There is a serious chance that I would skip this article if I stumbled across it on the internet.
When people speak about breathing, I get a weird image in my head.
I picture being stuck at a “spiritual breathing awakening retreat”. A place where people make uncomfortably long eye contact when you meet them and have names like Essence or Divinity.
We are being taught something like…
How to breathe in the good energy with every breath and how to exhale away our inner demons.
There is incense and bell ringing involved too.
I have a strong sense that this is soon going to involve awkward nudity.
I’m 99% certain that all of these retreats end the same way: Sitting in a yurt… naked, in a circle, holding hands and crying.
I don’t want to wind up in a naked in a yurt!
We won’t be doing that here.
I honestly haven’t paid too much attention to breathing while working out.
Typically the fitness advice is to breathe in when lowering a weight and breath out when doing the positive portion.
This isn’t terrible advice, but…
There are ways to breathe that will deliver more oxygen to the muscles and give you greater performance (strength, endurance, fat loss, etc.)
Here’s what is interesting…
The way to accomplish this is completely counterintuitive:
You will want to breathe LESS, in a strategic way, to greatly improve oxygen delivery to your muscles.
I’ll talk about that in a sec right after a short music break (I always like a music theme in my articles to break up the text into bite-sized chunks).
The music theme for this post is live indie electropop performances from the studio of my local radio station, KEXP.
Most of these are better than the original album recordings.
Let’s talk about breathing less.
I kind of feel like I’m late to the party on this one. Friends of mine have been telling me that I need to read a book called The Oxygen Advantage, since 2015 when it was released.
I picked up the Kindle version and it quickly hooked me in.
It goes deep into breathing, but I want to talk specifically about breathing during exercise.
Here’s are some quick bullets.
- The primary stimulus to breathe is to get rid of CO2 (carbon dioxide) NOT take in more oxygen.
- The blood is almost always fully saturated with oxygen.
- Carbon dioxide plays a key role in releasing oxygen from your blood to reach your muscles.
- When you breathe too much, carbon dioxide gets released from the body too quickly to do its job, so your issues, organs, and brain don’t get adequate oxygen.
As explained in detail in the book, most of us are chronic overbreathers.
Our vital organs, muscles, and brain aren’t getting as much oxygen as is optimal.
I was slightly skeptical when I read all of this, but the author points out that this CO2 and oxygenation of the tissues in the body is explained by the Bohr Effect.
I thought about this some more.
You can hardly notice a fit person breathe when they are walking or doing a light activity, while the breathing of an out-of-shape person is almost always noticeable.
If a person is breathing hard at walking speed, they most likely aren’t as efficient with their breathing as a fit person who isn’t challenged.
Light breathing is key to performance.
Again, I know that this all seems counterintuitive.
I wasn’t a believer until I tried some of the breathing techniques we will go over.
The key to lighter breathing during ANY activity is to build up your tolerance to carbon dioxide (CO2).Remember…
When you hold your breath, the thing that makes you eventually breathe is the need to get rid of CO2.
Excessive breathing during exercise or at rest is caused by:
- A low VO2 MAX (Aerobic Capacity). Here’s an article I wrote on increasing your aerobic capacity.
- Having a low tolerance for CO2. Your body’s reflex to breathe out happens too quickly.
Note: These are correlated. Studies have shown that athletic performance, during increased carbon dioxide and reduced oxygen pressure, can improve VO2 Max.
The 3 methods I’m going to discuss here are all about building up your tolerance to CO2 while simultaneously delivering more oxygen to your muscles.
Let’s get to it.
Breathing Technique 1: Breathe Through Your Nose as Much as Possible During Your Workout
I first read about the benefits of nasal breathing in Joe LoGalbo’s course, Anabolic Running.
We really were meant to breathe through our noses and doing so gives you several advantages.
- When you breathe through your nose, air reaches the deepest part of your lungs. Breathing through the mouth activates your upper chest and the air typically just reaches the top part of your lungs.
- Nasal breathing removes a significant amount of the germs and bacteria from the air you breathe in.
