Breathing. It’s something we all do, even though we rarely stop to think about it. In resistance exercise as in other forms of physical exertion, learning to breathe properly can make a tremendous difference in performance.

The average person takes about 12,000 breaths every day. How many of those do we stop to ponder? Yet, proper breathing is a fundamental part of proper exercise form and patterns of inhalation and exhalation are well worth our attention. Learning to breathe properly during exercise can prevent dizziness during physical activity, enhance athletic performance and make for a more efficient metabolism. Improper breathing can lead to undue strain, stress and injury.

Breathing, of course, is the main mechanism by which the body exchanges gases, trading carbon dioxide for the oxygen needed to carry its various activities. The chemical burning that occurs in the body is not altogether unlike that which occurs in an internal combustion engine.

Using this analogy, the energy efficiency of a muscle can be likened to the air/fuel ratio in a vehicle’s carburetor. If there is not enough oxygen, then the mixture will be too “rich” and the process runs out of fuel faster. But if the amount of oxygen to the carburetor is increased, then the mixture can be said to be “leaner”, which allows for oxygen use that is both more efficient and prolonged. Performed properly, breathing can improve a resistance workout by providing more energy to function at higher intensity.

‘Proper’ vs. ‘Improper’ Breathing during Resistance Exercise

No one tells us how to breathe during our first few moments after we’re born, and so the concept of what is proper and what is improper with regard to inhaling and exhaling for a given activity can at first seem anywhere from unnatural to absurd. Yet many cultures have long recognized the importance of paying attention to one’s breathing for physical and meditative purposes.

With regard to resistance exercise, “improper” breathing is usually defined as that which is irregular, staggered, too rapid or too shallow. Conversely, “proper” breathing means exhaling through the exertion phase of a movement. This prevents carbon dioxide from building up the system.

A typical method involves inhaling through the nose during the negative phase of a lift. In a typical bench press movement, for example, this occurs when lowering the weight to the chest. In a pull-up movement, it means exhaling on the upward motion and inhaling on the return stroke.

The thought of purposely holding one’s breath might seem foolish, even childish, yet how many times have you seen a person’s face turn interesting shades when performing a lift improperly? Not only does it look dangerous, it is dangerous since it can lead to a jump in blood pressure and blood vessel strain. It can also cause everything from dizziness and fainting to heart attack and stroke.

The Importance of Taking a Breather

Taking a break to allow for momentary relaxation between repetitions allows more oxygen to be taken up into the working muscles. In general, the more oxygen taken up by the muscle fibers during resistance exercise, the slower the use of glycogen stored in the muscles for fuel. So this uptake of oxygen will offset the depletion of cellular energy, which in turn allows for enhanced performance of more repetitions.

An exception is not to allow relaxation pauses during heavy, intense resistance training. Such pauses can lead to hard tissue injury because it will be the bones alone that are left supporting the weight.

In short, learning to become conscious of one’s breathing and remembering to breathe properly during resistance training does require effort, but with that effort comes great rewards.

NFPT Staff Writer

NFPT Staff Writers contribute in various ways to the NFPT blog