Powering through a tough workout is hard; breathing is easy. And good news: if you focus a little, the second can help you get through the first (and even improve your performance).
But many exercise modalities come with their own rules and recommendations for how to breathe correctly—from noisy nose inhales in yoga to holding in a big belly breath during weight training.
So we asked experts in fitness specialities from boxing and rowing to Pilates and more for their guidelines on how to use your breath effectively while you sweat.
In fact, the most popular form of yoga, vinyasa, means “breath for movement,” and ideally you’re syncing the two at all times. If you’re totally new to it, Kristoffer says focusing on inhales and exhales will keep you grounded and give you something to focus on. “At the beginning, you look to breathing to be present,” she explains.
How to do it: Vinyasa yoga generally calls for ujjayi breathing, in which you breathe in and out smoothly and deeply through the nose while constricting the back of your throat, so that it makes a slight sound. “It’s not meant to sound like Darth Vader, but if you’re exaggerating, it might,” she says. As you flow through class, those inhales and exhales should match your movements.
Example: Exhale to lower in chaturanga, inhale into upward dog, exhale to downward dog. There are many other forms of breathing in yoga, like sitali, the cooling breath, and kapalbhati, often called “breath of fire.” But if you get that far along in your practice, someone will teach you, we promise.
Like yoga, “proper breathing is the most important principle of the Pilates method,” says Erika Bloom, creator of the renowned Erika Bloom Pilates. “When we breathe correctly, we access our deep core muscles.” And you know Pilates folks love to focus on core.
The technique is mainly about breathing as deeply as possible, with each inhale engaging the diaphragm so that it pushes down and expands the torso in every direction, and the diaphragm relaxing and moving up during exhales.
“To simplify, we say ‘breathe into your low back ribs and exhale by connecting the back of your low belly and the front of your sacrum,'” Bloom explains. Some instructors will want you to execute that breath while inhaling through the nose and out through the mouth, others will say to do what feels natural.
Bonus: Bloom says Pilates can help you breathe more efficiently outside of your workouts, too. “As we age, feeling the effects of stress and our environment, we lose our natural breath patterning,” she explains. “Pilates is designed to restore correct biomechanics of breath.”
Breathing is most important when you’re hoisting serious weight, says Beth Lewis, a trainer at Soho Strength Lab and heavy lifter. “In the bench press for example, anytime you’re exerting, you absolutely have to exhale because it creates rigidity in the trunk,” she says. “Anytime you’re pressing, you need fully body tension to make the lift happen. When you exhale sharply, it makes the lift more successful.”
In general, she recommends taking a big deep breath to help tighten your entire midsection before lifting, and then exhaling on the exertion, but if the movement doesn’t involve a press, this is the one time actually stopping your breath may help. “A compound movement like a deadlift or big squat, you might opt to hold your breath,” she says. “It creates tension in a different way, putting pressure on the abdominal wall.”
“Before class, I typically cue riders to take a big deep breath, relax their shoulders, and clear their minds,” says Swerve Fitness star trainer Jason Tran. While there isn’t a specific “technique” for breathing on a spin bike, Tran says the most important thing is to remember to breathe smoothly throughout and to use deep breaths as a tool to get you through the hardest songs. “Keeping a good cadence of breath is key to getting through tough intervals,” he says. “If you prematurely breathe and don’t allow yourself to fully exhale, your heart rate will elevate.”
His expert tips to keep that breath big: “Relaxing your face while riding prevents your jaw from clenching, which will allow your diaphragm to easily expand and contract,” he says. “Also, lengthening your torso by straightening your spine will allow your lungs to fully expand.”
During a rowing class, Lewis, who’s also a star instructor at CityRow, says the most important thing is to remember to breathe at all. “In a group exercise class, you should never hold your breath for any reason,” she says.
The most natural way to breathe is to exhale as you push out (on the exertion) and then inhale as you slide back in, which may help you maintain a steady rhythm, too, she explains. But if you’re new to the rower, don’t drive yourself crazy making sure you’re matching those up with your strokes, since there’s a lot of other cues you’ll need to think about in terms of maintaining good form. “As long as you’re not holding your breath, it’s all good.”
Since running is cardio-centric, you may find your breath getting fast and shallow, which isn’t helpful for a couple of reasons. “Rapid, short breathing can elevate the heart rate making the runner work harder than they actually have to at a given pace,” says run coach and Race Pace Run Club founder Jess Underhill. “And breathing properly allows more oxygen to the muscles, therefore allowing you to go faster and longer.”
While there isn’t one specific technique Underhill says works for every runner, her advice is to think slow and deep. “Breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth is a great place to start, but if nose breathing doesn’t work well for you, then focus on slow controlled breathing in and out through the mouth. Take in full inhales and exhales as much as possible. You can even say to yourself ‘inhale, exhale’ and make breathing while running a chance to meditate and slow down.”
Breathing during boxing is insanely crucial says Work Train Fight founder Alberto Ortiz, since the sport (or workout) combines endurance, power, and adrenaline spikes, which means you need a lot of oxygen. “Imagine running a marathon and every few seconds you have to all out sprint and then back to jogging—that’s what boxing is like,” he says.
Ortiz says there are two correct ways to breathe. If you’re throwing low-volume, slow punches, you want to take deep breaths and exhale fully on each punch. But if you’re punching at a fast rate, you should inhale and exhale at a slow, continuous rate. “Let’s say you’re performing 100 punches in a row—you would breathe in and out 3-5 punches at a time.
The breaths are long and complete, and usually through your nose,” he explains. “Why breathe through your nose? Because you want to keep your jaw locked the whole time for your protection. Getting hit with your mouth open is bad for business.” Duly noted.
More breathing intel: Why you may breathing wrong when you’re not working out, too, and how to do it right.