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Do You Know How To Breathe Correctly When You Exercise

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 16 November 2016
Hits: 25495

No exercise ranks higher in importance to every person than breathing! Without air, we will die! Pretty simple, yet there are so many more things that breathing does to our body and many people are completely unaware of this. Most people do not even understand what a normal breath is. Without doubt, learning how to breathe is the most neglected part of any training program, whether it is for sports, rehabilitation or just getting in shape. The first thing people think of when I talk about breathing is how it relates to aerobic endurance, and while it plays a part in this, it really is so much more than that, and as you will see in this article how it can contribute greatly to weight loss, stress, strength, flexibility, and chronic disease! We will discuss all of the important things breathing does to your body, then teach exactly how to breathe correctly whether it is for relaxing, stretching, lifting weights or playing sports.

Important Facts About Breathing

I love that quote as this sums up what a normal breath should be like.

It should be quiet, slow, in and out through the nose using the diaphragm. Too many of us breathe through our mouth due to poor posture, processed foods and being unaware of what we are doing. This turn creates a bad habit that eventually ruins your health. Before moving on I suggest you buy the book "Close Your Mouth" by Patrick McKeown which is a great book about Buteyko Breathing. This has changed the lives of so many people around the world, especially for asthma sufferers, by using some very simple exercises and educating you on the need to breathe through our nose more.

Some important facts about breathing that you might now know.

  • If you stop breathing you will have about 3- 4 minutes before you are dead!
  • Breathing maintains your acid-alkaline or pH balance
  • Helps in the breakdown of food (metabolism)
  • Greatly influences your posture
  • Acts as a key component for your stabilizer system to develop strength
  • Generates Cerebral Fluid in the spine, necessary for a healthy musculoskeletal system
  • Controls emotions

You must understand that because breathing is so important to us being alive, and in a matter of minutes of being without it we could die, the body ranks it above ALL other things. This means your body will sacrifice anything in order to get a breath. For example, if you have a broken nose and cannot get enough air your body will adopt a forward head posture to be able to get more air through the mouth. Even if this posture causes you to get a disc bulge in your neck that paralyzes you, your body will still continue to use this posture for being paralyzed is still better than being dead! Paul Chek has a great philosophy on this and refers to this as the CHEK Totem Pole

This is why the VERY FIRST THING you ever learn to do when you start exercising is HOW TO BREATHE CORRECTLY.

Soon we will show you exactly how to do this.


How does breathing play a role in this you might be thinking?

Breathing provides oxygen for cellular metabolism & removes the waste product carbon dioxide. Both overeating and processed foods cause you to breathe more, forcing you to create more CO2, in order to oxidize the excessive fats and carbohydrates eaten. And the best way to breathe more is - to open your mouth. While this solves the problem of oxidizing the foods it creates a chain reaction of events that lead to PH imbalance and poor health. When you open your mouth to get more air it prevents you from creating Nitric Oxide.

Nitric oxide is found in your nose, so when you breathe through your nose, you carry a small portion of the gas into your lungs. Nitric oxide plays a significant role in homeostasis or the maintaining of balance within your body. Your nostrils have a smaller entry than your mouth which creates resistance resulting in smaller breathing volume along with calm and quieter breathing whereas mouth breathing creates a dry mouth and bacteria. 

Eating processed foods is one of the worst things you can do if you already have a breathing dysfunction or if you want to lose a bit of weight as it exacerbates your problems. The PH imbalance completely disrupts your metabolism and digestion, for the foods you have eaten are not broken down correctly. There is also a chance to develop other problems like leaky gut syndrome, psoriasis & eczema, sleep disorders and worse still, chronic disease.

Foods to avoid if you have a breathing problem are:

  • All Processed Foods
  • Dairy
  • Wheat

Dairy and wheat are commonly linked to Food Intolerance which makes it almost impossible to breathe correctly and lead to a life of chronic illness. Read our article about how to treat skin disorders here for more information.

