The Importance of Correct Breathing During Exercise and the Valsalva Effect.

In our daily lives, breathing comes naturally and doesn’t require any thought. We need oxygen, so we inhale, and we need to rid our bodies of carbon dioxide, so we exhale.

When you exercise, however, your working muscles demand greater amounts of oxygen and you create more carbon dioxide waste as a result. This results in an automatic increase in your respiration rate. But exercisers—especially new ones—shouldn’t take this process for granted. Becoming more aware of your breath can help you feel more comfortable (breathing too slowly can increase your heart rate), prevent complications (like dizziness or faintness that can result from a lack of oxygen), and get more out of your workouts.

Cardio (Aerobic) Exercise

When you are walking, running, biking, Spinning, or doing any other form of cardiovascular exercise, try to breathe deeply. Whether you breathe through your nose, mouth, or a combination of the two, is a personal preference. Most runners find that mouth breathing provides the body with the greatest amount of oxygen. Make a conscious effort to keep your breathing both deep and relaxed.


Like cardio, strength training increases the body’s need for oxygen and automatically results in a faster breathing rate. However, many people have a tendency to hold their breath during strenuous activity like weight lifting. Known as the Valsalva manoeuvre, this can limit oxygen delivery to the brain and cause dizziness, fainting, a spike in blood pressure and other complications. During strength training, the most important thing to remember about breathing is to just do it! Never hold your breath; be aware of how you are breathing at all times, whether through the nose or mouth.

It is recommended that you exhale on the exertion phase of the exercise and inhale on the easier phase. The exertion phase is typically the hardest phase of the exercise—lifting, curling, or pushing the weight. The easier phase brings you back to the starting position by lowering or returning the weight.

What is Valsalva?

The fancy term for breath-holding is Valsalva. Taking its name from 17th Century Italian Anatomist, Anton Maria Valsalva, the Valsalva Manoeuvre occurs when we attempt to forcibly exhale while keeping the mouth and nose closed. Although proper breathing during exercise is one of the most important aspects of a safe and effective workout, correct breathing does not come natural for most of us. Instead of breathing freely and openly during exercise, most people actually do the opposite. The basic purpose of Valsalva is to increase air pressure in the thorax and lungs to help with physical exertion or to help force things out of the body, like childbirth or going to the toilet.

When it comes to weight-training, most of us hold (or force) our breath as a means of handling intensity as the manoeuvre creates stability through pressure. Unfortunately, breath-holding removes our ability to produce high intensity muscular contractions, and it can actually be dangerous. Breath-holding during exercise increases blood pressure rapidly and this can lead to fainting, painful Exercise-Induced-Headaches, or even stroke. Power lifters are a prime example, they look like they’re about to burst!