I encourage my clients to breathe when they are working out, as in life. Jokingly, I say, “Breathing is the first thing you learned in life, so please do not forget to do it over the next hour that we are exercising.”

As a general rule, I teach clients to breathe in and out through the nostrils for as long as humanly possible during the training session. When the intensity of the activities becomes too significant for clients to maintain that pattern of nostril breathing, I advise them to inhale through the nostrils and exhale through the mouth. As a last resort, they can inhale and exhale through the mouth.

When I see a client struggling to maintain nostril breathing, I take time to focus on breathing in which the abdomen fills, not the chest (this helps me teach diaphragmatic breathing patterns). I have the client put one hand on the chest and one on the abdomen and feel the breath. It helps him slow down and both see and tangibly experience the practice.

Another way to work on breathing is to use breaths as the rest interval. For example, I might instruct a client to perform an exercise at a desired intensity level. Once the set is finished, I’ll ask her to take five controlled breaths as slowly as possible. Once the breaths are complete, the second set of activity begins. I use breathing as a means of measuring intensity and recovery.

Don Bahneman, MS, CSCS

ACE-Certified Personal Trainer

Director of Fitness & Spa, The Polo

Club of Boca Raton

Boca Raton, Florida

I always pay attention to my clients’ respiration during exercise. Emphasizing breathing may not seem as necessary as coaching other aspects of a training program, but it is important for clients (and crucial for any who are on medications that affect heart rate and blood pressure) to learn and maintain proper respiration during exercise. Many people tend to breathe shallowly and rapidly or to hold their breath. The former is most often seen during aerobic exercise and the latter during resistance or flexibility training. Neither breathing pattern is desirable.

Rapid, shallow respiration reduces the amount of oxygen getting to the working muscles and can create fatigue and dizziness. Nasal-only breathing during aerobic exercise is also undesirable because mouth breathing offers the “path of least resistance” to get oxygen into the body. Most people working hard will naturally start to breathe through the mouth, but it is something to keep an eye on. To perform better during aerobic exercise, it is essential to breathe deeply from the diaphragm, not just from the chest. Diaphragmatic breathing delivers the greatest amount of oxygen to the working muscles, which aids in releasing glycogen and removing toxins from the working muscles.

It is when my clients are doing resistance training that I observe the most breathing difficulty. They have a tendency to either inhale or hold their breath while lifting weight. Neither is ideal. Inhaling during the exertion phase of weight training reduces the effectiveness of the lift by lowering the amount of force a person is able to put into the lift. Contracting the diaphragm and muscles in the rib cage (as occurs during exhalation) helps brace the load during lifts. Plus, holding the breath during the exertion stage of strength training is harmful. Forcibly holding the breath while lifting is known as the Valsalva maneuver. This maneuver rapidly increases heart rate and blood pressure, and it is easy to see why this could be dangerous, especially in beginning exercisers or those with a diagnosed or undiagnosed cardiovascular disease.

To help clients avoid breathing problems, I always ask about doctor-diagnosed cardiovascular issues (including asthma) and about any medications the clients are taking. If warranted, I ask them to obtain their physician’s clearance before they start working with me and to pay attention to any instructions the doctor gives regarding exercise.

I observe how clients breathe during my initial assessment and, if necessary, teach them how to breathe properly during exercise, using a few simple techniques. First, I have them sit down in front of a mirror and become aware of how they are breathing by watching whether their shoulders rise and fall (indicates mostly chest breathing). I also have them place their hands on the bottom of the rib cage to feel if the ribs are expanding on all sides as they breathe (indicates diaphragmatic breathing). If clients find they are chest breathing, I ask them to take deep, slow breaths and try to expand the ribs rather than raise and lower the shoulders. I don’t spend too much time on this, because I want clients to become aware of their breathing patterns but not obsess about them. I observe their breathing during exercise and gently correct it as necessary.

Second, I watch and listen to my clients breathing while they train. If I see them holding their breath, I immediately stop the exercise and ask them to start over. If they are resistance training, I instruct them to inhale before they lift, and I tell them I want to hear them blow out while they are lifting. If people get overly anxious about breathing correctly, I simply tell them to start with inhaling a breath and count their reps out loud as they lift the weight. That usually helps them naturally fall into correct breathing.

Another way I help clients enhance respiration during exercise is by teaching relaxation breathing while they are stretching after their workouts. I tell them to slowly inhale and exhale once or twice while holding their stretch. I instruct them to pay attention to the expansion and contraction of the abdomen and ribs and to how the stretching muscle feels while they breathe. This not only increases oxygenation to the stretching muscle but also makes clients aware of how proper breathing enhances their stretches.

By paying attention to and coaching proper breathing patterns during exercise, we not only enhance our clients’ workouts; we also protect ourselves from the liability of allowing clients to breathe improperly when we work with them.

Mary Miriani

ACSM Health/Fitness Specialist

Reality Fitness Inc.

Naperville, Illinois

My mother had a background in mixed martial arts. She used to come home after her classes, put me to bed and talk about the importance of pairing movement and breathing. As a fitness professional, I start my clients’ sessions by focusing on the breath. I help clients avoid holding their breath and perhaps getting dizzy due to lack of oxygen. Also, proper breathing helps clients increase their overall performance and immerse themselves in the “moment.”

My sessions start with a pre-warm-up, in which I emphasize breathing before we progress to an actual warm-up. I tell clients that when they can pair their breath with movements they will be in control of how they move because they are training with focus. For example, I may emphasize breathing as I pair it with hip presses from a supine position. I ask clients to inhale while their glutes are on the floor and exhale as they squeeze their glutes and raise their hips off the floor. I then instruct them to pull their breath into their bellies (not their chests), so they are breathing more diaphragmatically. Depending on how clients respond, I often have them go into a prone position—with hands stacked and forehead resting on them—and practice pulling all the breath into their bellies. (This is called crocodile breathing, per Perry Nickelston, DC.) Upon the exhalation, I ask clients to squeeze their glutes and raise their legs off the floor. I look closely at the rise and fall of their lower backs and then progress the warm-up, continuously stressing breathing.

During a session, I try to make a comparison to breathing in clients’ daily lives. For example I may say, “Some people might inhale as they are bending down to pick up a box and then exhale as they pick the box up off the ground.”

After stretching, depending on the style of the session, most often I will place everyone in a supine “corpse pose” (savasana pose in yoga) and have people breathe into their bellies with eyes closed and music and lights turned off. (This idea is courtesy of EarthRise yoga instructor Derek Beres.)

People often lose sight of the importance of breathing during their daily activities. Life takes over, and they become chest breathers or don’t breathe much at all! Then they carry their stress with them throughout the day. I hope the hour spent with me alleviates the stress of the day and empowers my clients to breathe, stretch, shake and let their tension go.

Marc Coronel

TRX® Senior Master Instructor

Owner, Open Mind Fitness

Las Vegas, Nevada

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1 Comment

  1. Susan Huyck on January 13, 2021 at 5:41 pm

    Great information!!! I have problems trying to catch my breath when I lie down to sleep. I sleep with the head of my bed in an upright postion and that helps somewhat. I am being followed by a cardiologist and pulmonary MD for this problem.
    Do you have any suggestions on what breathing practice I should use when lying down?

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