How can I be better?
It’s the one question every athlete revisits time and time again. It’s what drives us to balance macros, research supplements and hire coaches. Whether you’re an elite competitor or weekend warrior, there’s always room for improvement. The opportunities to enhance your performance, through both drastic measures and small tweaks, are endless.
So considering muscles need oxygen to function, you’d think there would be an optimal way to breathe. Is an expert-endorsed technique, or at least a 30-day training plan for the respiratory system, what your training plan is missing?
According to William Sheel, Ph.D., professor at the University of a British Columbia’s School of Kinesiology in Canada, that’s not the way the lungs work. Unlike a muscle that grows larger and stronger with resistance training, the lungs and their capacity to diffuse oxygen don’t change in response to exercise.
“The lung and the chest wall in the airways are overbuilt, if you will, relative to other organ systems. So if you take the relatively untrained person, what limits their ability to run a 5K probably isn’t their lungs,” he explains. “The weak link in the chain of oxygen transport is probably the heart and the ability to deliver oxygen. Or it’s in the periphery, like in muscle to extract oxygen.”
Sheel also never suggested that an athlete should change their naturally occurring breathing pattern or frequency. “I don’t think there’s any good evidence for manipulating that,” he says. “Eventually, if you’re exercising for long enough or at a high enough intensity, breathing is controlled by the central nervous system — so that’s going to override that.”
The bottom line: If you’re alive, you’re breathing “correctly.” But don’t worry, overachievers. There are a few ways that increased awareness of your breathing (and maybe a few small adjustments) can make your time in the gym more productive.
Proximal Stability = Distal Mobility
Beyond oxygenating the body’s tissues, breathing plays an important stabilizing role. Dr. C. Shanté Cofield, DPT, OCS, founder of TheMovementMaestro.com, uses the structure of a tree to explain how the body requires “proximal stability for distal mobility.” Much like how a solid trunk allows the branches of a tree to sway without snapping it in half, a stable core enables us to generate force through the limbs.
“At the heart of that is going to be your diaphragm, the primary muscle of breathing,” she explains. Breathing into the diaphragm creates intra-abdominal pressure, which provides a solid foundation for any movement, whether it’s running a mile or deadlifting a barbell.
While cues for “belly breathing” may help people engage their diaphragm, Cofield prefers to focus on circumferential expansion. “The ribs should be expanding to the side, and you should be breathing into your back to try to get a fuller breath,” she says.
When lifting, it’s best to sequence your breaths so that you inhale on the preparation (e.g., as you lower into a squat position) and exhale on the effort (e.g., as you return to a standing position). “If you can do it through more of a pursed lip, that forceful breath can be better because it forces reflexive contraction of your core musculature, and that’s our whole goal,” Cofield says. “We’re trying to get that proximal stability, allowing us to generate more force with our extremities.”
While underusing the diaphragm is a common problem, Cofield also sees athletes who “over-brace,” or too heavily rely on the diaphragm for stabilization. “If we’re doing a low threshold movement or lifting a light weight, we shouldn’t have to hold our breath to ready ourselves for that movement,” she says.
The Valsalva maneuver, a technique in which the lifter essentially holds his or her breath by exhaling forcefully against a closed airway, is generally appropriate for something like a one-rep max. Otherwise, inhaling on the preparation and exhaling on the effort is ideal.
Nasal Breathing vs. Mouth Breathing
Everyone from your mom to your yoga instructor has probably told you that “mouths are for eating, noses are for breathing.” This advice, while maybe a bit oversimplified, isn’t baseless.
One benefit of nasal breathing is tied to the concept of diaphragmatic breathing. “When we breathe through the nose, that forces us to use our diaphragm more because of the inherent resistance,” Cofield says. “The airways are smaller, so you’re forced to use that muscle of breathing, the diaphragm.”
Cofield also explains that the body requires a certain amount of carbon dioxide in order to effectively use oxygen. Big breaths through the mouth, because they blow off more carbon dioxide than small exhalations through the nose, essentially “reset” the system. “It becomes more sensitive to carbon dioxide, which is not a good thing. That forces us to continue in this mouth-breathing pattern. When we mouth breathe, we don’t use the diaphragm.”
That being said, our control of our breathing has its limitations. Despite our best intentions and efforts, the body will switch to mouth breathing when the demand for oxygen or levels of carbon dioxide becomes too high. “If I bring someone into the lab here and I stick them on a bike, eventually they will breathe through their mouth because the bike always wins,” Cofield says.