Less Is More And How Nose Breathing Helps Asthma, Reduce Stress & Sleep Apnea

Carbon dioxide is not merely a waste gas. Although you breathe to get rid of excess CO2, it's important to maintain a certain amount of CO2 in your lungs, and for that, you need to maintain a normal breathing volume. When too much CO2 is lost through heavy breathing, it causes the smooth muscles embedded in your airways to constrict. When this happens, there is a feeling of not getting enough air and the natural reaction is to breathe more intensely. But all this does is create an even greater loss of CO2, which constricts your airway even further.

A vicious cycle is now beginning to take place. What you need to do is break this cycle before it becomes a habit by breathing through your nose and breathing less. Deep breathing, by the way, will often make you feel a bit light-headed, and this is due to eliminating too much CO2 from your lungs, which causes your blood vessels to constrict. So, the heavier you breathe, the less oxygen is actually delivered throughout your body. Over breathing and mouth breathing also tend to go hand-in-hand with snoring and/or sleep apnea; conditions that decimate your sleep quality. The same remedy for asthma works tremendously well for sleep apnea.

So we now know that when your breathing rate or rhythm is faulty your entire body is disrupted.
Any shift in PH balance will stress your entire physiology which is linked to your psychology! The most common symptom of faulty breathing is ……FATIGUE! Chinese Medicine refers to breathing in as bringing in life force and they refer to this as QI (pronounced CHI). Both Yoga and Tai Chi methods are great for teaching how to control your breathing and restore balance to your body. I love Tai Chi myself and become an instructor to learn how to do this.
Click here to see a video of one of my favourite Tai Chi routines.

Breathing Influences Your Posture, Injury & Rehabilitation

Breath and posture are intimately linked. Good posture creates the best body mechanics for optimal breathing.
Conversely, poor posture will lead to inefficient and laboured breathing that creates tension in your shoulder muscles (secondary respiratory muscles). Poor posture will change ALL movements and eventually lead to chronic tension, pain & fatigue! Often in the neck and shoulders first before changing other parts of the body. Remember the Totem Pole, everything will be sacrificed in order to get a breath.
Forward head posture is the most common thing to see first. You can go and get a massage every day of the week to get rid of your tight shoulders and neck muscles, but it will do nothing while you continue to breathe poorly. This poor posture adopted can then lead to back pain, often herniated disc injuries are created from flexing over too much. If you are doing this all day and don't even know it, it is only a matter of time before you badly injure yourself. The most disappointing thing here is how often does a health practitioner check your breathing if you go to see them for an injury? Yet we know that this faulty pattern can cause huge damage.
I can tell you this breathing assessment is the FIRST TEST you will do with us in our Rehabilitation program for the result of this test gives so much information. In 95% of all neck pain cases, we find the breathing is dysfunctional and use of the shoulders and neck muscles to breathe is set in place. If you have neck or shoulder problems right now I would spend a great time looking into how you are breathing for there is a very high chance this is an underlying cause of your problem.
To see more about how we treat neck and shoulder problems get a copy of our special report by clicking the image below.
We have worked with hundreds of clients in the Melbourne area who spent years trying to resolve chronic injuries and pain for little result, and in some cases treatments had made things worse. When we taught them how to breathe correctly it was the first time anybody had even discussed this with them. Almost instantly many things became easier and enabled us to do exercises, movements, and stretches that previously were impossible. Within months some of these people who spent years trying to resolve problems were pain-free and able to do activities that would have caused tremendous pain.
Go to our Testimonials page for hundreds of examples of this.
Read this article for more information on Posture - Posture Is Everything When Trying To Get Out Of Chronic Pain

