Using a breathing pattern while exercising can reduce your risk of injury, improve performance, and burn fat faster. Although each person is different (and you should experiment to figure out which style of breathing is best for you), here are some general rules of thumb for each APFT event:


Practice the “exhale on effort” technique for the push-up event.

  1. Start in a standard push-up position. Take one long, deep breath through your mouth and nose while you lower yourself to the ground.
  2. Exhale while pushing up, since this is when you are using the most energy. Make sure you are breathing deeply to bring fresh oxygen into your lungs.
  3. Repeat breathing in while you lower to the ground and exhaling when you push up until you are halfway to the usual number of push-up you can do in two minutes.
  4. Once you are halfway, to prevent losing steam too soon, try modifying the “exhale on effort” technique with quick reps. Take two quick, deep breaths and then do five quick reps. Repeat this process until the rest of your two minutes is up.


  1. To make sure you are getting enough oxygen to power your sit-ups, inhale when you lay back to the ground and exhale when you sit up, since this is the point of the exercise where you use the most energy.
  2. To make sure you are taking deep enough breaths, imagine you are filling your chest with air like a balloon when you inhale. You should be able to see your chest moving up and down several inches with each breath.
  3. Repeat breathing pattern until you are halfway to the number of sit-ups you are usually able to do in two minutes.
  4. Like the push-up event, you can practice the modified “exhale on effort” technique once you are halfway. Take two quick breaths and then crank out five quick back-to-back reps. Repeat quick reps until the rest of your two minutes is up.


For the timed run, rhythmic breathing is key. Although there is no golden rule (it varies by individual, the 3:2 pattern is a popular breathing pattern among runners. The idea is pretty simple: inhale for three steps and exhale for two steps. By following this pattern, you alternate which foot you land on for each inhale and exhale, which prevents injury. Although it sounds simple, it can be tough to perfect. Check out this post to learn more about and practice rhythmic breathing.

Push-ups as Breathing Exercises – Part 2

In our last article on breathing exercises, here, we introduced the concept of using the basic push-up form as a vehicle for training the breath. Today we will continue with the push-up as the outward expression, but take a look at different types of breathing patterns to increase the depth and complexity of the the exercise.

4 Phases of Breathing

The breath cycle can be broken down into 4 distinct phases of breathing:

  1. Inhale
  2. Pause after inhale (full hold)
  3. Exhale
  4. Pause after exhale (empty hold)

Each of these phases can be manipulated within the framework of our exercise to create variation and change the focus of the exercise. Previously we had discussed how to use the inhale and exhale phases of breathing to increase capacity by fitting more movement into each breath. Today we will focus on the other 2 phases, pause after inhale and pause after exhale. These breath holds will allow us to teach the body how to utilize the oxygen it already has more effciently by working longer in a state of oxygen deprivation.

As a side note, please be aware of your body’s physiological response to breathing exercises. In general, inhalation causes a slight increase in tension and blood pressure, while exhalation causes a relaxation response and an accompanying lowering of blood pressure. These effects can be magnified by holding the breath after inhalation and holding the breath after exhalation. Therefore, please proceed with caution.

Inhale and Hold

In this exercise we will be working with the pause after inhalation. Assume the push-up position. Inhale deeply by expanding the belly. Don’t force it. Just inhale as much as comfortable for you. Pause. Do not exhale.

Perform 1 push-up.

Exhale at the top and inhale again. Perform 2 push-ups on the full hold. Exhale at the top portion and then inhale and hold. Perform 3 push-ups on the full hold.

How does it feel?

Can you do 4? 5?

Make sure you are not trying to move faster just because you’re holding the breath.

Perform the push-ups smoothly and in a relaxed manner. A side benefit of this type of work is that it helps you to work under stress. When you can’t breathe, the body begins to panic. Even though your mind knows it’s just an exercise and you can breathe at any time, your body is responding to the lack of air and begins to sound the alarm. Understand this and work with it to teach yourself to remain calm in difficult situations.

Exhale and Hold

Now let’s look at the pause after exhale, or empty hold. You know the drill by now – assume the position!

Inhale and exhale in the top portion of the push-up. Hold on the exhale and do 1 push-up. Inhale and exhale. Do 2 push-ups. Inhale at the top, exhale. Do 3 push-ups.

