The breath can be a powerful force. If we concentrate on it and employ specific methods, the breath can be used to maintain control, manage pain, and focus the mind.
It should therefore come as no surprise that breathing techniques can assist when lifting weights. In this post, we are going to discuss how to incorporate breathing techniques into a weightlifting session, then give some cooldown breathwork techniques.
Why is breathing important when working out?
We all know why we breathe – to get oxygen into our bodies and to expel carbon dioxide. But not everyone realises why this connects to gym performance. Our muscles need a rich supply of oxygen in order for them to perform at their best.
There are ways to manipulate the breath in order to maximise the oxygen available to our muscles, thus improving gym performance.
Before you start lifting
To start a training session off right, you should begin by taking a minute or two to do some deep breathing exercises. A normal breath is actually quite shallow and only fills the lungs to half capacity, there is a lot of room to take in more. We also do not fully empty our lungs on a normal exhale.
To breathe deeply, fill your lungs until you cannot take in any more air, hold for a few seconds, and then expel the breath until you are empty. This will boost your blood oxygen levels and prime your body for training.
Deep breathing can feel quite cathartic and relaxing. This is because it signals to the brain to let go of stress, which the brain then acts on by initiating physical processes that decrease the effects of stress on the body. In addition to the physical benefits of feeling relaxed, this is beneficial for mental health and creates the right mindset for training.
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How to time your breathing with lifting weights
When lifting weights, you should time each movement with a corresponding change in the breath. This may sound complicated, however, there is a standard approach to breathing that can be easily applied to all moves.
Exhale on the ascent of the weight, when your muscles are under the most resistance.
Breathe in as you begin the descent, pausing at the end of the move while holding your breath.
To give a worked example, when performing an Arnold shoulder press, begin by holding dumbbells with palms facing in. Breathe out as you turn out your hands and lift the weights up until you reach full extension at the top. Pause. Breath in as you bring the weights down and turn your hands in. Pause, then repeat.
You should find that your performance improves when you pay attention to your breath. Training will feel easier and you will be able to push yourself harder. Concentrating on your breath will also help you to focus on your form and to check in with how your body is feeling.
It is important to remember that you should never hold your breath while lifting because this starves the body of oxygen and makes the move more difficult to perform. It can even cause dizziness and fainting.
Getting your recovery breath when training with weights is essential
During training, our bodies are in a stressed state and operate using the sympathetic nervous system, also known as ‘fight or flight mode’. While useful in-session, we want to enter a calmer recovery phase once we have finished working out.
You can use the breath to calm down post-workout and to promote faster healing of your muscles by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as ‘rest and digest mode’. Essentially, this state describes the normal functioning of your body when it is not under stress.
As soon as possible after your training session, take some time to transition into being calm through breath control. Either sit on a chair or lie on a yoga mat (or on the ground) with your legs elevated and bent at a 90 degree. If lying down, you might prefer to put a cushion or a bolster under your knees.
Place a hand below your belly button and try to draw your breath down into this space on each inhale. Breathe by inhaling for 4 seconds and exhaling for 8 seconds. Check-in with your body and release any points of tension or unconscious holding, this is especially common in the shoulders and jaw. Continue for 3-5 minutes.
If you do not have time to do a full breathwork recovery, repeat the deep breathing exercise that you performed at the beginning of your set.