How to Breathe During Exercise: Breathing Technique Cardio, Stretching

As a personal trainer and weight-loss coach, I am constantly answering health and fitness questions from my clients, on social media and in our Start TODAY Facebook group. In this column, I address some of the most common questions and roadblocks that trip people up on their journey to establish a health and fitness routine.

I hear conflicting recommendations on how to breathe when I exercise: In through the nose, out through the mouth? In and out through the nose? Let my breath flow naturally or breath in and out for a certain count? Which is it?

Our breath is a powerful tool. Certain breathing techniques have been shown to help lower blood pressure, combat anxiety and help improve sleep quality.

And the benefits don’t stop short of our fitness routine. Connecting to our breath when moving the body is extremely important. Depending on your goals it can be used to help release tension and de-stress, power through a tough exercise or last longer during cardio activity.

The truth is none of the breathing recommendations you hear are wrong (unless, of course, anyone ever tells you to hold your breath!), they just achieve different outcomes. And there are certain ways to control your breathing that are better suited for specific types of exercise. Our breathing serves a different purpose during, say, running than it does during yoga.

Here are some guidelines on how to breathe most effectively during different types of exercise:

How to breathe when stretching

As a certified yoga instructor, I encourage my clients to utilize stretch time to connect to their breath as a form of a moving meditation. Therefore, I recommend breathing in and out through your nose. This method allows you to control and pace each inhale and exhale you take as you sink into every stretch and movement.

Using proper breathing techniques during stretching allows for improved circulation, helping to relax the body into the stretch rather than being tense and rigid. Taking the time to focus on every inhale and exhale also helps to ease the mind and body so that you can focus more on the stretch.

As a personal trainer, I generally instruct my clients to breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth during cardio and strength-training exercises. And many personal trainers still have their clients breathe in this way for stretching. But as a yoga instructor, I like to combine modalities so that you can get the biggest bang for your exercise buck. So while stretching, especially as a cool-down after exercise, I advise inhaling and exhaling through the nose.

How to breathe when doing cardio

When engaging in cardio, it is essential to get enough oxygen. This allows the body to deliver more oxygen to your muscles when you’re really pushing them during a run or HIIT workout. Deeper breaths involve filling your lungs to total capacity so that more oxygen can feed your muscles as you exercise. 

For running or speed walking, pacing your breath with some sort of rhythm is essential. Think of coordinating your inhale and exhale with your steps. It doesn’t have to be each step you take, as this can lead to hyperventilation or dizziness. Instead, try to inhale for a few steps, then exhale for the same amount of steps. Practice this until you reach a comfortable breathing rhythm. Breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth.

Make sure each breath is coming through the belly rather than your chest. This will ensure that you use the entire diaphragm of your lungs to inhale plenty of oxygen for your cardio workout. (To ensure you’re breathing properly, check that your entire stomach is expanding with each inhale, not just your chest).

How to breathe when strength training

How you breathe during strength training is just as crucial. Like during cardio exercise, each breath you take during strength training should fill your diaphragm so that your body has as much oxygen as possible for more efficient training.  

Inhale a deep breath during the eccentric motion of your lift. The eccentric motion or contraction refers to when the muscle lengthens and contracts during a movement. For example, the lowering movement of a squat or lowering the dumbbells back to the starting position during a bicep curl.

Exhale your breath during the concentric motion of your lift. Opposite to the eccentric contraction, the concentric motion refers to the part of the movement that pushes against gravity or a load of resistance. For example, pushing back up to a plank from a pushup, standing back up after a squat or lifting the dumbbells to your shoulder for a bicep curl.

A simple way to think about this is: Take a deep breath through your nose as you lower the weight and exhale the breath as you lift the weight. Practicing this is key; eventually this will become second nature when performing any strength-training exercise.

The bottom line: Use your breath to your advantage

Focusing on proper breathing techniques can make a huge difference in your fitness routine.

In general, breathing in and out through the nose is reserved for relaxing movements, like stretching and yoga. The nose is designed to filter, humidify and regulate the oxygen we inhale.

Breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth is usually the best approach for cardio and strength activities, and it can drastically improve your overall performance. Your body needs oxygen to perform, but it’s also working harder during these movements, so exhaling through the mouth is advised. A lack of oxygen will result in quicker muscle fatigue and stress to the brain and muscles.

The good news is that with so many variables in our fitness routine, our breath is something completely within our control. By employing these breathing techniques you can instantly feel more relaxed and able to release tension during yoga and stretching, and stronger and more in control during cardio and strength training.