What do you notice about holding on the exhale versus holding on the inhale?

Much more difficult, right?

Again, note the reaction your body is having to the exercise. Are you speeding up to get through it? Are you using more muscle tension than necessary? How does the increased muscle tension affect your body’s oxygen usage? Relax and slow down. You’ll be able to handle more.

Hip to be Square Breathing

Okay. Time to put it all together. Square breathing means that each of the 4 segments or phases of the breath cycle will be of equal length. For example, inhale to a count of 5, hold on the inhale for a count of 5, exhale for a count of 5, then hold on exhale for a count of 5. The count itself doesn’t matter as long as each part is equal. Obvioudly, the difficultly level can be increased with a higher count and decreased with a lower count. For our purposes, let’s stick with the 5 count for one push-up. Begin in the up portion of the push-up. Don’t move yet, but inhale for a count of 5. Now hold the breath and slowly lower down to a count of 5. At the bottom portion of the push-up, exhale in position for a count of 5. Hold on the exhale and raise yourself back up slowly to a count of 5. Make sense?

Let me know how you make out with the above exercises and if there are any questions you have.


Jon Haas, “The Warrior Coach” has been training in Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu for more than 25 years and is currently ranked as a Kudan (9th degree black belt) under Jack Hoban Shihan. He has also trained in Okinawan Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Russian Systema, BJJ, Krav Maga, as well as Internal Martial Arts of Yiquan and Aiki.He is a certified Underground Strength Coach-Level 2, a certified Personal Trainer as well as founder of Warrior Fitness Training Systems. In 2008, Jon wrote the book, Warrior Fitness: Conditioning for Martial Arts, and since then has created numerous other online training and coaching programs helping people around the world become the strongest, most capable versions of themselves!

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How to Breathe for Every Type of Exercise

Breathe in, breathe out—simple right? Not so fast. When it comes to exercise, the art of inhaling and exhaling may be a little more complicated than we think. Should we breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth? And wait—what’sa diaphragm exactly? Whether the goal is running, lifting, or warrior posing with ease, read on to discover the best breathing techniques to put optimal performance well within reach.

Breathe Easy—Your Action Plan

Whether it’s time to hit the turf, track, or squat rack, breathing isn’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind (not falling on your face tends to take priority). But smooth and efficient breathing is crucial for delivering the oxygen our bodies need to perform functions properly. Proper breathing can also help athletes exercise longer with less effort, nix side stitches, and even calm the mind. With a little extra awareness—and some practice—that A game could be just a few breaths away. Here’s what you need to keep in mind:


Nailing the right running form, tempo, and strategy can be challenging enough, but a runner’s work doesn’t end there. Huffing and puffing your way around the track won’t get you to the finish line. In fact, studies show that improper breathing technique can impair speed and performance.

How to do it right: While there’s no golden rule, many runners find it most comfortable to take one breath for every two foot strikes, says Alison McConnell, a breathing expert and author of Breathe Strong Perform Better. This means taking two steps (one left, one right) while breathing in and two steps while breathing out—also known as the 2:2 rhythm. Because the diaphragm and surrounding organs are all subject to the forces of gravity, McConnell says, synchronizing the breath to running cadence will keep the organs from putting unnecessary pressure on the diaphragm, which can impede breathing (and make running more uncomfortable than it needs to be).

The nose vs. mouth debate: While there have been some studies comparing nasal and oral breathing during exercise, most have used small sample sizes with somewhat inconclusive results. “My advice is to breathe via the mouth during exercise, as this is the route of least resistance,” McConnell says. “Breathing through the nose during exercise just makes it needlessly hard.”

On the flip side, some experts say that nose breathing has its own benefits, including increased CO2 saturation in the blood, which creates a more calming effect, says Roy Sugarman, Ph.D., director of applied neuroscience for Athletes’ Performance and the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team. Breathing in through the nose can also help warm the air entering the lungs (cold weather workouts, we’re looking at you!) and might minimize allergen intake, says professional triathlete and Ironwoman Terra Castro. Bottom line: Test the airways, and see what feels right for you and your lungs.

