When I am working one-on-one with a customer, especially in the weight room, one of the cues that I find myself giving regularly is "don't forget to breathe".

I know it sounds funny, and many of you might be thinking "how is it possible to forget to breathe"? Surprisingly, it seems to be very easy, and whether it is an Elite level competitor, or a recreational athlete, the issue of breathing - when and how, seems to be fairly common.

I am not going to go into the mechanics, anatomy and physiology of respiration, but rather the practicalities of breathing, and the impact it can have on performance.

Let's begin by looking at breathing during resistance training. The easiest way to remember how to breath while lifting weights is to exhale on exertion.

Here are a few example:
  • The Squat - Exhale when you are returning from the bottom of the movement, Inhale when you are moving the straight leg to the bent leg position (Top to Bottom)
  • Push up - Exhale when you are moving from the Bent elbow position, back to the straight elbow position. Inhale from the Straight to the Bent elbow position.
  • 1 Arm Cable Row - Exhale when you are pulling the weight toward the chest, Inhale when the weight stack is returning down.
  • Body weight Tricep Dip - Exhale when you move from the Bent Elbow to the Straight elbow position, Inhale when you move from the top of the position, toward the floor.
  • Straight leg drops - Exhale as the legs move down to the floor, Inhale as they are raised.
The reason for this highly specific sequence of breathing, is to avoid an increase in Intra-Abdominal pressure while lifting the weight, as a result of exhaling against a closed Glottis, that can cause dizziness and fainting.

This is known as the Valsalva Maneuver, and is an advanced technique used by Power Lifters to help to increase Spinal stability during heavy lifts, but not recommended for inexeperienced lifters (like us).

So now we know when we need to breath, let's look at how we need to breath during physcia; activity, and it is here that I am going to bring in breathing during Cardio-Vascular activity.

Breathing rate (respiration Rate - RR), plays an enormous role in many physiological responses, including heart rate, Energy expenditure and muscle tension.

Being able to maintain a rhythmic and controlled RR, directly impacts your Heart rate. The onset of Hyperventilation leads to a reduced diffusion of Oxygen from lungs to blood, which means less O2 in the blood, which in turn results in the heart muscle having to beat faster to meet the Oxygen demands of the body.

The take away from this is that by paying close attention to your breathing patterns, depth of breath and rate of respiration, you will be able to affect your heart rate, bringing it down a number of beats per minute.

Energy expenditure can also be negativly impacted is also affected by your breathing rate.

Think about an interval session on the track, when you are in the middle of set of 800m repeats. As you begin to fatigue, your Respiration Rate increases to try to meet the O2 demands of the body, and in order to get a deep enough breath, your incorporate a number of muscles not usually used for respiration such as your Trapezius, Abdominals and Rhomboids.

These muscles are not classified as muscles of respiration, so when they take on this role, they are not very energy economical, and energy is wasted on breathing.

Keeping breathing 'under control" and rhythmic in nature, will allow the muscles of respiration to do their job, and muscles of locomotion to do their job.

When we talk about muscle tension, we generally think stress and anxiety. When we think about trying to relax, we tend to focus on breathing and taking slow, deep breaths.

This principle can be applied during exercise and training too. Hyperventilation and increased RR results in increased muscle tension, and this increased muscle tension impacts negatively on good form and technique. The consequences of this are obvious.

Remaining relaxed and "loose", can be achieved through a number of techniques, including breating exercises.

Although breathing is generally an unconscious action, the impact it can have on us and our performance makes it important enough for us to start paying a little more conscious attention to.

Next time you are lifting a weight, focus on your breathing pattern and see the affect it has on your lifting, while running, get into a rhythmic, controlled and deep breathing routine, and see how your running technique and training heart rate are improved.

A tiny amount of attention, can potentially give you a number of beneficial returns.

James Greenwood is a competitive tri and multisport athlete currently training for Ironman Canada 2009. A level 1 Triathlon Coach, he holds a post graduate degree in Exercise Science, and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist through the NSCA. James is also currently the resident health and fitness programs expert at MyPypeline.com, and has starred in a number of multisport specific fitness videos.
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