How to Breathe When Exercising

Your breath can improve your workouts — here’s how


By Maddy Bond


Breathing is crucial to surviving. Duh! But it might surprise you to find out that working on your breath by strategically inhaling, exhaling, or holding it in can help improve your workouts. This may not seem important, but if you can’t control your breath when lifting weights, you’ll be more unstable and have a higher risk of injury. Utilizing specific breathing techniques will also enhance your lifts and help increase the weight you’re lifting. Here are some tips to upgrade your breathing during a workout and strengthen those internal muscles.

Anatomy and physiology of respiration

Respiration is the body’s breathing process. The diaphragm and intercostal muscles are the primary muscles involved in inhalation. The former is a large disc-shaped muscle that sits under your ribs, while the latter are attached to your ribs and help to lift them when you inhale. Exhalation is a little different.

When you’re not focused on your breath, exhaling is passive. As the inhalation muscles relax, air flows out without any other muscles needing to engage. But when breathing is forced (such as during exercise) your abdominal muscles contract and decrease the volume in your chest cavity, forcing the air out.

Oxygen is constantly being sent to all tissues in our body — muscles, organs, you name it — by inhalation. Oxygen travels through the tissue in the lungs to the bloodstream, then travels around where it’s needed. When certain tissues do a little more work, the blood flow to these areas will increase. For example, the digestive system works hard after eating a meal, so blood flow to these organs increases. The same goes for the working muscles during exercise. As your muscles burn oxygen for energy, they release carbon dioxide (CO2) into your blood. It’s this increase of CO2 that stimulates harder respiration during a workout.

Diaphragmatic breathing

Most people don’t utilize the diaphragm muscle to its full potential. In general, people tend to use the smaller surrounding muscles for breathing. To check which muscle you employ to breathe, sit nice and tall with good posture. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. Take a deep breath and notice which hand rises first. If your stomach hand rises first, you’re using your diaphragm to breathe. Well done! If the chest hand rises first, you aren’t using your diaphragm, which may lead to physiological issues in the future due to inefficient breathing techniques.

When we exercise…

When you work out, you should breathe into your diaphragm at specific points of a movement. During any exercise (like a bicep curl or a squat) there’s something called the ‘sticking point’, the weakest point in any range of motion. Think about the last time you lifted a weight — there was probably a mid-movement point where you’d partially lifted the weight, but felt a lot of tension mid lift and had to push through it, or even couldn’t push through it. That’s the sticking point.

To improve this, focus on your breathing. Inhale during the lengthening phase of the muscle, then exhale during the shortening, or contraction, phase. For example when squatting, inhale as you lower down towards the ground and exhale as you stand up to help push through that sticking point.

How to strengthen your diaphragm

Strengthening your diaphragm is fairly easy and is more about retraining your body to use it properly. There are a few different ways to strengthen and train this muscle. The first is to lie on your back with a light object on your stomach. Take a deep breath and try to lift the object with your stomach when you inhale. Another way to strengthen this muscle is to lie on your stomach face down, and try to lift your body off the ground when you inhale by using the diaphragm. Both of these techniques will help you retrain your body to utilize your diaphragm correctly and keep you breathing strong and healthy for life!

Maddy has worked in the health and fitness industry for 5 years. She has a bachelors in Exercise Science and has recently received her Masters in Exercise Physiology. She has worked with a wide demographic of clients as a Personal Trainer and loves helping people reach their goals and continue to grow.  She is an outdoor enthusiast and dedicates her workouts to rock climbing, hiking and whatever new experiences may come her way.

Main Photo Credit: Gorodenkoff/; Second Photo Credit: TheZAStudio/; Third Photo Credit: Rocketclips, Inc./