand or the belly hand? If it was the chest, you’ve been chest breathing (at least in this moment). If this happened, don’t feel bad. A great many adults chest-breathe all day, every day without realizing there is a better way.

Do Belly Breathing Instead!

diaphragmatic vs chest breathingSo we’ve established that chest breathing is not the way to go. What should we do instead? How breathing is supposed to work is deep, full breaths using the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a domed muscle beneath your lungs that cups downward over the abdominal organs. It separates the thoracic cavity from the abdominal cavity. When you inhale using the diaphragm, it presses downward, compressing the abdominal organs and giving the lungs adequate space to fully expand. During belly breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing, you give your lungs a lot more air to work with. This assists with adequate oxygen delivery during exercise and during rest and recovery times. Belly breathing can activate your parasympathetic nervous system, also called your “rest and digest” system. When this system is activated, you experience a sense of inner peace and alleviation of anxiety 100% naturally.

Belly Breathing Quick Fix

To practice belly breathing, lay on your back on the floor or your bed. Place your hands over your navel and breathe, making the belly rise. If your chest rises but your belly stays put, keep practicing! You can even put an object like a book on your belly to force yourself to work a little harder to really feel the muscle that makes the change. Belly breathing might feel very funny at first if you have been a chest breather for quite some time. Babies and children naturally breathe using the belly. It’s only when we start meeting the stresses of our growing up years or of adulthood that we tend to become chest breathers. Keep practicing your belly breathing. You will find it feels more natural with time and it’s easy to carry it over to sitting, standing, and even while exercising. Belly breathing should become your go-to breathing method throughout life.

Note: when lifting very heavy weights which require maximum abdominal compression for spinal stability, there are specific techniques such as strategic breath holding and the Valsalva maneuver to use that this article will not go over. For general exercise purposes, belly breathing is best.

Six Effective Tips for Optimal Breathing During Exercise

tips for optimal breathing during exercise#1. When lifting weights, the gold standard of breathing timing is “exhale on exertion, inhale on relaxation/recovery”. You can also think of it as breathing out during the hard part of any exercise. For a bench press or squat, this would be when you are pressing upward. This is especially helpful for powering through the end range of your last few reps. Pull in your core and use your exhale to help you push through to completion.

#2. It’s extremely important to keep your air flow going during exercise. If you tend to hold your breath while lifting weights or doing core exercises, count each rep out loud to help you remember to breathe. Can’t hold your breath if you’re talking! It’s OK to count in a whisper if you feel like a goof counting out loud in a crowded gym.

#3. If you can’t catch your breath while doing cardio, don’t do the classic bend-over-with-hands-on-knees maneuver. This compresses your breathing system and actually makes you take longer to catch your breath. Instead, stand up with good posture and lace your fingers together behind your head. This will open up your lungs and allow you to take deeper breaths, which contribute to faster recovery.

#4. If you get side stitches when running, check out your breathing/gait pattern. Try exhaling as your left foot strikes the ground instead of when your right foot does.

#5. Since HIIT (high intensity interval training) is all the rage, apply the talk test during HIIT sessions to help you gauge exercise intensity. If you can carry on a conversation while exercising, the intensity is low to moderate and you’re in a recovery interval. If you struggle to talk when you’re exercising, you’ve hit a high interval.

#6. During cool downs and stretching, use your breath to help you relax, return your heart rate to normal, and get the most out of the stretches. Remind yourself to breathe extra deeply and extra slowly into your belly. Make your exhales a little longer than your inhales. This helps activate your parasympathetic, or “rest and digest” nervous system that we mentioned early.

Bonus Breathing Tip: Breathe2Relax!

OK, this tip is not so much about breathing during exercise, but the skill you’ll learn will absolutely carry over to your exercise performance. Breathe2Relax is an awesome FREE app you can get for your smart phone that takes you through belly breathing exercises of customizable lengths. The app also contains a mini learning center where you can get great tips for stress relief, both through breathing exercises and other modalities. It’s great for practicing diaphragmatic breathing until it feels natural and also for continued use for stress relief. Highly recommended!

Proper Breathing: The Bottom Line

Your respiratory system is an incredibly important player in your health, fitness, and wellness. With training, you can greatly improve its efficiency and boost exercise performance. And with a little practice, you can master belly breathing which carries over into both exercise performance and daily living. Give it a shot and let us know what you think in the comments below!

Author Profile: Mae Barraclough

Mae Barraclough, B.S., NASM-CPT, NASM-CES is a certified personal trainer, corrective exercise specialist, and licensed Zumba Instructor. With her passion for health, fitness, and dance, Mae loves learning all she can and sharing her knowledge with others.Join Mae online: Follow Mae on Instagram: Like Train With Mae on Facebook: Follow Mae on Pinterest: she's not training, Mae can be found making imaginative art jewelry at

Disclaimer: The views of the author are his or her own, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Ask The Trainer.
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