- Nasal breathing keeps the mouth hydrated. Mouth breathing dries the mouth which causes bad breath as well as an increase in the occurrence of cavities and gum disease.
- Nitric Oxide is released from the nasal passage into the deep parts of the lungs where it reaches the blood and can positively affect the body.
- Exhaling through the nose takes longer than through the mouth, so CO2 has more time to do its job of oxygenating your muscles.
In nature when an animal is breathing through its mouth it is a sign of sickness.
I have a beautiful cat named Violet.
I would take her to the veterinarian immediately if I noticed that she was breathing through her mouth.
(Warning: This house is protected by an attack cat.)
If you can get in the habit of breathing through your nose when working out, you will build up your tolerance to CO2.
Over time this will allow your muscles to perform at a higher level while simultaneously increasing your aerobic capacity (VO2 Max).
You have to gradually work your way into this.
Don’t force yourself to breathe through the nose for your entire workout, when you first attempt this.
Just maybe start out with nasal breathing on your easy sets.
As you adjust, you can add this to you more intense sets.
I’m to the point now where I do about 75% of my sets while breathing through my nose.
What I noticed at first…
My nasal passage was getting irritated.
This was because I will still breathing too hard, which leads me to the next tip.
Breathing Technique 2: Breathe as Lightly as Possible as You Increase the Intensity of Your Training.
As you improve your tolerance to carbon dioxide you will be able to calmly breathe even under intense efforts.
This makes a lot of sense.
I live at the bottom of a steep hill and I have no problem walking to the top without getting out-of-breath. I have seen others who are breathing so hard that they can’t even talk after reaching the top.
I think some of this is VO2 Max.
I also believe that people who don’t do a lot of cardio training typically are too sensitive to CO2.
Their bodies are accustomed to breathing hard at the first sign of any physical effort.
If you can master the ability to take in a little less air than is comfortable, you will quickly improve your CO2 tolerance.
What you will find is that by doing this, you will breathe in a much slower and more relaxed manner while at rest.
Things like slow walking won’t even begin to challenge you.
This is a quick hack to feel like you are in better shape… and it happens quickly.
The final tip takes this to the next level.
Breathing Technique 3: Practice This Nose Unblocking Breath-Holding Exercise During Light Cardio.
I became more of a mouth breather after having allergies that lead to nasal congestion.
Since my nose was blocked, I wound up breathing through my mouth.
What I have come to find out is that the nasal congestion becomes worse the longer you breathe through your mouth.
The author of The Oxygen Advantage has helped countless people overcome even pretty severe cases of nasal blockage by gradually introducing this nose unblocking exercise.
How to do the nose unblocking exercise:
- Take a small, silent breath in and a small, silent breath out through your nose.
- Walk as many paces as possible with your breath held to create a strong air shortage (without overdoing it).
- When you resume breathing, use only your nose and calm your breathing immediately.
- Your first breath will be a bit bigger than normal, but make sure and calm your breathing by your second or third breath.
- If you can’t recover your breath in 2 to 3 breaths, you have held your breath too long.
- Wait for about one minute and repeat… do this for 5 to 6 times with one-minute normal nasal breathing in between.
I actually like to start my cardio like this now. I walk for about 10 minutes and do this exercise.
Not only does it open up the nasal passage, it really helps build a tolerance to CO2.
I typically just do these every other workout and in just that short time have found that this has drastically improved my ability to breathe through my nose.
Ideally I would recommend picking up The Oxygen Advantage if you want more details on how and why this works.
Ideally the goal is to breathe through your nose as much as possible.
When you do this, your breathing is deeper, in that the air reaches the lowest part of your lungs (unlike mouth breathing).
When efforts are intense…
Your natural instinct will be to breathe hard through your mouth. If you can purposely breath in a calm way and through your nose, your body and workouts will benefit.
I’ve only been using these methods for the past few weeks and already noticing benefits.
The calm nose breathing during intense training opens up the airways and makes nose breathing during rest automatic.
Mouth breathing is bad for your breath, teeth, and body.
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