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How to Breathe While Working Out

There are a few schools of thought when it comes to breathing while working out. Usually, these conversations center around breathing during a specific lift, such as a squat, deadlift, or bench press.

Some people believe you should breathe normally; whatever feels natural is best. We'll call this approach "natural breathing."

Others feel that you should exhale while exerting the effort. The principle associated with this technique is that, when your lungs are full of air and you're in the process of exhaling, the oxygen in your lungs is being "used" to fuel the movement. When we discuss this method, we'll refer to it as "exhale during exertion."

Still others adhere to the standpoint that you should "breath into your belly," tighten your core, and actually hold your breath during the effort in order to maintain "core stiffness." We'll call this style of breathing, which is the most complex and fascinating, "diaphragmatic breathing."

Which method is best for you? It depends on the exercise you're doing and the amount of core stiffness that is required to accomplish it.

So how do you know how much stiffness is required? Generally, if the weight is very light and you're performing high reps, you can start out using the exhale-during-exertion method. Then, when your heart-rate starts to increase and breathing quickens, breathing naturally might be the best thing for you.

When the weight is moderate-to-heavy and reps require an equally moderate-to-high level of focus, this is when exhale-during-exertion is absolutely necessary. Why? Two reasons. One: your core is tighter when there is air in your lungs, which protects your lower back during the heavier lift. And two: your brain needs oxygen during the lift.

Breathing out during a heavy lift is a lot like holding your breath, except unlike the "core stiffening" method, you're holding your breath with empty lungs instead of full lungs and your core is not engaged.

This is a recipe for disaster, because you're handling relatively high weight with a disengaged core, all while depriving your brain of oxygen! Trust me, don't do it!

So that leaves "diaphragmatic breathing." When is it the best route to take? Well, that is a somewhat complex question, but a rewarding one. It generally involves lifting the heaviest weights you're going to lift.

Let's say you attempt a 185-pound back squat, something you've never done before. You get the bar off the rack and complete 10 reps. You feel pretty good about it, as you should.

But the next day, your lower back is tight and your glutes aren't sore at all. In fact, your back is the only muscle that feels sore. What is this telling you?

It's telling you that your core wasn't engaged tightly enough for that lift. As a result, the muscles of the lower back (which are quite small) had to overexert themselves in order to keep you upright, while your abdominal muscles (much larger and thicker) weren't doing their job.

So what do you do? Well, you can strengthen your core, for starters. For the next two weeks, you do planks, good mornings, and situps three times a week, and then try the 185-pound squat again. Maybe it helps, but maybe it doesn't.

Your back still feels sore.

This means that it is not an issue of core strength, but of core stiffness. Put differently, your core muscles might be strong on their own, but during the lift itself, they don't stiffen or engage in a way that actually protects the lower back.

Diaphragmatic breathing is all about addressing this problem and it is the best possible step to take. In fact, there's a good chance you won't be able to progress without it.

You don't have to get to a point where your back hurts to know that your core is a weak link. It is weak in most people. This is partly why 85% of Americans experience lower back pain at some point in their lives, and why so many people injure their backs while lifting objects. If for no other reason, diaphragmatic breathing is ideal because it trains your core to stiffen and protect your lower back when lifting any object of any weight, at any time, even when you're not working out.

So how is it done?

Stay tuned until next week to find out!!!


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