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Never Make This Basic Error While Lifting Weights, Say Experts

How you breathe can make all the difference to your performance.

"When women give birth, they're told to breathe through the pain," professional surfer Laird Hamilton once wrote. "The same is true when you're weightlifting or doing anything strenuous."

Now, with respect to those who have endured the experience of delivering other souls into the world, we'd never compare childbirth with the experience of weightlifting. But Hamilton's basic point is nonetheless taken: Your breathing is important when it comes to strength training.

So important, in fact, that far too many people actually get it wrong.

Believe it or not, the way you breathe when you lift weights matters. After all, every time you take a breath, you're bringing oxygen into your system that it needs to survive. When you start added stress to you body via exercise, guess what? Your body will need even more oxygen.

"If you're not breathing properly during exercise, you're decreasing your body's athletic performance," says Tim Liu, C.S.C.S., a personal trainer based in Los Angeles. "Most people either hold their breaths during lifts—or breathe without any sort of rhythm or cadence. When you breathe properly, you increase intra-abdominal pressure, allowing you to have more strength, power, and stability in your strength training exercises."

The single biggest mistake you can make is to not breathe at all. "If you're not breathing, your body will lock up tension," Dean Somerset, C.S.C.S., a kinesiologist and exercise physiologist, explained to SELF. According to others, doing so will lead to a rapid drop in blood pressure that can even cause you to pass out or injure yourself.

Now, that doesn't mean you need to start breathing super fast, either. "If you're breathing too fast (almost hyperventilating) you can throw your body off balance," says Liu. "Holding your breath during an entire lift (especially a heavy load) can cause you to be light-headed after you finish."

So what's the proper way to breathe when you're pumping iron—for both your overall health and for getting the most out of your performance?

"The proper breathing pattern while pumping iron is to inhale during the eccentric and exhaling during the concentric," explains Liu. "An example would be the pushup, you inhale and fill your belly full of air as you lower yourself, then exhale when you're pushing yourself up."

The key word he mentions here is "belly." For the sake of your blood pressure, your heart rate, and for delivering as much oxygenated air into your body as possible, it's important that you engage in diaphragmatic breathing—or using your diaphragm, the muscle between your chest and your abs. To do so, you'd breathe in slowly through the nose (always the nose, whenever possible!), you'd feel the swell of air enter your abs area (the diaphragm), and then you'll squeeze the exhale out in such a way that's neither too fast nor too slow.

If you do this while lifting heavy weights, you'll see a difference. "Aside from the gas exchange element of getting more oxygen into your body, breathing can help create core pressure that stabilizes your spine, which helps you lift heavier," said Somerset.

And be mindful about it, says Hamilton. "Breathing deeply and exhaling consciously will increase how much effort you can give and improve your sense of well-being." In the market for more fitness tips? Don't miss The Single Greatest Weightlifting Move for Shedding Pounds, Says Science.

William Mayle
William Mayle is a UK-based writer who specializes in science, health, fitness, and other lifestyle topics. Read more about William
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