How to Breathe When Exercising

baltimore performance physical therapy running stress management Jan 02, 2023
How to Breathe

How to Breathe When Exercising

We are all born with the innate ability to breathe. Next time you are around a baby just notice how the baby expands their cute little belly to breathe. As we age, many of us learn poor breathing habits. Years of poor posture or stress can lead to spinal rounding and a more shallow breathing pattern will result. Or we may be simply trying to avoid the “unsightly” belly bulge that happens when we properly utilize our diaphragms. Shallow breathers are also known as chest breathers as they use the muscles in their chest and upper thoracic region to breathe rather than their diaphragm. Essentially we all become one of two types of breathers: Shallow breathers or belly breathers. 

Which kind of breather are you? Here is a quick test. Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your upper abdomen. Take a deep breath in. Which hand moved more? Ideally, you want to feel the hand on the upper abdomen move more.  This is how we are meant to breathe. When we inhale, our diaphragm descends and allows our lungs to expand. When the lungs are able to expand to their full capacity, there is more time to allow for oxygen exchange and the ability of our respiratory system to rid itself of carbon dioxide. This will lead to greater delivery of oxygen to our muscles which means we will be able to increase our aerobic capacity. This is also known as our VO2max and this is an essential measurement of physical fitness. 

Now place a hand on each side of your lower rib cage and take a deep breath. Did you feel your hands move slightly? If you are utilizing your diaphragm you should feel the expansion of your rib cage laterally. Lastly, place your hands on the back side of your lower rib cage. Take a deep breath. Did you feel your hands move? You should feel a slight movement in the posterior rib cage as well. The ability to expand our rig cage in a circumferential pattern is also known as 360 breathing.  This is the most efficient way to breathe and can be trained quite easily by using the tactile cue of placing your hands on all aspects of your lower rib cage and practicing expanding your rib cage in all directions as you breathe. 

Training the appropriate way to breathe is all well and good, but as a physical therapist and a CrossFit trainer I often see people that can breathe quite well when there are no distractions, completely lose that training and revert to poor habits when they are exercising. To make this simple and user-friendly, I have provided some tips on how to breathe during different physical activities. 


The standard to breathing when lifting is to inhale prior to the movement and exhale during the exertional phase of the movement. When you are lifting heavier weights, you want to use everything at your disposal to make it a successful lift and that includes proper breathing. This is called “bracing”.

Let’s take the deadlift as an example. You would get into your set up position. Back flat, arms long, knees bent slightly, hamstrings engaged and take a deep breath in. This breath in will create an increase in your intra-abdominal pressure which will exert pressure, or “brace”, your spine to stabilize your back as you begin to lift. You hold this bracing breath as you initiate your first pull from the ground. During the lift, you will begin a controlled exhale through pursed lips. It is important to control your exhale and not let it go all at once because you want to maintain that intra-abdominal pressure throughout the lift in order to protect your spine. You will inhale again once the lift is completed.

This same bracing pattern would be applied to an upper extremity movement. Let’s take a push jerk. You get into your set-up position. Weight is in the front rack, you assume the power position, and you take a deep breath in utilizing the 360 pattern described above. You hold your breath and exert maximal intra-abdominal pressure to stabilize, or “brace”, your spine as you quickly press the weight overhead and catch in a mini squat. You then control a pursed-lips exhale as you stand to fully lock out your rep. 

This pattern could also be applied to a lower weight and higher rep scheme. Say you are shooting for 5 repetitions of a body weight pull-up. You would inhale at the bottom of the rep with your arms fully extended, perform the initial pull while you hold your breath and protect your spine and then begin to control your exhale as you pull your chin over the bar. On the descent you may begin to inhale again to set yourself up for the next rep. 

Cardio Training

Breathing patterns will change as you begin to perform cardiovascular intensive training such as running, biking, rowing, swimming, jumping, etc. compared to traditional weight lifting or bracing for a heavy lift. With all of these forms of exercise it is still important to utilize belly breathing in a 360 pattern. You will notice as you increase your intensity you will also incorporate the muscles of your chest and intercostal region to breath. This is okay! When our bodies are under strain we will adapt to find ways to increase our VO2 Max and that will include using our chest muscles to breathe. However, you should always start with utilizing your diaphragm first and then only adding other muscle groups as intensity increases. 

Let’s look at running for an example. When you are on a slow, leisurely run you should utilize a 4:4 breathing pattern. This means that you are inhaling for 4 steps and exhaling for 4 steps. Your inhale and exhale rate is at a 1:1 ratio. As you begin to increase your intensity (i.e. for a CrossFit style WOD) you will need to change your pattern of breathing. It is more important to your body to get carbon dioxide out rather than get new oxygen in. That is why the pattern will change to a rate of 1:2. Your inhale will become much shorter but you have a relatively longer exhale. In a running pattern it will look like this. You will inhale for 2 steps and exhale for 4 steps. When you are on a full-out sprint (i.e. high intensity for a short bout), you will switch back to a 1:1 ratio and your pattern may look like this, inhale for 2 steps and exhale for 2 steps. 

Let’s apply this to jumping rope. If you are performing 500 single unders at a slow and steady pace, your breathing pattern may be closer to a 1:1 ratio. That may mean that you breathe in for 4 repetitions and breathe out for 4 repetitions, If you are performing an AMRAP that includes 50 double unders (higher intensity for a shorter period of time) you may utilize a 1:1 ration in which you breathe in for 2 repetitions and out for 2 repetitions. 

HIIT Training

HIIT Training is a great form of exercises because it utilizes body weight training, resistance training, and cardiovascular training all performed in various patterns but all at a high intensity. This will require the most flexibility when it comes to breathing patterns. You may have to plan in advance what breathing pattern you will be utilizing. Are you doing multiple KB swings? Then utilize the “exhale on exertion” style of breathing. Are you doing a 200 m run? Then you will utilize a 2:4 breathing pattern. Are you doing an EMOM that includes heavy weight at low reps? Then utilize the bracing pattern. 

Final Thoughts

Breathing is something that we often take for granted because it happens unconsciously. However, if we can spend a few minutes a day to break our bad habits and properly incorporate good breathing techniques into our fitness routines, we can not only increase our fitness level and our chance at getting PRs, but we can improve our overall health through decreasing stress, heart rates, and blood pressure.

Shannon Hall, PT, DPT


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