How to Use Breath Before, During, and After High Intensity Workouts

Yoga has shown for thousands of years the interplay between breathing practices and moving our bodies. We can use many of the same ideas in workouts. How we breath can directly affect how we feel, how we recover, and how we perform. During workouts you have the ability to manipulate your breath in a host of ways. You can slow down or speed up your respiration rate. You can breath using your nose or your mouth. How you breathe even affects your posture and therefore your exercise technique. Below are a few ways to start implementing a breath practice before, during, and after your workouts.


Preparation for Intensity

During any high intensity workout you’re going to experience a strong buildup of carbon dioxide. The way you feel this accumulation the most is with an intense urge to breathe heavier or the feeling that you are not getting enough air.

In order for you to be prepared for this you need to become acclimated to high carbon dioxide limits amounts before a work out. If you have ever done a long 20+ minute run or interval workout you have likely experienced the feeling of “hitting your stride.” During these workouts the first five minutes feel really hard, however, once you settle in, your breathing gets under control and everything seems much more comfortable. It is at this point that you have become accustomed to the increased carbon dioxide levels.

In the beginning the rapid build up of CO2 was a shock to the system. With this breath work drill the goal is to get through that shock before we begin the work out. In order to do that we’re going to do some short breath holds and slow breathing to increase carbon dioxide levels. Here’s a quick example warm-up drill.

3 Sets:
– 5 Pushups
– 5 Burpees
– On finishing last burpee exhale all your air and complete air squats until you have a strong urge to breath
– Take 3 breaths and repeat

During Workouts

Intensity Gauge

Not only can the breath better prepare you for your workout, it can also help you exercise smarter. Once you develop an awareness of your breath you will have an internal intensity gauge. In the middle of your workout you can simply pay attention to your breathing instead of sneaking a peak at your Fitbit to know if you are pacing the workout correctly. (Side note: the breath is far more accurate than any of the HR monitors anyway)

Pay attention to whether or not you are breathing with your nose or mouth. How hard are you inhaling? How hard are you exhaling? How long and slow can you make your exhale? Typically the more you are using your nose to breath and the slower your breaths are the more relaxed you are going to be.

For general health the vast majority of the time you should be breathing only through your nose during workouts.

Movement Consistency

One of the best parts of focusing on your breath during your workout is how it brings you fully present into the movements. For the vast majority of movements you should breathe in during the eccentric phase and breathe out during the concentric. Another way to think about this is to always exhale as you exert. If you focus on this instead of how tired you are and how heavy that weight is you are better able to control your body and technique.

The air squat provides an easy example for us. Practice breathing in as you descend and out as you stand. To work on this timing try out the workout below.

8:00 Focusing on Breath Timing
10 Russian KB Swing (inhale while KB is falling, exhale while driving the hips)
8 Sit-Ups (inhale when laying back, exhale while pulling together)
6 Lunge Jumps (Inhale when lowering in the lunge, exhale as you push through the floor into the jump)


Heart Rate Recovery

An overlooked factor in one’s overall health and fitness is the ability to recover quickly. Using the breath can help you do just that. Dropping your heart rate fast is a cool party trick, but more importantly helps you feel refreshed instead of beat down after a rough bout at the gym.

Let’s return to discussing our friend CO2. While you were crushing the weights, sprints, or the aerobics you were simultaneously building up a whole bunch of CO2 in your body. This accumulation is what ramps up the urge for you to breath heavy and by doing so get rid of that CO2. So once we finish how can we recover even faster?

Essentially we will give in to that urge and multiply it. In a focused method the aim is to “super-ventilate” and then gradually slow your breathing. Try out this protocol immediately after finishing a workout. You can check your fitness device to see how fast you can drop your heart rate.

Breath Step Down
Lay down on the ground with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Perform:
4 Powerful Breaths Mouth In and Out
6 Powerful Breaths Nose In/ Slower Breaths Mouth Out
8 Slower Breaths Nose In/ Slower Breaths Nose Out

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