This post is going to be a little more “science-y” than some of my previous entries, but I wanted to write about this because it’s such an important topic. As a personal trainer, I work really hard coaching my clients on how to breathe properly during exercising. And for good reason; if you don’t breathe right you are zapping your ability to give it your all, as well as increasing your risk of what we in the exercise biz like to call an exercise-induced headache (more on this later).
Have you ever gone to the gym and noticed how many of those body-building, powerlifter types are holding their breath, sometimes to the point of becoming red in the face? You may have also witnessed one of these individuals suddenly let out a loud, distracting scream during their heavy lifting. Guess what? When they are making a spectacle of themselves like that, they are also holding their breath or restricting their breathing. The result is a reduction in their force output, resulting in a decrease in their exercise performance. Yes, that’s right; they are doing it wrong! And to add, not only are they killing their performance, they’re also exponentially increasing their risk of developing what’s called an exercise-induced headache.
Beware of the EIH
An exercise-induced headache, or EIH, is essentialy a headache that can be brought on from holding your breath. Holding your breath increases your blood pressure, and whenever we hold our breath while exerting some sort of effort – for instance while trying to move or lift something heavy – we are essentially forcing air up against our glottis. The glottis basically consists of the folds of tissue that allow air to pass through our vocal cords. When we do this, we are creating pressure that results in a rise in blood pressure and essentially slows the venous return of blood to our heart. Basically, we are creating a blood traffic jam. And with any type of traffic jam, some nasty repercussions can result, such as inducing a headache that can even cause an aneurysm. If you ever begin to feel a warming sensation start to build at the base of the skull (also known as the occipital ridge), stop what you are doing immediately – this may be an early sign of an EIH. Again, EIHs are generally induced from pushing or pulling some sort of heavy object, be it a dumbbell or a heavy refrigerator or couch – any of these scenarios can induce this type of headache. So remember to breath and decrease your risk of developing this serious issue.
Increase O2, Increase Performance
For optimal exercise performance or bouts of intense physical activity, it is best to maximize the amount of oxygen (O2) while balancing our carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in our blood stream. This will allow the circulatory system to effectively transport blood and nutrients toward and away from the cells, and the cell – particularly the muscle cell – to extract oxygen for energy production.
Why is this important? Well, to improve athletic performance we need to go straight to the source to boost our energy production – or more technically put – our adenosine triphosphate (ATP) production. And to spare you the long explanation for how cellular respiration works to make ATP, the main take-away is that we need glucose (or ketones) and O2 to increase ATP output.
Thus it is integral to do whatever we can to maximize our O2-blood saturation. The difficult thing with this process is that during cellular respiration, the more O2 we burn for energy, the more CO2 we produce. The problem is with an increase of CO2 and lack of O2, we also shift our energy production systems from one that is aerobic (with oxygen) to one that is anaerobic (without oxygen), and the result is the production of lactic acid. So with all these crazy chemical reactions taking place, once our energy systems begin producing CO2 and lactic acid, the inevitable result is increased acidity and performance loss.
So how do we keep our O2, CO2, and lactic acid in check? By breathing, that’s how! More specifically, by rapidly breathing.
Breathing in a rapid, controlled manner (think mild hyperventilation) will increase O2 and blow off extra CO2 so our body can continue producing ATP at large quantities, as well as keep lactic acid output low so we can keep cranking away at our exercise activity.
I’ll let you in on a little secret; if you do this special type of breathing while you are exerting some sort of muscular force output during exercise, especially if you are doing some sort of weight lifting, you will find that you increase your endurance, decrease risk of developing an EIH, and get better performance results all around.
Here’s how it’s done:
- When lifting or pushing some heavy object, the first thing you need to remember is NEVER HOLD YOUR BREATH.
- Lift or push slowly, and try to breath normally. Do not try to synchronize your breath to your movement, just try to breath as comfortably as possible.
- When the intensity of the activity increases, do not hold your breath in this moment; instead, begin to increase the pace of your breath. When the intensity really increases, this type of breathing should almost resemble a hyperventilation-type breathing.
- It is best to NOT mouth breath. Breathing through the nose allows the body to better regulate O2/CO2 balance, because when you breath through the mouth you essentially bypass the nasal membrane where the O2/CO2 signalling takes place.
Here’s a video of myself doing a high intensity workout. Pay attention to how I am breathing:
At first, you may find that this controlled breathing technique feels a little strange. You may even feel a sensation of lightheadedness at first. Just continue to practice this technique and you will find that these negative sensations decrease while your exercise performance increases!