When you're lifting weights, you're concentrating on your form and making sure you're enlisting the right muscles. But one often-overlooked factor that can heavily influence your strength-training performance is your breathing.
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The lungfuls of air you take in before, during and after each rep can affect how much you can lift, how long you can keep going in a set and how quickly you can recover — that is, how well you can do the next set in less time.
Here, we break down exactly how to breathe when lifting weights and share strategies for getting more out of your lifts.
How to Breathe Before Your Set
Your autonomic nervous system has two parts: sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system prepares your body for your fight-or-flight response (which includes activity like physical exercise), while the parasympathetic nervous system controls your rest-and-digest response, according to this May 2022 article in StatPearls.
When you're lifting, you want to be in a sympathetic nervous system state, and when you're resting, you want to be in a parasympathetic state, says Mike Nelson, PhD, CSCS, a certified sports and conditioning specialist and associate professor at the Carrick Institute.
That's because when you're lifting weights, your sympathetic nervous system kicks in to release a host of hormones and chemical messengers that help enhance muscle contraction and break down glycogen (fuel) for quick use. It also increases blood flow to the muscles you're about to use.
Meanwhile, you want to activate your parasympathetic during a recovery period because it slows down your heart rate, helps restore nutrients you need to do the next set of lifts and redistributes blood flow away from your muscles to remove waste that was built up during the lift.
You can shift from one system to the other via your breathing: For example, you want to activate your sympathetic nervous system during your set and then your parasympathetic system between sets.
"If you're more sympathetic, you're going to be a little more focused on the task at hand," he says. "And then if you're more parasympathetic during the rest period, you can recover a little bit faster. You may get a little more rest in the same time period."
To help you transition to a more sympathetic state before you start a set, Nelson suggests putting your hands in front of your face to give yourself a focal point to look at.
Then, "increase your breathing a little bit, but not too much. Think about the cue for the next exercise, and have your eyes very focused," Nelson says.
Speeding up the rate of your breathing before the set will create a more sympathetic tone, he says. Once you increase your breathing a tad, get under the bar (or hold onto it) and take two to three fast breaths, then do the exercise.
To transition to a more parasympathetic state during your rest periods, walk around and take a few deep breaths to lower your heart rate. Inhale through your nose and forcefully exhale through your mouth. (More on how to transition to a parasympathetic state between sets here.)
How to Breathe During a Heavy, Low-Rep Set
As you're taking in fast breaths before you start a heavy set of an exercise, keep the air inside your torso as you start the lift. This activates your core and helps create intra-abdominal pressure (IAP), which can help protect your back from injury, says Brian Sabin, co-author of Breathing for Warriors: Master Your Breath to Unlock More Strength, Greater Endurance, Sharper Precision, Faster Recovery, and an Unshakable Inner Game.
"You take that last breath in and you're maintaining all that tension, that pressure — at that point, what you have kind of done is make your spinal column like a full soda can. With all the pressure on the inside, it's stable and strong," he says.
So let's say you're doing a heavy squat. You breathe in as much air as you can. This creates maximum tension in your spine, then you drop down to the bottom of your squat. As you press back up, you have two options: Continue to hold the air in, or perform a forceful expiration as you hit the hardest part of the move — often, this naturally includes a grunt, Sabin says.
"When you hit your sticking point [the hardest part of the movement, where the lift begins to slow down, or you feel stuck], then through to the finish, you grunt — and that is a performance enhancer that can facilitate an extra push," he says. That extra push increases muscular contraction.
If you choose to hold your breath throughout the exercise and the weight you're moving is heavy, you'll likely do a Valsalva maneuver, where you exhale (grunt) against a partially closed throat, holding it in. Because you are constricting airflow as you exhale, it forces your core to work harder to push the air out. This provides that extra push.
For example, you do a Valsalva maneuver when you're blowing up a balloon or straining on the toilet, according to a May 2022 article in StatPearls. Performing a Valsalva maneuver while doing a heavy lift has been shown to help lifters get the heavy weight up faster, according to a September 2021 study in Biology of Sport.
That said, Nelson doesn't think most people need to be trying the Valsalva maneuver.
"My bias is that 99 percent of people do not need to do a Valsalva. It creates too much pressure — a lot of CrossFit people I've worked with ended up with pelvic floor issues from overdoing this move. For intermediate and beginning lifters, you don't need to do a Valsalva, but you don't want your spine to move under load either," he says.
