How Should You Breathe When Working Out?

By Amanda Roland

Does it ever feel like you just can’t catch your breath when you’re working out? Maybe you’re breathing too shallow? Too rapid? Or maybe not even at all!? In my 10 plus years of training, I have found myself constantly reminding clients to breathe. Although you can lift more weight when you hold your breath, I wouldn’t recommend doing it unless you are properly trained. The way you should breathe really depends on the type of exercise you are performing.

Weight lifting

A good rule of thumb is to breathe out while you are exerting yourself (concentric phase) and in while you are on the way down (eccentric phase). This helps you relax so you don’t hurt yourself. However, there is also a way in which you don’t breathe at all. Believe it or not, there is a method of holding your breath while you are lifting heavy weight called the Valsalva maneuver. Have you ever noticed that when you go to pick up something heavy, you tend to hold your breath? By holding your breath on the concentric phase of the movement, you end up increasing the intra-abdominal pressure, which helps support the spine and allows you to lift more weight. This move should be done with extreme caution and should be reserved for experienced lifters with a spotter. It spikes blood pressure and can even cause you to faint.


There is a big debate between mouth breathing and nose breathing. I feel you have to do what is natural for you. The important thing is to find a cadence to which you can stick. The other key factor is to avoid shallow breathing. I’ve noticed that this can lead to the dreaded stitch while running. The only way I have found to get rid of the stitch is a method called diaphragmatic breathing (see last section).

High intensity

Focus on using the ribcage muscles. Don’t worry about cadence. Just give your body all the oxygen it needs to survive during the bout of exercise. Try to stay in control of your breathing — if you feel it is getting away from you take a minute and get it under control using diaphragmatic breathing.

Diaphragmatic breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing as it is often called, involves breathing with your diaphragm rather than relying on just your lungs. It sounds strange, but it has made me a better all-around athlete. The best way to work on this is to lie on your back with one hand on your chest and one on your belly. When you breathe in, the only hand that should be moving is the one on your belly. This style of breathing allows you to get the maximum amount of oxygen. It also keeps your heart rate under control during the workout.

So whether you are running a marathon or lifting a couch, remember to always focus on your breath. It not only helps you to physiologically conquer your workout, but mentally as well. Thinking about your breathing can help you focus and make you more comfortable with being uncomfortable.