Can Breathing Improve your Exercise Workout?

Aug 18, 2021 | Teacher's Corner

I recently joined a yoga class in which the instructor constantly emphasised breathing (‘inhaaale’ and ‘exhaaale’), and then, later in the week, during an aerobics class the instructor also gave breathing instructions (‘puff, puff, puff’). There seemed to be little rhyme or reason (or rhythm) to the instructions, and the directions given by the two instructors at times seemed contradictory. So I started wondering: what is the optimal way of breathing during exercise – when should you breathe out and when in, and is there an optimal technique? And of course, am I applying it to best effect in my Fitness League classes?

Exercise at home during lockdown

The mechanics of breathing

It turned out that the answer was not as simple as I had hoped, particularly when one considers how ‘natural’ and essential breathing is. After all, one breathes even when just lying on a couch watching tv… The bottom line is that although breathing is part of the autonomic nervous system, and so generally happens without conscious effort, that changes when you exercise.

The moment you start to exercise, your muscles work harder with the result that your body requires more oxygen. You’ve probably experienced light-headedness, dizziness or feeling faint when exercising. This could be because of an incorrect breathing pattern, like breathing too superficially or rapidly [1]. But breathing incorrectly could have more serious consequences, so not only are you not breathing (and exercising) optimally, you could actually be exercising dangerously! One of these consequences is decreased core stability, which occurs if you breathe by using mostly the muscles in your chest and breathe only through your mouth during an exercise, thus overusing the muscles in your neck, chest and shoulders, and so reducing the stability of your spine [2].


Other dangers include hernias (caused by straining during an exercise) and a drop in blood pressure, both of which could occur if you hold your breath during a strength exercise.

I discovered that if you want to exercise optimally, and safely, you need to pay attention to the three main aspects involved in breathing, namely the mechanics of breathing; the breathing ‘pattern’; and the intake of air (mouth or nose).

This aspect relates to the series of movements that occur when one breathes in and out. Every inhale or exhale action changes the volume of the lungs and the pressure in the thoracic cavity. That pressure, which is created by the additional air you take into your lungs (or blow out), plays a large role in breath regulation [3].  During an exhale and inhale cycle one contracts and relaxes different muscles (particularly the diaphragm and intercostal muscles between one’s ribs), which in turn affect the position of the thoracic spine, the ribs and the shoulders, as the figure shows [4]. 

For best results while exercising, you should use your diaphragm and abdominal muscles rather than your chest and even shoulder muscles (that lifting of the shoulders in a desperate attempt to get more air). This is known as diaphragmatic or belly or abdominal breathing. And yes, if you have ever attended a Fitness League class, these terms should ring a bell ☺. The diaphragm, a large, dome-shaped muscle which separates the chest from the abdomen, is the primary respiratory muscle. During an inhalation the diaphragm contracts and moves downward into the space of the abdominal cavity and as a result the belly lifts outward. At the same time the external intercostal muscles move the ribs upward and outward, causing the rib cage to expand, which further increases the volume of the thoracic cavity and adds ‘lung space’. This allows the lungs to expand into the extra space and fill with air. During an outbreath the diaphragm relaxes back to its usual, dome-shaped position and the internal intercostal muscles contract, so that air is expelled. A deep diaphragmatic inhale and exhale action will fill and then empty the lungs right down to and from the very bottom [5].

Diaphragmatic Breathing

The best way to get a feel for diaphragmatic breathing is to stand or lie with one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. Then breathe in through your nose and feel the air moving through your nostrils and pushing your diaphragm downward, making your belly expand. Consciously let your abdominal muscles move outward and keep your chest relatively still – only the hand on your belly should move. Next purse your lips and blow out the air through your mouth while pressing gently on your stomach and contracting your abs. And that’s all there is to it! However, even though this is the normal way of breathing, it takes conscious effort to continue doing it while you are exercising.


There are lots of benefits to using diaphragmatic breathing during exercise:

  • It increases one’s blood flow; 
  • It decreases the risk of strains and cramps and thus of injury;
  • It decreases the chance that you will become dizzy or lightheaded;
  • The improved muscle control means improved core stability; and
  • It slows your rate of breathing so that you expend less energy, thus improving your body’s ability to tolerate more intense exercise [6].