High-Intensity Sports

Prefer taking one for the team? When a 250-pound linebacker is headed your way (and running for the locker room is not an option), breathing easy isn’t exactly a piece of cake. High-intensity sports can literally take our breath away thanks to the demanding cardio component and the barrage of tackles, kicks, and hits.

How to do it right: “Breathing muscles are an integral part of the core stabilizing and postural control systems,” McConnell says. Intuitively, this means when anticipating a load or an impact, it’s best to take a deep breath and then brace the core. Not only will this make us more difficult to knock over (take that, LT), it will also help protect the spine, McConnell adds.

Go big or go home: While there isn’t one correct way to breathe on the playing field or while running, the breath should come from the diaphragm (the most efficient breathing muscle)—not the chest. “In general, the rib cage should expand in a 3D pattern, top to bottom, back to front, and to the sides,” says Anna Hartman, director of Performance Physical Therapy at Athletes’ Performance.

Why panting won’t pay off:Take a cue from Kobe, if you will. Breathing deeper, calmer, and more efficiently can also give athletes a psychological edge against their opponents, McConnell says. Showing no signs of fatigue will only help psyche out the other team.

Strength Training

Aerobic activity isn’t the only exercise that can benefit from good breathing form. Anyone who hits the weights regularly has probably heard exhaling on the exertion (or effort phase) of an exercise is the way to go. It’s sound logic: Contracting the respiratory muscles will help brace the load during heavier lifts while maintaining lumbar stability.

How to do it right: Using the bench press as an example, exhale slowly and continuously while pressing the bar, then inhale at the top of the lift or on the return. Just remember that once that barbell is pressed, the weight doesn’t vanish, McConnell explains, so be sure to keep the core engaged to protect the spine, similar to preparing for impact during contact sports.

When in doubt: Don’t forget to breathe out! Holding the breath increases pressure inside the chest (which is good for stability), but holding it too long can impede the return of blood to the heart and raise blood pressure (definitely not the goal here).


Time to finally unwind? Reaching savasana might be tough without using the breath as fuel. Luckily, there are two popular breathing methods (or pranayama) to help you chill out or power through.

How to do it right: For sama vritti, or “equal breathing,” match an equal-length inhale to an equal-length exhale. This fundamental style of breath is said to calm the nervous system, lower blood pressure, and reduce stress, says yoga instructor and Greatist Expert Rebecca Pacheco. To power through more rigorous types of yoga, such as ashtanga, vinyasa, and power yoga, many yogis rely on ujjayi breath, (a.k.a. “victorious breath”). Simply breathe in and out through the nose, maintaining a slight contraction in the back of the throat. If you sound a bit like Darth Vader, you’re doing it right, Pacheco insists.

What not to do: When it’s time for warrior IIIs, wheelbarrows, and other holy-crap-this-is-hard poses, it’s common to hold your breath. Take that as a sign of overexertion, Pacheco says. Instead, take a break to refocus, breathe, and then hop back into the pose whenever you’re ready.

Still short of breath? There is such a thing as strength training for the respiratory muscles, which has been shown to improve performance in endurance and high-intensity sports. There’s even an app for that (Breathe Strong), developed by McConnell to help athletes breathe stronger and more efficiently. Ditching the cigarettes, correcting bad posture, and keeping allergies and asthma in check are also key to better breathing. So whether it’s the first lap or the fourth quarter, go ahead and let the breath maximize your potential for success.

This article has been read and approved by Greatist Experts Dr. John Mandrola and Dan Trink. It was originally published on May 17, 2012 and was last updated on October 29, 2014.

What is the proper way to breathe during strength training?

People are often unsure how to breathe during a particular exercise or lift. A general rule is to exhale under control while you are lifting the weight and inhale with control while lowering the weight or resistance. This sometimes puzzles people because the starting position of the exercise dictates the way you should breathe. Don’t worry if you do the opposite, it is definitely better to breathe than to hold your breath during the whole lift.

Many traditional exercises will actually start with an exhale including: deadlifts, biceps curls, rows, pull-ups and shoulder presses. This is because you are actually lifting the weight or resistance; simply inhale while returning to the start position and repeat.

Some exceptions are the bench press, squat or lunge and their variations. During these lifts you are actually lowering the resistance first and the lift portion is second. So you start the exercise by inhaling and then exhale while returning to the start position.

