How to Breathe Properly While Lifting

How you use your breath when you exercise can drastically affect your results. Learn these techniques to master your breath.

Photo: Getty Images

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

If you’ve ever struggled with the “right” way to breathe while working out, you’re not alone. In more than 15 years of working with clients, one of the most common questions I still hear during a weightlifting session is, “How should I breathe?” 

Following proper breathing techniques for lifting weights can feel as challenging as the workout itself. You either feel like you’re breathing too heavily or you catch yourself holding your breath. The good news is there are a few simple rules you can follow when lifting to establish breathing techniques that’ll help you get a better workout. 

Rule 1: Be Conscious of Your Breath

Your body is capable of breathing whether you’re conscious of it or not, so learning proper breathing techniques for lifting weights starts with awareness of your breathing in the first place. In his book Think Like a Monk, best-selling author and former monk Jay Shetty explains that the first thing young monks learn is how to control their breathing.

“We feel stress and anxiety when our breath and our bodies are out of alignment,” he explains. “Simple breathing techniques can help us calm the mind, relax the body and create clarity in our lives.”

Practice inhaling for the same amount of time that you exhale and gradually increase the time for each as your heart rate slows and your mind calms. This is also a technique used to relax your body and prepare your mind for meditation. Emily Fletcher, author of Stress Less, Accomplish More, teaches this type of breathing in her Ziva meditation seminars. As Fletcher explains, this simple but powerful technique can help you escape stress and become more present. “Acute, short-term, intentional stress can be very good and help strengthen you,” she says. “But low-grade chronic stress is what’s making us stupid, sick and slow.” 

Practice proper breathing techniques throughout the day to help make you more aware of your natural breathing rhythms so you’ll have better control during your workout. 

Rule 2: Exhale During the Contraction

We all think we know how to breathe until we find ourselves struggling under a heavy barbell or trying to push our bodyweight off the floor. In these moments, we suddenly can’t remember if we should breathe in or out during the exercise. The simple solution: Exhale during the contraction. 

When you exhale, your core muscles engage as your diaphragm contracts. A tight core gives you more power and more stability to lift the weight, which is why it’s better to exhale while contracting (lifting) a weight. Exhaling while lifting also helps release the pressure in your torso and prevent the kind of changes in blood pressure that can lead to dizziness and fainting. Furthermore, this proper breathing technique for lifting weights helps focus your energy on the most difficult portion of the exercise, giving you a mental and physical “boost” during the rep.

To identify the contraction portion of any exercise, think of the moment when you are doing the most work. For a squat, it’s when you stand up. For a push-up, it’s when you push your body off the floor. For a pull-up, it’s when you pull your body up to the bar. Any time you feel your muscles contract is a good signal to exhale. This also can help prevent muscle cramps or spasms. Exhaling relieves tension, and since your body immediately wants to replenish oxygen, it can trigger your body to inhale if you find yourself tensing up or forgetting to breathe.

Rule 3: Save Holding for Heavy Lifts

In weightlifting, there’s a breathing technique called the Valsalva maneuver used by strength athletes to help them lift more weight. It’s performed by attempting to exhale against a closed airway, creating more stability in the trunk to lift heavier loads. If you’ve ever found yourself holding your breath while struggling to get that last rep in, it was likely your body’s attempt to trigger this technique. 

To perform the Valsalva maneuver properly while lifting, take a deep belly breath, then close your glottis (the back of your throat) to prevent air from escaping. Do this as you perform the eccentric phase of the exercise. Next, exhale against that closed airway during the concentric portion of the lift. Make sure you open the glottis and release the trapped air once you’ve completed the rep. 

Since this breathing technique for lifting weights increases intra-abdominal pressure, save the Valsalva maneuver only for your heaviest maximal lifts, and only if you do not have any heart or blood pressure conditions that might be negatively affected by this technique. 

Rule 4: Bookend Workouts With Breathing

Use your warm-up and cool-down times to connect with and bring awareness to your breathing. If you start your workout with a few minutes of light cardio, try to match the pace of your inhalation with the pace of your exhalation, inhaling for a count of four and exhaling for a count of four. Learning to control your breathing during cardio can be especially useful for runners and endurance athletes, so it’s great to practice this proper breathing technique for lifting weights as often as you can. 

Use the same controlled breathing to help bring your heart rate down after a workout. Your body reacts to the stress of working out the same way it reacts to being chased by a 10-foot bear. Although this stress can make you stronger, you must take the time to bring your breathing and heart rate back under to avoid the kind of lasting, chronic stress that can cause damage. For more ways to relax and fight chronic tension, try this 10-Minute De-Stress Stretching Routine.