Breathing Acts As A Key Component Of Your Stabilizer System

The way we breathe when we move is also very important.
The respiratory system has a dual function – we know it acts as a way to get air, but it also serves as a stabilizer system. The diaphragm is primarily a respiratory muscle and secondarily a stabilizer muscle. Notice what happens when you do a movement like a heavy deadlift or squat. You will find that you stop breathing just as you begin to lift the load because as the nervous system senses the threat to the spinal cord, the diaphragm switches to a stabilizer role. The diaphragm creates what is known as intra-abdominal pressure.
As much as your other stabilizer muscles like the TVA are involved, they are very dependent on the diaphragm for creating pressure. This muscle also connects to most of your ribs and helps to stabilize the body. This is the key to Core Stability and Core Strength.
All weightlifters understand the power of breathing and before they do any serious training a considerable time is spent learning and perfecting this craft. Yet you will see many Crossfit facilities and personal trainers teaching people Olympic lifting without even considering the breathing technique! Also, the breath will vary depending on the load. If the load is light there will not be a need to build pressure to the same intensity. This is where you need to know when to breathe during moving.
Watch the videos below for how to use this simple breathing technique.
Unfortunately, the way many people are taught to breathe during exercise is backward, or with no thought to physiology. Most people in gyms are told to breathe out on the exertion. This is true for some exercises but not for others. Before explaining this below is a simple way to remember if you are breathing right.
If you are doing any exercise that moves you toward the fetal position you must EXHALE or breathe out. Conversely, if the exercise moves your arms and legs away from the center, or your spine lengthens, then inhale or BREATHE In.
Another way to remember is if you are getting taller as you're doing a movement, breathe in. Which brings me to the next important point that when you breathe in you activate cerebral spinal fluid up and down your spine. But you must have both extension and flexion for this to happen. This is why sit-ups or abdominal crunches off the floor are bad as the only provide flexion without extension. You should only ever do crunches on a Swissball by the way. Click here to watch a video of this.
There is a big difference with breathing in and breathing out, and knowing when to do this. This is the key to being strong at the right time. Just remember this:
- Inhalation excites all the extensors of the body neurologically.
- Exhalation excites all the flexors of the body neurologically.
Whenever you breathe out as you're pushing, you're actually exciting the pushing muscles. If you breathe in as you're pushing, you're confusing the body totally, because inhalation excites the extensors and if you're pushing and exciting the wrong guys, it's like telling someone to stop and go at the same time. This is not a good recipe for successful athletic performance!
Refer to the pictures below.

Breathing Correctly Improves Flexibility

Have you ever tried stretching and holding your breath at the same time?
It is very hard to improve your range or stretch further for holding your breath creates pressure as we have just discussed.
This is good if we want to stiffen our spine to protect it but not good if we need to restore muscle length or improve flexibility. Poor breathing creates a stiff body. Meaning muscles will get tighter, no matter how much you stretch for you are more or less creating pressure. Why do you think a good Yoga class spends so much time at the start of the class developing optimal breathing. This is why you also must not stretch too far, for going too far causes the body to stiffen itself in anticipation of pain. Think of stretching like rocking a baby to sleep. You need to be calm, slow and not too aggressive.
The breath out is the key, this is where the muscle will let go for you are letting all the pressure out.
You can read more about this in the article - How to identify mobility restrictions that affect your movement

Breathing Less Improves Fitness

As we discussed before Less Is More when it comes to breathing.

This is true for managing asthma, stress and sleep apnea but ironically also for fitness. Most people think it is aerobic training that will improve your ability to breathe better and take your fitness to new levels. Adopting long slow boring cardio sessions where you are working at a low to moderate intensity will improve your fitness to a small degree and build great endurance but it will not improve your ability anywhere near as well as interval training. This is the secret to all elite athletes training program and is often referred to as VO2 Max. It is their ability to last longer with little air that makes them better than the average.

When there is a significant lack of air the arterial supply of oxygen is dropping, the spleen senses this and releases more red blood cells into circulation to improve the oxygen levels. The kidneys also stimulate a hormone called EPO to help mature red blood cells in your bone marrow. EPO has been made famous in recent years by cycling cheats for the effect on improving performance was profound. Eg Lance Armstrong.

I am not suggesting you seek drugs to do this but you do need to train at high levels of intensity to get you to a point where you are completely out of breath. The more uncomfortable the better. I myself experienced significant improvement from running and cycling after adopting extremely high-intensity workouts. Sometimes these only lasted 15-20 minutes but the effect on my performance was astounding.

Notably, your lung function cannot be improved — once it’s gone, it’s gone. Your lung capacity however, can be controlled and improved.

Breathing feeds oxygen to every cell in the body. Without sufficient oxygen, people are more prone to health problems, including respiratory illnesses, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and even heart disease. But ordinary, everyday breathing isn't enough to keep the oxygen flowing through the body at peak levels.

