Breathing Techniques for Gym Goers: How to Maximise Your Performance During Workouts

Picture this: You are in the gym, doing your workout. That could be weights, cardio, or one of the many classes your gym offers. Now, I want you to ask yourself a question: When, if ever, have you thought about your breathing when doing your workout?

You see, breathing, more so than anything, is just a movement. When you breathe in, your diaphragm should drop and should expand in a full 360. When you breathe out, the diaphragm should move and return to its relative resting position. If the diaphragm isn’t able to complete its natural motion, you lose strength, you lose fitness and most importantly, you use up more energy.

Breathing and Strength

The link between breathing and strength has long been known by powerlifters, olympic lifters and anyone who has developed high strength. It’s also highly possible you have witnessed this link yourself. Think about each lift you have done, there is often a breath in, breath hold, and a breath out. How you do this may vary from exercise to exercise, but the same three components always occur in some capacity.

It is also possible that you have seen or used what we call a ‘weight-lifting’ or ‘powerlifting’ belt. Above all else, the belt sensory feedback device. The idea behind the belt is to allow lifters to create better intra-abdominal pressure by first getting feedback from the belt on where to breathe and then going through the three components of breathing in the appropriate manner. What is appropriate? A full 360, bi-basal, ‘diaphragmatic breath’.

Why is that important? Because without intra-abdominal pressure, you are not able to generate the same strength and power through your trunk. Without this proximal strength, you are unable to create good cross-connections from your legs to your arms. In essence, less intraabdominal pressure results in less strength. The Oxa breathing trainer, helps you to bring balance in breathing while doing workout.

Breathing and Fitness

Now, the difference between what breathing does for strength and fitness is a lot less than you probably would think. For the term fitness, I want you to think about yourself on the treadmill, in a group class or doing a spin cycle session.

Firstly, just like for strength, you need ‘diaphragmatic breathing’ to occur to allow for better intraabdominal pressure, which creates stronger movements through your arms and legs that are required in group classes or spin cycle sessions.

Secondly, and arguably more importantly, is the fact that when your diaphragm doesn’t move as well as it could, you start to breathe in a more shallow nature or what is known as ‘chest breathing’.  When you breathe in a more ‘chest breathing’ fashion, you aren’t able to bring in the oxygen or the exhale carbon dioxide in the appropriate manner for the exercise. This leads to quicker and potentially excessive fatigue and exhaustion.

Learn More: How to Control Your Emotions With Your Breath

Breathing and Energy

Finally, as mentioned in the breathing and fitness section, the way you breathe can cause more fatigue and exhaustion. In other words, it costs more energy to breathe in a ‘chest breathing’ pattern than it does in a ‘diaphragmatic pattern’. Why is that?

It has to do with muscular activity and the stimulation of your sympathetic nervous system. You see, when you are at rest, your diaphragm should be contributing as much as 80% of the work required to breathe. As we increase our exercise intensity, additional muscles such as the scalenes, upper trapezius, and others begin to assist with breathing. The more muscles that have to help, the more energy is required to be used to do the work. The more energy required to do the work, the quicker you will fatigue.

What we know is that when these muscles start to work harder, this tends to correlate with an increase in our sympathetic nervous system activity. When our sympathetic nervous system increases its activity, we use more energy. Now, we need this to occur to a point to get through our gym session. However, there is too much stimulation and we burn way more energy than required. Again, leading to excessive fatigue.

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How You Can Improve Your Breathing to Improve your Gym Work

Technique 1: Improve your Awareness

Technique 1 is simply awareness. Before you can improve your breathing under the workload of the gym, you need to understand how you breathe whilst doing the gym.

Next time you are in the gym, I want you to do the following:

  • Start of Sessionsome text
    • At the start of the session, notice how you are breathing whilst doing your lifts, your class or cardio workout. I want you to make note of the following:some text
      • Am I breathing in and out through my nose or mouth?
      • Am I breathing into my chest or doing a full 360, bi-basal, diaphragmatic breath?
      • How stressed or fatigued am I feeling?
  • Middle of Sessionsome text
    • Approximately halfway through the session, I want you to check back in and notice how you are breathing. Again, ask yourself the three questions.
  • End of Sessionsome text
    • Finally, at the end of the session, I want you to re-check in and see how long it takes you to come back to baseline.

Technique 2: Master the Basics

Technique 2 is mastering the basics. Once you have mastered awareness, you need to master the basics.

The basics are as follows:

  • Lay on your back, with your knees bent up. Have your hands placed just inside of your hip bones.
  • From this position, place the tongue on the roof of your mouth and begin to breathe in and out through your nose.
  • As you go through your breathing, you want to imagine two things:some text
    • Firstly, you are breathing like you are filling up a glass of water. You start at the bottom where your fingers are, and slowly fill up the rest of the cup (i.e. breath into your belly, your ribs, into your back, and up into your chest).
    • Secondly, you want to FEEL under your fingers that you are inflating a balloon. As you breathe in, you should feel the sensation of ‘inflation’. This tells you that you are generating intra-abdominal pressure.
  • Do this for 5 minutes to get the diaphragm moving and your brain tuned into the technique. This is a great place to bring in breathing exercise devices to qualitatively measure how you breathe.

Technique 3: Put it into Practice

Technique 3 is all about putting Technique 2 into practice. The best way to practice is to go into the positions you are about to work and see if you can replicate the same breathing pattern, depth and ease of breath. Here are a few examples:

  • Squat: Get into your squat position with low to no weight. Can you breathe like you did on the ground?
  • Deadlift: Get into your deadlift position with low to no weight. Can you breathe like you did on the ground?
  • Cycling: Sitting on the bike with your hands on the handlebars. Can you breathe like you did on the ground?

Pick any position or movement that is important and specific to you and try to breathe in it. If you cannot breathe in the position, you have some work to do!

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Q: What is ‘Diaphragmatic Breathing’?

Diaphragmatic breathing is a term that has been used to explain the way the diaphragm should move when you breathe. When you breathe in, your diaphragm should drop and expand in a full 360, meaning you should feel the expansion into the belly, the ribs, and into your back.

Q: What is the difference between  ‘Diaphragmatic Breathing’ and ‘Belly Breathing’?

Main difference is the way our brains think about the word ‘Belly’. Specifically speaking, when people try to do ‘belly breathing’, they often only breath into their belly. They don’t get the lateral expansion into the ribs or the expansion into the back as is the case with ‘diaphragmatic breathing.’

Q: What is ‘Chest Breathing’?

Chest breathing, otherwise known as ‘Apical Breathing,’ is the term used to describe when you are predominantly breathing into your chest and not allowing the time for the diaphragm to drop in its natural motion.

Q: How does intra-abdominal pressure improve lifting?

Simply put, intra-abdominal pressure improves your trunk stability and the ability to generate force (i.e. strength or power) through your body. When you are relatively more stable through your trunk, you are able to put more load or effort through it.

Tom Williams
June 5, 2024

A physiotherapist from Brisbane, Australia, excels in applying breathing techniques to enhance health and performance. In his practice and as a tutor at the University of Queensland, he emphasizes the power of breath to manage injuries, improve sports performance, and boost productivity. Through workshops and seminars, Tom teaches breathing fundamentals to athletes, students, and professionals, proving its versatility for stress management, learning, and physical activity.

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Get the Oxa Sensor and your choice of garment - lounge-wear shirt, bra, or adjustable chest strap. Your purchase includes access to the Oxa app which gives personalized data summaries and insights, as well as access to breathing exercises to teach you how to harness the power of your own breath.