"I like an external cue. [So for a squat,] tall spine, lengthen out, have a neutral pelvis. Hold that position, and then do your lift," Nelson says. "At first, you're probably going to end up holding your breath in, which is fine."
The takeaway: Holding your breath in or doing a forceful expiration is likely safer than doing the Valsalva maneuver and will help most lifters create the intra-abdominal pressure they need to keep their spine stable during a heavy lift. Take a big breath in to create intra-abdominal pressure, hold it as you descend, then push it out forcefully at the sticking point on the way up.
The Valsalva maneuver spikes your blood pressure. Even though that spike is very short, experts warn the maneuver can be dangerous for people with heart problems or hernias and that you should avoid doing it for more than three seconds at a time, according to an August 2013 review in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
How to Breathe During a Lighter, Longer Set
While IAP can help you create maximum force for shorter, heavier efforts, longer sets mean you're using up oxygen — and you'll need more of it as the set goes on. Here are some ways you can breathe through a longer set.
1. Inhale On the Way Down, Exhale On the Way Up
This is called biomechanical matching, and it's similar to the techniques described above for short sets. In this case, "down" is the eccentric phase, or lowering part of a lift, while "up" means the concentric part of a lift, Sabin says.
"If you're new to lifting, I'd have you pause and breathe at the top of the lift, because [beginners] are not good at breathing while under load," Nelson says. Doing this type of breathing — inhaling at the top, lowering down and exhaling on the way back up — can keep your torso stable for squats, deadlifts, bench presses and other compound moves.
But you don't always need a super-stiff torso.
For example, "if you're using machines or if you're braced externally — [such as when your body is braced against a bench or pad] as with preacher curls or other isolation exercises — breathe as much as you need to breathe," he says. Just breathe naturally during these exercises.
2. Exhale On the Way Down, Inhale On the Way Up
This breathing technique is called anatomical matching because it matches your anatomy. When your rib cage is expanding, such as when your legs move away from you in a leg press, you inhale. When your rib cage is being compressed, like when your knees come back toward your chest, you exhale.
This can feel unnatural at first, but in some ways, it's easier: "If you're trying to stand up as you're inhaling, your diaphragm is not working against that motion," Sabin says. For lighter exercises, like air squats, he says this may actually make a longer set feel easier.
You can also try this type of breathing under heavy load, which can make you more efficient, Nelson says. Start with a lighter load and remember to keep your spine still. The goal is to have core stiffness while you're breathing and moving weight. If you're able to do this, you can try scaling up with a heavier load.
Sabin's suggestion: Test this out with an easier exercise and a heart rate monitor to see if it's easier for you.
"Do a set of 20 air squats, breathing in on the way down, and out on the way up," and note your heart rate, he says. After resting, "do the same thing, but reverse your breathing. See which one spikes your heart rate more."
3. Alternate Between Mechanical and Anatomical Matching on Each Set
Mechanical matching can help stiffen your spine and push through sticking points, while anatomical matching can help you have more oxygen so you can do longer sets with less spike in your heart rate.
But alternating between the two — performing your first set with option 1, and your second set with option 2 — could help give you both benefits, Sabin says.
"Do one set with your breathing one way, then the next set, the other way," he says. "The idea is that you're learning how to be strong in every position."
How to Breathe Between Sets
Between sets, your goal is to recover and bring your heart rate down so that your body is ready for another bout of exercise.
To get into a parasympathetic state from a hard effort, start by breathing in and out of your mouth, Nelson says. As your heart rate slows down, inhale through your nose and out through your mouth. Then inhale and exhale at a fast rate through your nose, and repeat at a slower rate.
"One way to hang out between sets is to walk around and listen to whatever your lifting music is, and to stay amped up," Sabin says. Or you can try placing your hand on your breast bone so you can feel your heart beating. Take deep breaths to slow down your breath. As your heart rate lowers, lengthen your inhale and exhale.
By employing these parasympathetic techniques, you'll start to notice that your heart rate recovery will be faster over time, which means you get more rest in the same amount of time.
- StatPearls: "Neuroanatomy, Sympathetic Nervous System"
- StatPearls: "Neuroanatomy, Sympathetic Nervous System"
- StatPearls: "Valsalva Maneuver"
- Biology of Sport: "The Effect of Breathing Technique on Sticking Region During Maximal Bench Press"
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: "The Valsalva Maneuver: Its Effect on Intra-Abdominal Pressure and Safety Issues During Resistance Exercise"