How To Breathe When Lifting
This idea to write an article about this topic has been in my head for a while, but it’s not until now that I have decided to actually sit down and do it.
It’s not an easy thing to explain and I did have to consult some of my clever books to help me with wording things correctly.
I have briefly mentioned breathing in one of my previous posts “4 Tips If You Are Scared Of Deadlifts”, so go ahead and check it out if you wish.
I feel that this issue is not being discussed enough and not only in a Fitness industry, but in a day-to-day activity.
I have recently received a comment from one of you, who has pointed out the fact that people often have jobs, where they are required to lift or move heavy objects. Obviously, I have been aware of that, but It came as a shock to me that these occupations very rarely receive proper training in how to do this safely.
It might sound a little ridiculous to do a course about lifting objects, at least I have always found them incredibly silly – I’ve always thought that this is common sense. Well, it might be common sense for someone, who has spent their whole life being active and good few recent years have been lifting stuff, but it might not be as clear for someone, who might not be as interested in human body as I am!
Don’t let me keep you from the main point of this post and let’s get to it.
THE MECHANISM OF BREATHING
Before we get to the ways to breathe during certain activities, I think we should spend a short while understanding how does breathing work. Maybe it will help us understand WHY is it so important in physical activity.
Breathing is a general term to describe inspiration and expiration.
These two processes are a part of an autonomous nervous system, which means it is being regulated automatically without us knowing. We are obviously aware of the fact that we are breathing and we can also voluntarily increase or lower the rate at which we take the air in, but we wouldn’t be able to do so for a very long time.
The inspiration is initiated when the levels of Oxygen in the blood drop. This sends a message to a muscle called diaphragm at the bottom of our chest to contract, which causes the chest cavity (thorax) to expand. Intercostal muscles between ribs also assist this expansion. These actions create a negative pressure between the air in the lungs and the air on the outside, which causes us to breathe the oxygenated air in.
The air then travels deep into our lungs to little air sacs called Alveoli, where the gaseous exchange takes place. This means nothing more than oxygen being taken into the bloodstream and carbon dioxide being expelled from there.
Gaseous exchange wouldn’t be possible to happen without red blood cells that can carry both oxygen and carbon dioxide.
Oxygen seeps through Alveoli to the bloodstream and carbon dioxide gets detached from red blood cells and travels through the same Alveoli into the lungs, where it gets expelled during expiration.
Gaseous exchange is possible to the effect called diffusion, which most of us remember from physics class.
Diffusion is a movement of gas from an area of high concentration to an area of low concentration. The concentration of oxygen decreases between the mouth and the lungs, therefore the gas flows in this direction. Carbon dioxide flows in opposite direction.
WHY IS BREATHING IMPORTANT IN EXERCISE?
Understanding the breathing mechanism is essential to maximise performance.
As I’ve mentioned above, respiration is a part of our autonomic nervous system, however, we are able to control our breathing to a certain degree, therefore regulating nervous system.
If you look up breathing during strength training, most articles and posts will tell you to inhale during eccentric phase and exhale during concentric phase, which in layman’s English means inhaling when coming back to start position and exhale when doing the hardest work.
It’s not wrong, but it’s not 100% right either.
It all depends on which way the weight travels and how demanding the exercise is in general. Deadlifts and squats are definitely more demanding than a bicep curl.
Also, not every exercise is the same considering when the hardest part comes.
Let’s take a shoulder press and squat.
During a shoulder press, the hard part happens first, so it’s easier to exhale while lifting the weight up and inhale during controlled return.
Squat, on the other hand, is exactly opposite. It might seem that lowering yourself down with a 100kg bar on your shoulders is hard, but the actual challenge comes when you are trying to get back up. That’s why shoulder press will start with exhale and squat with inhale.
During a very demanding exercise, breathing can massively help to keep the body in a good form and prevent injury.
The basic advice, therefore, is:
Breathe in during the “easier” part of the movement and exhale during the hardest part of the movement. It’s, however, not always obvious which part comes when, especially when more demanding, compound exercises come to play.
And on top of that, there are exceptions 🙂
Squat is one of the basic gym exercises and many of us practice it, whether it’s at a squat rack or just with dumbbells, kettlebells, plates, short bars or even bodyweight.
