Do you suddenly get winded at a certain point during your regular run? Have trouble squeezing out that extra rep when doing a bicep curl or squat? If so, maybe you’re not breathing properly. It may sound like a convenient excuse, but if you’re committed to maximizing your performance (or even just increasing your comfort), it’s quite an important consideration.
What does the natural act of inhaling and exhaling (which you do thousands of times a day without thinking) have to do with your performance in the gym? Plenty.
“Focusing on the breath – how and when you breathe – is one of the easiest things you can do to immediately improve performance,” says Richard Diaz, a cardio metabolic specialist in Camarillo, Calif., who works with professional and collegiate endurance athletes.
Diaz explains that skilled endurance athletes learn to synchronize inhalations and exhalations with their stride to conserve energy. Competitive lifters use advanced breath control to support their vertebrae and improve strength during maximum exertions.
Breathing, of course, is an innate skill, but as with any physical activity, by becoming more conscious of it, you can also become more proficient at it. It’s mostly a matter of learning good mechanics and breaking old habits.
Breathing For Endurance Training
The most important aspects of proper endurance breathing are pacing and rhythm.
For most endurance cardio work, you want to attempt to duplicate the slow, steady breathing you use while in a low aerobic state, like what you might attain at a fast walk or slow run. By regulating your breathing in an even, rhythmic pattern from the outset, and maintaining that rhythm even as you pick up intensity, you can delay the buildup of metabolic waste, thereby prolonging your muscular endurance.
Many people have a natural tendency to abandon this pattern as they go deeper into an aerobic state, and that tendency can cost them. When you run, cycle or row, your metabolism primarily uses oxygen to feed your muscles. Go at a smooth, steady pace and you can easily suck in enough oxygen to fuel your muscles almost indefinitely. (Think of how you can keep up a moderate walk for hours.)
But as soon as your metabolism switches into overdrive – such as during the final miles of a seven-mile run – and you begin to burn your body’s sugar supply to keep your muscles moving, you’re going to quickly run out of fuel unless you can begin to conserve that energy. This is where breathing properly can help. Keep the oxygen flowing more steadily and your body won’t be so quick to tap into its reserves. (See “All About Your Metabolic Energy Systems” to learn more about the three different metabolic energy systems and how they power your workouts.)
One thing few people realize is that we don’t need to breathe more deeply or quickly to soak up more O2. When it comes to breathing and endurance, oxygen intake is rarely a problem. In fact, with every breath, you normally inhale more oxygen than you need and end up exhaling about 75 percent of it. (This is why mouth-to-mouth Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation [CPR] works: There’s enough oxygen in one breath for two people.) The reason your breathing speeds up and becomes labored is not lack of oxygen. Rather, it happens because exercise builds up carbon dioxide in the blood and must then be ventilated.
So resist the urge to take exaggerated deep breaths; instead focus on steady inhalations and exhalations. Mike Arthur, associate director of performance for the University of Nebraska Athletic Program, says you can do this by breathing in through your nose, which also filters the air coming in, and then exhaling through the mouth to quickly get rid of metabolic waste.
Next, you need to break the habit of “chest breathing” and adopt a more natural and effective “belly breathing” pattern. Proper belly breathing, where the breath begins in the diaphragm and then expands your abdominal cavity, can augment your lung capacity and endurance by about 30 percent, according to Diaz. Your diaphragm is located just beneath the spot where the two sides of your rib cage meet in front, a few inches above your belly button.
Belly breathing basically entails expanding your thorax (the cavity inside your torso) and filling your lungs from the bottom up when you inhale, instead of the top down, as you do when chest breathing. Expand your belly first, allowing the diaphragm to drop into your abdominal cavity, and then inflate your chest.
Actually, whenever your energy systems get really taxed, your body takes over and forces you to belly breathe. Ever notice your stomach pushing out a little during an intense aerobic session? That’s a natural result of proper breathing.
When you breathe is just as critical as how you breathe. Efficient runners typically develop a two-to-two, stride-to-breath pattern (two strides per inhalation followed by two strides per exhalation) during the initial portions of a race, and then switch to a two-to-one rhythm as the buildup of carbon dioxide demands more ventilation. You should experiment with a pattern that works for you over long distances (or long durations) and then select the slowest breathing rate that feels comfortable.
When you breathe is just as critical as how you breathe.
Many people find a slightly slower rate more comfortable at first – say, three steps in and two steps out. There is no set pattern to follow, but by establishing a consistent rhythm, you will keep your breathing calm and improve your ventilation efficiency.
Of course, no matter how efficient your breathing, there may be times when you simply get too winded to continue. The trick here is to address your fatigue before it’s too late. As you feel yourself becoming tired, increase the length of your exhalation through your mouth instead of exhaling in short bursts. By focusing on exhaling, you can essentially “pant” and catch your breath without going into a full diaphragmatic spasm, which wastes energy and forces you to stop until you’ve recovered. Plus, when you concentrate on exhaling completely, you naturally inhale better, too.
