Breathing While Lifting: The most effective breathing techniques

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©Corey Jenkins

Breathing while lifting is one of the factors that can determine the success of your workout. Every breath provides your muscles with oxygen and can increase your performance. Let’s take a look at how correct breathing works during exercise and what mistakes you should avoid.

How does breathing work?

We can survive without food, water, or sleep for a certain length of time. But taking breaths is our livelihood – the most normal thing in the world. Hardly anyone thinks about how much they breathe. Every day, air flows unconsciously through our nose or mouth, into our lungs, and out again about 20,000 times.

When we inhale, our body absorbs oxygen, which is essential for all metabolic processes and is transported to the organs and cells via the bloodstream.

When we exhale, the breath is forced out of the body through the mouth and nose. In addition to carbon dioxide, our outbreath contains other “metabolic waste” products such as nitrogen.

Various muscles are involved in inhalation and exhalation. The main respiratory muscle is the diaphragm, which lies below the lungs. It separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity. The diaphragm engages and relaxes to make the chest rise and fall. Or, when we are breathing with our abs, it’s what makes your stomach bulge and pull inward again.

©Peter Cade

How important is breathing while lifting weights?

If you sit in a stuffy room for a long time, you’ll get tired and lose focus after a while. Getting yourself outside for some fresh air is usually enough to recharge your batteries. The same applies to our bodies: they need oxygen to perform well and not tire too quickly. The more we exert ourselves physically, the more oxygen our muscular tissue needs.

The right breathing techniques can also improve your performance during strength training. It helps you build tension in your core and keep you stable. This is a crucial factor, especially if you’re lifting heavy weights. The more stability you have in your body, the more power you can apply to your lift, resulting in improved performance. You’ll get more out of each rep and see faster results.

The wrong breathing techniques for lifting, on the other hand, can lead to injury. If you breathe too shallowly, you won’t engage your body and your cells won’t get enough oxygen. Holding your breath too long can build up enough tension to cause veins and alveoli in your lungs to burst. Worst case scenario, you could faint due to the acute lack of oxygen.


Effective breathing patterns during strength training

During exertion, whether running or lifting weights, your respiratory rate increases. You breathe faster and more intensively because your body has a greater need for oxygen.

There are three basic rules for proper breathing during strength training:

  1. As a rule of thumb, exhale during the concentric phase (tension) and inhale during the eccentric phase (relaxation). For example, for a bench press: When you push the weight up, exhale; when you bring the weight back to your chest, inhale.
  2. Try to continue breathing calmly and deeply even during heavy exertion. It helps if you get into the habit of taking intense breaths at a low frequency even when you are resting. This will train your breathing, which you can then use during your weight workout.
  3. Get into the habit of abdominal breathing. It uses less energy than chest and shoulder breathing. At the same time, you take in more oxygen per breath. Plus, abdominal breathing can lower blood pressure and stimulate digestion.

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The Valsalva maneuver: advantages and risks

Many athletes swear by the Valsalva maneuver when lifting heavy weights. Here’s how it goes: Inhale as usual. At the moment of your greatest exertion, instead of exhaling, stop the flow of air by closing your glottis (the part of your throat that lets air in and out when you breathe). While continuing the lift, keep pressing your breath against your glottis, without letting the air out, until the exercise is over. This breathing pattern has an effect similar to the ear-popping sensation you get when you hold your nose and try to breathe out. This has advantages, but also carries health risks.

Advantages of the Valsalva maneuver

By closing off the airway, you engage your core to support your spine during the lift and give your body more stability at the moment you’re putting in the most effort. In addition, your muscles have just gotten a fresh load of oxygen, meaning they’re at their peak performance. On the other hand, muscle cells are weaker during inhalation and exhalation.

Risks of the Valsalva maneuver

This method increases abdominal pressure and the pressure on your heart. So, people with high blood pressure or vascular diseases in particular should refrain from this when weightlifting.

But even healthy athletes may experience cardiovascular problems if they delay breathing for too long. Then there is a second risk: the elimination of waste products such as carbon dioxide and lactate is sabotaged and your muscles can become over-acidified, which might cause muscle pain and stiffness.

Using this breathing technique correctly

If you are healthy and in good shape, you can make use of this breath-hold while weight lifting.

For example, for a squat:

  • Take a deep breath and fill your belly with air, consciously tensing your core so that you are standing stably.
  • Bend your knees and hold your breath.
  • After you’ve reached the lowest point, exhale forcefully through your slightly open mouth against your closed throat as you go back up. It may help to make a whistling sound. Remember you are

Important: Don’t hold your breath for too long. Holding your breath for too long during weightlifting can cause an unnecessary lack of oxygen and increase the pressure on your heart. If your head starts feeling hot and turns red during lifts, that’s a clear warning sign.

Never inhale or exhale at the moment of greatest effort – right at the lowest point of the exercise – this can take energy away from your muscles.

If you aren’t sure whether these breathing exercises are right for you, seek medical advice from your health provider.


  • Breathing is essential for strength training: It supplies your muscles with oxygen and can increase performance during exercises.
  • Proper breathing technique provides stability in the core when lifting heavy weight and helps athletes get the most out of each repetition.
  • The rule of thumb is to exhale as you tense and inhale as you relax.
  • Abdominal breathing is considered effective for providing extra stability to the torso during exercise.
  • Holding in an exhalation at the moment of greatest effort (the Valsalva maneuver) can help trained and healthy athletes increase their performance.

Sources for this article

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