It’s also a basic movement that every human body needs to be able to do.
It’s an excellent exercise for stability and strength and it takes a cooperation of many muscles to perform this move, from obvious legs and glutes to less obvious core muscles.
During the squat, you have a load on your back which logically means that this heavy weight will be forcing your torso to “collapse” towards the floor. We all know how gravity works. This is why strong core and correct breathing is crucial when squatting heavier weights. You might not think it applies to you because you don’t lift heavy. Most people can squat their own bodyweight but even squatting half that is considered as heavy enough and it requires proper form.
The proper way to perform a squat would be:
- Inhale deeply to expand your thorax (chest cavity) and therefore prevent the bar from collapsing your torso down. The raise in the chest area also ensures that a slight arch in lower back is created.
- At the same time as you inhale, you should concentrate on engaging your core muscles, which would further assist the core to stay in upright position
- Look straight ahead in front of you
- Make sure your stance is suitable for you
- It doesn’t have to be hip wide stance – you can turn your toes slightly outward if it’s comfortable for you or widen the stance altogether
- Don’t think that there is just one way to perform a squat. We are all different morphologically and everyone’s squat will look slightly different. Someone’s torso can even lean a little more forward, but this is all good as long as the back is not rounding
- Lower yourself slowly down, preferably to the point where the thighs are parallel to the floor, and try to pause a little at the bottom to maximise the performance
- Lift yourself back up, exhaling, making sure chest is still upright and the gaze faces forward rather than towards the floor
I found it most beneficial to inhale, hold my breath as I go down and exhale on the way up during the “push” phase – concentric.
Holding breath ensures that my chest stays upright, but it is not recommended for beginners, because it can cause blood pressure to raise and cause dizziness. People, who do perform this technique are experienced and they know what their body can or cannot do.
If you are squatting with light weight (dumbbell or kettlebell) or just by using your own bodyweight, I recommend inhaling as you go down and exhaling on the way up. Simples.
Deadlift is probably THE most demanding exercise and, together with squat, are considered not just weight lifting exercises but also cardiovascular exercises because they considerably increase heart rate and blood flow.
If you want to improve your cardiovascular fitness and don’t like running; squats, deadlifts and lunges are definitely something you should consider.
Anyway, that’s just for a quick info. Let’s get back to breathing.
In case of the deadlift, the hardest part is to lift the weight of the floor, so you would probably think the movement should start with exhale. And you would be wrong 🙁
It’s incredibly important to keep your chest upright during deadlift and that’s why inhale comes first. Remember when we had to inhale to keep the chest upright and stable during squat?
This is the same principal, inhaling will help us to pop the chest up and, if inhaled deeply enough, it will also prevent us from rounding our back. This is very important, never round your back when lifting something off the floor and use your legs!
As one of my fellow fitness bloggers said, you should only use your hands as “hooks” to hold the bar, your legs should do majority of the work and back should just be helping out.
I have covered more about this in a different article if you wish to check it out over HERE.
So the correct way to perform a deadlift would be:
- Inhale, hold the breath, contract your core and back muscles
- Lift the bar using your legs and slide it up the shins
- When the bar reaches the knees, extend your torso while straightening your legs, the bar sliding up your thighs, so you are standing upright with your arms straight down without ever bending them
- Exhale and pause for a second or two
- Return the weight to the floor by following the rules backwards
- Slide the bar down your thighs all the way down to your knees
- Use your legs to move the bar further to the floor, along the shins, in a controlled movement
Yes, some people do just drop the bar to the floor. This usually happens when they are trying to figure out their One Rep Max – how much is the maximum they can lift in a single rep – or when very heavy weights are in play.
Expanding the chest and holding a deep breath fills the lungs, which supports the rib cage and prevents the chest from collapsing forward, similarly to the squat.
So, deadlifts break all the rules, there’s always one like that.
I wanted to mention lunges together with squats because they follow the same breathing rules, but decided to create a separate paragraph, because I see many people at the gym rushing through lunges really quickly just to get it over with.
Yes, they are a very painful and demanding exercise, I agree 😀
But if you want to make most of them and not just tick the box in the workout journal, stick with me for a little longer.