Breathing For Strength Training
When it comes to strength training, proper breathing plays an important role in protecting the spine as well as in regulating power and blood pressure. The ongoing debate regarding breathing and strength training, though, is whether you should ever hold your breath. You may have heard personal trainers and exercise authorities caution you to exhale during the power phase of a movement to prevent a sudden rise in blood pressure. But competitive power lifters often use brief periods of breath holding in order to support the vertebrae and improve strength during maximum exertions.
It’s a natural reflex to hold your breath during brief bursts of effort – and for a good reason. “Holding your breath stabilizes the torso, or core, which braces the body for power. It also aligns the vertebrae and hips for proper lifting.”
Arthur says that it’s a natural reflex to hold your breath during brief bursts of effort – and for a good reason. “Holding your breath stabilizes the torso, or core, which braces the body for power,” he says. “It also aligns the vertebrae and hips for proper lifting.”
Holding your breath for a moment is just one part of it. You also need to exhale a certain way (and during a certain time) to maximize your lifting effort. Arthur says that adopting a proper breathing technique, where you take a moderate belly breath (not a deep one) and then hold it, creates internal pressure in the belly and chest, which supports the vertebrae. Then allowing the breath to gradually exhale in a controlled manner (as you might do in trying to bend the flame of a candle without blowing it out) can give you that extra oomph you sometimes need.
For instance, during a biceps curl, you should first inhale and hold your breath (this builds the pressure you need to make the lift, plus it contracts your stomach muscles, glutes and sphincter to protect your back) and then gradually exhale air through pursed lips like a pressure-cooker relief valve as you raise the bar (this keeps your blood pressure from spiking). This technique is especially important when performing structural exercises that can excessively stress the vertebral column, like squats, dead lifts, leg presses, shoulder presses and power cleans.
Using belly breathing is also beneficial because it helps to align your pelvis. “When lifting heavy weights in a standing position, whether performing squats or biceps curls, you have to keep your pelvis in a neutral position,” Arthur says.
To illustrate, Arthur compares the pelvis to a bucket. “Tilt it too far forward or backward and it spills,” he says. A belly breath, though, forces the pelvis into a healthy, neutral position, which allows you maximum torque and correct spinal alignment for heavy lifting.
Whether you’re lifting, running, racing or doing yoga, the way you handle your air makes all the difference, both in how strong you feel and in how well you perform. So be sure you’re not taking your breathing for granted – or letting it throw you for a loop.
How to Improve Your Lung Power
Here are some exercises you can practice to improve your endurance and strength-training breathing.
Dry Land Apnea: To improve your body’s ability to handle increased levels of carbon dioxide without wimping out, try an exercise many free divers do to extend their breath-holding ability. Take a walk and after an initial warm-up, begin doing 20- to 30 second intervals of breath holding while you continue at your normal pace. Then walk while breathing normally for 60 to 90 seconds, and then hold your breath for another 20 to 30 seconds. Repeat the pattern until you begin to feel winded, then breathe normally for three to five minutes. Repeat the cycle up to five times or until it becomes uncomfortable.
Breath of Fire: This excellent technique comes from Kundalini yoga and strengthens the diaphragm and abdominals and ventilates the blood stream. Sit in a comfortable position with your back erect and shoulders relaxed. Place your hands on your thighs. Inhale fully and then begin to exhale through your nose in short, forceful bursts as if coughing or trying to clear your nasal passages. (Your body will automatically replenish air between bursts.) Try to do this for 10 to 20 exhalations and then rest for 30 seconds and repeat the cycle three times. Gradually increase your number of reps until you can do 50, 80 or 100 exhalations per set.
Swimming: As any aspiring triathlete knows, swimming can be one of the most challenging endurance exercises. This is because you must coordinate your breath with your body’s turning. After swimming laps for 20 minutes, hit the treadmill. Your breathing pattern will be calm and coordinated with your body’s movements, making it much easier to run.
Dumbbell Fly Breathing: Because the dumbbell fly exercise naturally expands your chest, it’s a great method to practice breath control. Lie on the bench. Grasp two dumbbells of a moderate weight you can handle without struggling. Move the dumbbells into the beginning position, arms extended above your chest. As you lower both dumbbells simultaneously in a wide arc, inhale so that you have filled your lungs as your arms reach the bottom of the movement, parallel with your chest. Hold your breath momentarily as you pull the dumbbells up toward each other, bringing your arms back to the starting position. As the dumbbells cross the “sticking point,” about halfway through the arc, begin to exhale through pursed lips, allowing the air to escape slowly, but keeping pressure in your thoracic and abdominal cavities.
Time your movements so you completely exhale as you reach the top. Repeat five to 10 times and complete three sets. You will be moving more slowly and deliberately than usual. Remember that the purpose is learning a breathing pattern, not building
Diaphragmatic Contraction: This exercise teaches you the correct breath-holding technique to use when lifting heavy weights. Take a moderate diaphragm-filling breath and then contract your abdomen and sphincter, putting pressure on your lower back. Do not fill up your lungs or puff out your chest. Hold for two seconds, exhale, take three regular breaths and repeat until you’ve completed 10 to 20 cycles.
This article originally appeared as “Take a Breather” in the November 2004 issue of Experience Life.