skip to Main Content

3 Ways Your Breathing Impacts Your Workout

By Alexander VanHouten, Master Trainer & Life Time Education Specialist

“Don’t forget to breath.”

No joke. I say this at least 3 times during every one-hour session, no matter how long the client has been working with me.

“C’mon Alex, that’s just a cue used to fill the time during reps so that you’re not just counting to 10 all day.”

Not true.

In fact, aside from “keep your core engaged” and “just 2 more”, breath cuing is the most important thing I can do for you during an exercise session to help you get the most out of your workout.

Why? Well, don’t worry, I’m not going to cite the old “getting oxygen to your muscles”, “burning fat requires oxygen”, or the “increases tightness of muscles” reasons.

They’re good reasons. But they’re old news and they still haven’t convinced you to focus more on your breath, so I won’t recreate them here.

The real reason I am going to preach conscious breath practice during your exercise sessions is actually to tap into, take control of, and develop the most important “muscle” in every workout. YOUR BRAIN.

Breathing Effects Heart Rate Variability

Do you track your heart rate during your workouts?

Although there are many benefits to tracking heart rate, you may be surprised to know that your pulse is not the most important metric that comes out of heart rate measures.

Every heartbeat varies slightly from each other. The measure of how much each beat varies is called Heart Rate Variability (HRV). You can read more about that HERE.

HRV is fascinating as a measure. A resting measure can indicate your level of recovery on any given day (how well you slept, how stressed you are, and how hard you worked out in the past few days) giving possible instruction to how you should train to prevent injury.

One study even suggests that a 24-hour HRV reading can predict the probable time of your death.[i] Crazy, huh?

The most amazing aspect of HRV is that it’s not a fixed number. YOU CAN CONTROL IT!

How?

Well, as Dr. Alan Walkins demonstrates in a very informative TED talk[ii], it’s quite easy.

All you have to do is consciously control your breathing.

“What?”, yeah, it’s that simple. Focusing your breath in a set, rhythmic pattern immediately lowers your HRV. And since, as Dr. Walkins notes, HRV is a measure of chaos in your physiological system, this is a very good thing.

“But hang on a minute,” I can hear you saying. “Didn’t you say we were talking about the brain? What does Heart Rate Variability have to do with the Brain?”

Glad you asked. Dr. Walkins has addressed that question as well.

Did you know that the more physiological chaos you are enduring, the lower your frontal lobe activation is?

#Truestory. He calls it a “DIY lobotomy”. Higher HRV equals less focus, determination, and intelligence.

Focus. Determination. And intelligence. Truly key ingredients for effective workout performances that lead to the best results.

Mind – Muscle Connection

Does the mind really matter to the muscle?

I believe it’s common sense to think yes. But after reading the research, I think you’ll be surprised what different levels of mental focus make in a workout.

Take the squat for instance.

In a study that connected electrodes to all the involved muscles of an individual who could perform a proper squat, it was found to make a significant difference when you simply asked the individual to focus on a certain muscle during a low-load (50-70% 1 RM) repetition. [iii]

When asked to focus on the quad, the muscle activation increased 10% in the quadriceps region. Would you like to get 10% more from every workout? Me too!

But 10% is just touching the surface. Squats with a glute focus increase glute activation 150%, inverted rows with bicep focus increased bicep activation 200%, and back extension with focus on the glutes increased activation a whopping 550%!!!

Apparently the mind’s ability to focus (a frontal lobe function) on the appropriate muscles can give you a 10%-550% edge on anyone who cannot.

Fascinating.

The same holds true with strength performance. A study in 2004 which asked participants to visualize being stronger, then coached focus during performance during a task concluded that compared to the control group, “mental training…enhances the cortical output signal, which drives the muscles to a higher activation level and increases strength.”[iv] You may only be a couple focused training sessions away from your next PR!

Another important study shows evidence that “downshifting” (the process your brain goes through under stress where activity in your intelligent frontal lobes shuts off to make way for your more instinctual limbic brain) lowers the amount of electrical energy devoted to your muscles.[v]

Bad juju if you’re trying to exercise them!