The breathing pattern

The second aspect is probably the most obvious one when one exercises, namely how one’s breathing pattern changes. The moment you start to exercise, your breathing rate increases to help bring extra energy to those muscles that are suddenly working much harder. Oxygen is needed to help convert energy stored in cells in the body into a usable form via a process called cellular respiration. From a breathing point of view, the process may be summarised as follows: The oxygen brought into the body through an inbreath diffuses into the blood, and the heart then pumps this oxygen-loaded blood to cells. Within the cells the oxygen is used in the energy-conversion process, in which carbon dioxide is also produced as a waste product. The carbon dioxide is carried back to the lungs through the blood, where it is expelled from the body by means of an outbreath. So breathing serves to bring oxygen into the body and remove carbon dioxide.

Achieving an optimal breathing pattern during strength and resistance exercises is fortunately pretty logical, for you should match your breathing pattern to your activity. It boils down to exhaling on the exertion or most strenuous part and inhaling on the relaxation or less strenuous part of an exercise movement. In technical terms, generally you should exhale on the concentric phase of an exercise (when you’re doing an abdominal curl, the concentric portion is when you lift your shoulders and back off the floor, and the abdominal muscles contract), and inhale during the eccentric phase (when you lower your body toward the floor, still working because you don’t just want to flop down, but now the muscles lengthen). This is because when you exhale and squeeze the air out, you increase core engagement, and a tight core equals more power and more stability. It also gives you some extra help on the most challenging part, the lift, when you are working against gravity. In addition, exhaling releases the pressure that builds up during an inhale action because of the greater air volume inside your chest, thus acting as a ‘pressure release valve’. And this helps to prevent a significant drop in blood pressure during the movement – which is exactly what happens if you hold your breath during the most strenuous part of an exercise. By breathing and not holding your breath during exertion, you will also prevent an internal injury, such as a hernia, and dizziness. These could occur particularly if you hold your breath during a fairly strenuous exercise [7].

Slow, measured breaths (4–5 seconds for an inhale and the same for the exhale), are an integral part of body conditioning exercises that focus on mobility, like yoga poses, where correct diaphragmatic breathing helps to improve one’s range of motion. The same goes for stretch positions, where slow breaths help to release tension and let your muscles relax so that you can stretch just that little bit further.

During low-impact and other more aerobic types of exercises like running, one should focus on establishing a consistent breathing pattern. That means taking measured breaths rather than short, shallow puffs, to ensure an increase in the oxygenated blood flow to the heart so that more oxygen is sent to the cells for conversion into energy for the muscles.


The intake of air

We usually breathe through our noses, which is the ideal: the special hair-like structures inside one’s nose help filter out pollution, allergens and bacteria before they travel into the lungs. The nasal passage also helps to humidify the air through mucous, which in turn helps to prevent irritation. If you breathe through your mouth, you lose the filtering and humidification processes [8].

But when you are exercising, that is exactly the time when you are likely to start breathing through your mouth! In fact, many people switch to breathing through their mouths during vigorous workouts and even low-impact sequences, because they feel they can’t take in sufficient air through their noses and their mouths have to contribute. Diaphragmatic breathing, where the focus is on breathing in through your nose, helps you to slow down the rate at which you breathe. Why slow down? The more quickly you breathe, the less time your body has to absorb the oxygen you’re bringing in when inhaling. By breathing slowly, you give your body time to absorb the oxygen in the lungs to provide you with the energy you need during an exercise [9]. This is particularly good during the strength and resistance types of exercise that make up a large part of Fitness League classes.

In summary, the main lesson I learnt is that the way in which you breathe during exercise is just as important as actually exercising at all. Clearly, the breathing technique one follows during exercise in fact forms part of the exercise: you should use certain muscles consciously, you should follow a particular breathing pattern and you should focus on whether you are breathing through your mouth rather than your nose. This all sounds like a lot of work, and just when you thought actually getting through an exercise was what it was all about! But the good news is that correct breathing can help you to exercise for longer with less effort, get the best out of your workout, and yes, exercise safely.