Breathing 101

Breathing is a funny thing.

It’s a mostly unconscious action, yet one we can also control by ourselves if we wish to. This gives us a conscious access point to our nervous system, as deliberately breathing deeply will help to calm you down; deliberately hyperventilating will do the opposite (probably don’t do that).

There is one arena in which we tend to display more unusual breathing patterns than anywhere else, and that is the place that unites us on this particular corner of the Internet: the gym. An hour spent around the weight benches and cable stations will show you every breathing method from tranquil yoga to roaring lion imitations. But which of them is correct? Surely they can’t all be right.

The solution exists on something of a spectrum, but you can answer the question for yourself with a simple test. Ask a friend (not you, you’re thinking about breathing too much) to help you move something heavy – pushing a couch across the carpet would be a good example. Watch what happens. I will bet you twenty imaginary dollars that, pre-push, they will suck in a giant lungful of air, clench their throat shut, and push with all that air clamped hard inside them. A little might escape if it’s a prolonged push – a particularly heavy couch, say, or a lengthy stretch of carpet – but for the most part they’ll hold that breath until the task is done, or until they need to relax for a moment.

This is exactly what you do when lifting weights at the gym, assuming that it’s heavy enough to make you breathe differently and that you don’t have a health condition that makes holding a large breath inadvisable – if you’re not sure, check with your physician. If you’re clear, follow these steps: take a deep breath, shut your throat up tight (this is an important step, so don’t miss it. Google ‘valsalva with closed glottis’ if you’re unsure, or alternatively visit the restroom. I won’t go into more detail than that!), and hold the air in while you do the rep or several reps. Pause either when the weight is resting on the floor or when you’re holding it in a sturdy position (say, with your arms extended when bench pressing), let out some – but not all – of the air and suck in a refresher. Carry on until the end of the set, making sure that you have a good chestful of air anytime you’re actively moving the weight.

And if you start overthinking it, just remember the couch across the carpet.

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