Colin Ayliffe is a certified Personal Trainer and Holistic Lifestyle Coach with over 10 years experience in training clients. Colin is Head Trainer at Court House Squash and Wellness in Hamilton. He graduated from the University of Surrey with a Bachelor’s Degree in Sport Science and is also a CHEK Practitioner, Golf Biomechanic and accredited by the National Academy of Sports Medicine.

Do you constantly feel out of breath during your workouts? Have a shoulder impingement? Slow gains in your resistance training or leave the gym exhausted? This could all be caused by faulty breathing patterns during exercise.


I have already covered the key concepts of breathing in a previous article highlighting the need to breathe in through the nose during our daily lives. But it is also important to understand correct breathing mechanics while working out. So many of my clients in Bermuda look bemused when I explain to them how they are breathing wrong and when I correct them they feel stronger and agree that it all makes sense.

Respiration is the most important mechanism in the human body. It literally supports life and impacts every other system. So it baffles me that exercisers still commonly accept the myth that we should always exhale or breathe out on exertion. This means every time we lift a weight we are supposed to exhale and inhale or breathe in when we lower the weight. 

I have lost count of the number of times a trainer has told their unknowing client “always breathe out on the effort”.

Understanding basic physiology and the biomechanics of joints and bones during respiration will tell us that this is completely wrong. 

Fetal position

It is a very simple concept to remember when thinking about the fetal position. This is the position of the body of a prenatal fetus as it develops in the womb. The back is curved, the head is bowed and the limbs are bent and drawn up to the torso. Many people assume this position when sleeping and especially when the body becomes cold.

So if you refer to the fetal position when exercising, we should exhale when the body goes into a fetal position with the spine flexed and inhale when the body comes out of the fetal position and spine extended. You can understand how this makes logical sense if you curl up into a ball whilst breathing out and then stand tall whilst breathing in. It should feel very natural.

Going into the fetal position can be demonstrated when we perform an abdominal crunch, we inhale when we stretch back and exhale as we crunch. 

If we are doing a bench press then we will inhale as we lower the bar and exhale as we push it away. Most people will naturally get this right.

But if we are performing a standing cable row with knuckles up, we should be inhaling as we bring the cable towards us and exhaling as we lower the weight. This breathing is the reverse of what most gym users are doing. This also applies to the squat where we should breathe out as we lower ourselves down into the fetal position and breathe in as we stand up out of the fetal position.

There a few exceptions to this rule. The first is to always exhale as the spinal curvatures increase. An example would be a back extension over a Swiss ball where the curve of the lower spine increases. 

The second exception is the grip we adopt during pulling exercises. If we are using a lat pulldown machine or a pull up with a pronated grip (palms facing away) then we should actually be breathing in as we pull. This is because the last 40º of lifting the arm up comes from extending the upper spine and therefore coming out of the fetal position. When we switch the grip to neutral (palms facing each other) or supinated (palms facing you) then we breathe out as we pull as this grip doesn’t cause the arm to completely lift up. Getting this right could stop shoulder impingements and rotator cuff injuries.

This rule applies to any lifting when using a light load. It changes though when lifting heavy weights where you can only perform a maximum of eight repetitions. The respiratory system also acts as a stabilizer system. The diaphragm is primarily a respiratory muscle and secondary a stabilizer muscle. When we lift a heavy load the central nervous system feels threatened and uses the diaphragm to support and protect the spine. This large muscle attaches to most of the ribs and stabilizes the body in rotational movement which is the motion where most injuries occur.

If you were told to pick up a pencil you would naturally not alter your breathing whereas if you were told to pick up a huge rock you would instinctively hold your breath. So, during heavy lifts in the gym, we should inhale before we lift the weight, hold our breath so the diaphragm is stabilizing the body and exhale through pursed lips during the hardest part of the move or the ‘sticking point’. Breathing correctly will mean you can throw away that weight belt, reduce risk of injury and become stronger in the process.

The final points to remember is that inhalation excites all the extensors in the body neurologically and exhalation excites all the flexors neurologically. If we are messing up our breathing we are also confusing the body by telling it one thing and doing another which can’t lead to an effective workout! 

Breathing correctly during workouts is also  meditative so you should be leaving the gym energized rather than exhausted. n