The link between working hard and respiration is pretty well-established: The harder your body works, the more oxygen is needed, and the harder you will breathe. But should there be a method to our approach to breathing with regard to different types of exercise? Having your clients breathing rate mirror their movements is a good rule to follow, but let’s dive into deeper detail on how one should breathe during different activities.

Breathing Efficiently During Cardio

We’re sure you’ve seen this a million times: You ask your client to jog, cycle, or do the elliptical and find them taking shallow gasps of air. Not only does this stifle their muscles from getting all the oxygen they need, but this also feeds into the “fight or flight” response that’s triggered during exercise. It’s a good thing for this response (derived from the sympathetic nervous system) to occur, as it can train your mind to recognize that there’s no real danger around, helping your client (and you!) alleviate stress and anxiety. However, these gasps of air feed the reaction that they are in real danger during exercise, which will prevent your client from getting the stress-relieving benefits of exercise.

Instead, ask your client to breathe consciously and intentionally. They should take a breath every two steps (one step with their right foot and one step with their left foot equals two steps), and exhale every two steps as well. Not only will this help them establish a nice rhythm to their movement but this can be an active meditation as well. “In, in, out, out,” can be repeated like a mantra with each footfall.

How to Breathe During Weightlifting

You can help your clients get stronger by telling them how to control their breathing when they lift weights or perform strength training. When they exert themselves, they should exhale, and the breath should take as long to leave their lungs as it takes to do a rep. For example, if your client is doing bicep curls, they should exhale as they bring their barbell up toward their shoulders. From there, they can inhale as they uncurl (or lengthen). Every time they extend their arm, they can imagine they’re blowing up a balloon. That’s how they can remember in the future which type of breath should be paired with which movement.

Another helpful mantra, “Exhale on the exertion,” might help them make the connection since most clients tend to hold their breath during the hard parts. Explain to your clients that while breathing out they are also engaging their deep core muscles, which in turn, protects the spine and provides power to the movement when it is needed.

Bear in mind, that sometimes a hold is appropriate such as in the Valsalva maneuver during a very heavy powerlift. This type of forceful inhalation and hold against the abdominals is known as “bracing” and helps to keep a rigid spine, preventing the weight of a barbell from causing spinal flexion.


Breathing During High-Interval Training

Breathing for high-intensity interval training will have just as many ups and downs as the exercises performed. When your clients are giving an exercise all they’ve got (likely a cardiovascular exercise), they should take short, but efficient breaths. Again, these are not gasps or shallow breaths, just faster breaths than they would take if they were walking at a normal pace. Just as with running, their breathing should be controlled, about one inhale per two steps (or “beats,” if stepping isn’t involved in this particular exercise). Likewise, they should exhale once per two “beats.”

Now, the difference between the breathing for running and the breathing for high-intensity interval training is that there are (brief) rest periods after intense bursts of exercise. Your client should be just as cognizant of how he or she breathing during their resting period as they are when performing the exercise. The goal here is to recharge enough to give the next burst all they’ve got.

To do that, they’ll have to slow their heart rate down a little — and the best way to do that is with their breath. Have your client breathe deeply through their nose, pause at the top of the breath, then exhale loudly and fully through the mouth. Instruct them to empty their lungs completely. This helps to clear the CO2 and allow fresh oxygen back in. From there, they can repeat the cycle once or twice, eventually getting back to a point where they can breathe with control in and out of their nose. They’ll be ready for the next round in no time!


How to Breathe When Holding Poses

When people think of “holding poses,” they usually imagine yoga, but we (and our clients!) hold poses in other types of exercise as well. We may hold different variations of plank for 30 to 120 seconds. We may ask our clients to hover their feet off the ground and hold that position for a few beats.

Either way, here’s how to breathe when holding poses: Breathe in and out through the nose, constricting the breath against the back of the throat so that the breathing is audible — almost like the sound of distant ocean waves crashing against the shore. The breath out will also move along the back of the throat, making a similar shh-ing sound. Shifting focus to the breath here does two things:

  1. It enables the client to stay in the pose longer. The sound and constriction of the breathing releases tension. In the same way people are able to withstand pain for longer periods of time if they can scream or exclaim, your clients will also be able to hold their poses for longer if they breathe noisily.
  2. It enables your client to take deeper breaths, which helps bring more oxygen to their muscles.

No matter what the activity, bringing the client’s attention to the breath will help emphasize the mind-body connection, and focusing on the efficiency of respiration can help improve performance outcomes.


Daniel Stein

Daniel has been involved in the fitness industry for over ten years and has owned his own private training business since 2013. His passion for health and fitness led him to get certified through NASM, NFPT, and ACSM. He also holds a specialty certification as a Certified Inclusive Fitness Trainer (CIFT) and as a Certified Autism Trainer, which allows him to train individuals with physical and intellectual disabilities. In 2013, Daniel married his beautiful wife, Trinity. A few years later, they prayerfully started Special Strong to pursue their calling of working with the special needs population. They both attend Resonate Life Church in Lucas and serve in ministry together. In his spare time, he enjoys working out, reading, and fishing.