Because the front leg in this movement has to support almost all the body weight for a short period of time, it is essential to perform lunge correctly and with control. Most people attempt to lunge without having the necessary sense of balance and load way too much on their back, slowly hammering their knees without realising it.
Correct way to perform a lunge:
- Stand with the legs slightly apart, bar resting on the trapezius muscle, not on your neck! (Same with the squat)
- Inhale and take a step forward
- The size of the step will differ depending on which muscles you want to engage more
- For quads (thigh), make the step shorter
- For glutes, make it longer
- The size of the step will differ depending on which muscles you want to engage more
- Keep the torso straight without wobbling from side to side, if this happens, you should decrease the weight or move to bodyweight lunges
- Lunge until the front thigh is horizontal to the floor or a little less
- Exhale and return to the initial position
It might not be entirely obvious to spot which part of the lunge is the hardest part, some people would probably say that it’s the part when you lower yourself down, but, same as the squat, the true challenge comes when you are trying to get back up.
Now, we come to the question as to “Why should you perform lunge slowly?”
When you are standing straight, the knee is locked in extension, the surrounding ligaments are stretched and prevent rotation of the knee joint. There is no need for muscles to help stabilise the joint, the ligaments are doing just fine on their own.
When the knee is flexed (bent), the ligaments relax and muscles around have to take over to ensure joint stability. In this position, rotation of the joint is possible because the ligaments preventing it are relaxed.
Not to worry, we do have a way to deal with this problem otherwise we wouldn’t be able to perform lunge at all.
The solution are muscles in the leg and meniscus. Most of you probably heard it before, it’s a cartilage in the knee, which gets injured a lot among elite athletes. Menisci prevent the two bones in the joint (thigh and shin-bone) from grazing against one another.
Injuries happen during fast, poorly controlled movements when meniscus has not enough time to move back to its usual place and gets pinched. This can cause the meniscus to tear, which usually leads to surgery.
Therefore, during asymmetrical moves, such as lunge, it’s important not to rush through the movement, but perform it slowly and controlled, even if it means decreasing the weight load.
Performing lunge slowly and with control is a lot easier with proper breathing in place.
Isolation exercises are movements that focus on one specific muscle or small muscle group.
- Bicep curl
- Triceps extension
- Knee extension
- Leg curls
- Hip adductions and abductions
- Calf raises
- Shoulder press
And many more.
During these movements, it’s relatively easy to figure out which part of the exercise is concentric (hard) and which part is eccentric (easier).
When the targeted muscle contracts, that’s concentric phase and therefore a cue to us to exhale.
It’s not that important to follow the rules during these exercises because, since they target an isolated area, there is no immediate danger to our back, or posture in general. Yes, you can injure your knee by doing leg extensions, but it will not be due to poor breathing, it will most likely be due to overworking the joint with too heavy weight or due to performing the movement too quickly and trapping the meniscus, as mentioned above.
Obviously, it would be ideal to breathe correctly during these exercises, too, but don’t beat yourself up too much, it’s a lot better to breathe intuitively, rather than holding your breath during a bicep curl and trying to figure out what’s correct.
Make sure you have your breathing sorted for the demanding compound exercises first.
During an ab workout, breathing in helps to tighten core muscles, therefore they are another exception.
You need your abs to be tight in order to perform crunch – like exercises.
The basic rule is:
Cruch – like exercises:
- Perform the exercise using core muscles
- Exhale on your return to the floor, or to any starting position you might be in (you could be performing exercise on a bench, resistance machine or hanging from a bar)
- Don’t interlace your fingers behind your head, this will lead to an excessive pulling on the neck and insufficient core engagement
- Plank is an isometric exercise, which means that the muscle remains the same length under tension
- Since plank position is often held for a minute or longer, breathe out slowly and under control
- Don’t hold your breath, your body needs the oxygen
It’s a complicated topic and I’m sure there is a lot of people, who have their own way to breathe during their workout.
Some of you probably breath in during the hard phase of a bicep curl and, do you know what, that’s fine, as long as it’s working out for you 🙂
I just wanted to point out that breathing becomes more important during difficult and demanding compound exercises.
If we exhale while lifting a heavy weight off the floor, we are potentially putting ourselves in danger, especially our back.
Let me know, I’m looking forward to hear your ideas and suggestions.