There have been many studies completed on this before and experts at Rush University Medical Centre conclude.

"Lungs at rest and during most daily activities are only at 50 percent of their capacity," says Jennifer M. Ryan, PT, MS, DPT, CCS, a certified specialist in cardiovascular and pulmonary physical therapy. "Like the rest of your body, lungs thrive on movement and activity." Since regular day-to-day activity doesn't help you use your lungs to full capacity, you need to challenge the lungs with more intense activity. "And to help counteract the build-up of toxins and tar in the lungs caused by environmental pollutants, allergens, dust and cigarette smoke, you need to help your lungs cleanse themselves," Ryan explains. 

Below are two videos you can watch to help you with this.


What Is A Normal Breath?

A normal breath is where your belly will RISE on the breath in. I cannot tell you how many people I have seen who do the exact opposite of this!
If you are not exercising your breathing should be in and out of the nose. If you are exercising there will be a shortage of air created and you will eventually need to open your mouth. Try to stay as long as you can with your mouth closed and this will help you gain fitness levels fast.
All elite athletes will try to do this for as long as possible. Watch any track and field running race and watch how they try to keep their face relaxed and avoid straining with their mouth open for the athletes know that once they open the mouth they will lose form and technique. This is where the Buteyko method should be mandatory for everyone in my opinion. As we just discussed to become fit you need to become comfortable with the fact that you will experience a real lack of air. The longer you can last and become okay with it the better you perform. Slowing your breathing down and decreasing your volume of air.
A good exercise to try so you can experience the need for air is this
  1. Take a small breath in
  2. Gently breath out
  3. Hold your nose and wait until you feel the need to breathe that is not too stressful. 
  4. Count the seconds and see if you can get to 40!

Forty seconds is rated as good breathing according to the Buteyko method.

For a stack of ideas on how we use breathing for strength, flexibility, fitness and weight loss make sure you get a copy of our Little Black Book Of Training Secrets that provides with you 101 different workouts for all various goals and needs. The ultimate training manual that will guide you on putting all the information described in this article into action. Click here to learn more and get your copy today.


Now I bet you didn't think breathing was that complicated or involved in so many things? But as you can see it can greatly influence our health. From speeding up our metabolism, to weight loss, better sleep and reduced stress, improved flexibility and increased strength, to assist in controlling asthma and improved fitness levels! WOW. The most important thing to start with is to practice nose breathing and test how long you can hold your breath for. Next, focus on your breathing during your weight training and stretching and see what difference it makes to your performance. Lastly, by adding some interval training to your program, you will give everything a boost and soon you will be the envy of all your friends. For something that costs nothing, needs no equipment, and actually not even a lot of time it can be the biggest change you ever make in your life!

For more ideas and information on specific topics I may not have covered in detail be sure to check out our INDEX PAGE on the website that has over 200 of our best articles. These are all sorted into categories for quick reference so you can find what you are after more easily.

If you live in Melbourne and feel you need specific help with setting up an exercise and nutrition program please feel free to reach out to me for help by clicking the image below and we can set you up a free consultation to discuss how to get you started.

About The Author

Nick Jack is owner of No Regrets Personal Training and has over 15 years’ experience as a qualified Personal Trainer, Level 2 Rehabilitation trainer, CHEK practitioner, and Level 2 Sports conditioning Coach. Based in Melbourne Australia he specialises in providing solutions to injury and health problems for people of all ages using the latest methods of assessing movement and corrective exercise.


  • Close Your Mouth - By Patrick McKewon
  • Movement - By Gray Cook
  • Functional Training for Sports - By Mike Boyle
  • Corrective Exercise Solutions - by Evan Osar
  • Athletic Body Balance by Gray Cook
  • Low Back Disorders - by Stuart McGill
  • Back Pain Mechanic - by Stuart McGill
  • Anatomy Trains - by Thomas Meyers
  • Motor Learning and Performance - By Richard A Schmidt and Timothy D Lee
  • How To Eat, Move & Be Healthy by Paul Chek
  • Scientific Core Conditioning Correspondence Course - By Paul Chek
  • Advanced Program Design - By Paul Chek