Let’s summarize, what we know thus far. Breathing consciously and rhythmically lowers your HRV. Lowered HRV quiets inner chaos, allowing for higher cognitive functioning, specifically focus and determination. Higher focus in your workout increases muscle activation and focus. So, breathing consciously and rhythmically is a simple, yet effective way to train your focus culminating in 10%-500% better workouts!

BOOM!

“Awesome, Alex, how do I take control of my breath?”

I thought you’d never ask…

How to do it

There are literally hundreds of different breath-training modalities out there. I will list a few in a moment, but I want you to understand something first.

The research is spotty at best on what form of breath training is the best, (no good meta-analysis out there pitting the nerve conductance of yoga instructors against power lifters) but the general consensus is this: It really doesn’t matter what school of thought you fall into as long as your breathing is intentional, rhythmic (consistent ins-and-outs), smooth (not choppy) and that you practice often.

In other words, whether you’re into holding your breath during a heavy rep[vi], a staunch proponent of eastern practices[vii], or just want to breathe in during the up and out during the down, it really doesn’t matter to your HRV. As long as you are CONSCOUSLY CONTROLLING your breathing rhythm in a consistent manner, you’ll get the benefits outlined in this article. It’s about the focus, not the method.

With that in mind, here are some ideas.

Practice rhythmic breathing during idle times of the day  such as sitting at your desk or driving in traffic. Practice rhythmic breathing during active times of the day like grocery shopping or going for a walk. Meditate at least 10 minutes/day (guided meditation is a good place to start)[viii]. Join a Yoga or Pilates class (they are breathing ninjas).  Turn off your music for a whole workout or part of one. Get a coach to cue your breathing during your workout. Try a swim workout (water forces you to breath rhythmically)!

That should get you started! Remember, for the boosted mental focus that results in 10%-500% more from your workout, the method doesn’t matter. Just do one!

Now, Breathe

Breathing is important in your workout.

Not only because it may help you burn more fat or because it will help or hinder particular movements, but also (and most importantly) because it is the single most effective way to enhance your mental focus that results in better performance and muscle activation.

You could go on a goose chase for the newest and best workout strategies out there to get results.

But first, let me implore that you commit to your current regimen with disciplined breathing and the true mind-muscle connection that comes with it.

Breathe in your intention………4…..3…..2…..1…

Breathe out your effort………3……2……1…. Feels good doesn’t it?

Now, let’s do this.

[i] Short-Term Heart Rate Variability Strongly Predicts Sudden Cardiac Death in Chronic Heart Failure Patients
Maria Teresa La Rovere, Gian Domenico Pinna, Roberto Maestri, Andrea Mortara, Soccorso Capomolla, Oreste Febo, Roberto Ferrari, Mariella Franchini, Marco Gnemmi, Cristina Opasich, Pier Giorgio Riccardi, Egidio Traversi and Franco Cobelli
Circulation. 2003;107:565-570, originally published February 4, 2003
 https://doi.org/10.1161/01.CIR.0000047275.25795.17
[ii] Dr. Alan Walkins. How to Hack your Biology and be in the Zone Every Single Day. June 3, 2014. Available online <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0xc3XdOiGGI>
[iii] Bret Contreras. Mind Muscle Connection. Feb 2, 2014. Available online. <https://www.t-nation.com/training/mind-muscle-connection-fact-or-bs>
[iv] From mental power to muscle power–gaining strength by using the mind.
Ranganathan VK, Siemionow V, Liu JZ, Sahgal V, Yue GH.
Neuropsychologia. 2004;42(7):944-56.
[v] Lawrence M. Schleifer. Thomas Spalding. Mental stress and trapezius muscle activation under psychomotor challenge: A focus on EMG gaps during computer work. Psychophysiology 45(3):356-65 · June 2008. Available online. <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/5570401_Mental_stress_and_trapezius_muscle_activation_under_psychomotor_challenge_A_focus_on_EMG_gaps_during_computer_work>
[vi] http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/know-when-to-hold-it-how-to-breathe-while-lifting.html
[vii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ujjayi_breath
[viii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9h4GiblYrPk
The posts on this blog are not intended to suggest or recommend the diagnosis, treatment, cure, or prevention of any disease, nor to substitute for medical treatment, nor to be an alternative to medical advice. The use of the suggestions and recommendations on this blog post is at the choice and risk of the reader.
Back To Top