During isometric exercises like the plank, you hold a position for time, so just breathe in and out under control during the exercise

You will often see elite lifters holding their breath during lifts or intense portions of a lift. Just remember, these athletes are trained and this technique isn’t suitable for beginners. Holding your breath can skyrocket your blood pressure, make you dizzy and affect your performance and safety.

Key Points:

  • Most important- don’t hold your breath
  • Breathing in reverse order is better than not breathing
  • Breathe out while actually lifting the resistance
  • Breathe in while lowering the resistance
  • Correct breathing does take some practice, but you will pick it up in no time

When people begin a fitness program, they understandably have lots of questions, from how to perform certain moves to which exercises are most effective. One question that everyone seems to ask is how to breathe properly when working out.
I know what you are thinking. “Who would need instructions on how to breathe?” Breathing doesn’t take thought; it is involuntary, just like blinking your eyes. Shouldn’t we stop thinking about it so and just let it happen? Yes and no. Trainers or exercise instructors regularly need to remind their clients to breathe because so many people tend to hold their breath when they work out.
But holding your breath isn’t the only problem people face during exercise; their breath is often too fast, too slow, too deep or too shallow. Sometimes they even inhale and exhale at the wrong times, and while that will not make or break your workout, it can affect the exercise itself, how well you perform it, and your mind-body connection.
Breathing Basics
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. However, few people use their lungs to their full capacity. It has been reported that at rest, people use just 10%-15% of their actual lung capacity, usually a result of quick, shallow breaths that make the chest rise and fall.
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 and affect your perceived intensity), prevent complications (like dizziness or faintness that can result from a lack of oxygen), and get more out of your workouts. Here’s what you need to know to breathe properly during five common types of exercise.
Cardio (Aerobic) Exercise
When you are walking, running, biking, Spinning, or doing any other form of cardiovascular exercise, try to breathe deeply. “As to whether you breathe through your nose, mouth, or a combination of the two, is a personal preference,” says SparkPeople’s Nancy Howard, a certified running coach. “Most runners find that mouth breathing provides the body with the greatest amount of oxygen,” she explains, and this may be the case for other exercisers, too. Make a conscious effort to keep your breathing both deep and relaxed. Ideally, we should all practice diaphragmatic breathing or “belly” breathing during cardio activities, which contrasts considerably with the shallow chest breaths we do while at rest. Diaphragmatic breathing allows for deeper, fuller breaths and better oxygen delivery during intense exercise. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Relax your abdominals slightly. Pulling them in too tightly or sucking in your stomach will limit how fully your can breathe.
  2. Breathe deeply enough that your belly—not your chest—rises and falls as you inhale and exhale.
  3. Continue this technique at your own pace to meet your oxygen needs during exercise.

If this does not come naturally, you can practice belly breathing by lying flat on your back with a book on your abdomen. Slowly inhale as you watch the book rise, then lower the book by slowly exhaling. This takes focus, but over time you will find it easier to do this type of breathing during your workouts. If your breathing is short and shallow, you might be working too hard or you may have not developed a good breathing pattern for your activity. But keep in mind that your breath will not always line up perfectly with your movements when doing cardio, and you shouldn’t try to force it to. For example, a swimmer may take a breath on one arm stroke and exhale after three arm strokes, but there is no rule that you have to breathe in for three steps while walking and then out for three steps. The key is to find a breathing pattern that is comfortable for you and stick with it.
Strength Training
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 maneuver, 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.
Beyond that, fitness experts recommend 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. To help, all of SparkPeople’s exercise demos explain when to inhale and exhale based on these recommendations. By focusing on breathing in on the return and breathing out on the exertion phase of each exercise, you’ll also prevent yourself from holding your breath. However, don’t get too caught up about when to inhale and exhale. Breathing in reverse is much better than not breathing at all.
Properly breathing while you stretch after your workouts helps your body relax so that you can return to a resting state, in addition to aiding in the mechanical removal of waste byproducts of exercise. It may also allow you to increase your flexibility because proper breathing during stretches will help you to relax more fully and therefore stretch more deeply. Many people tend to hold their breath during stretching or to take short and shallow breaths, but ideally, we should take deep, relaxed diaphragmatic breaths. Most experts recommend inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth when stretching. On every exhale, try to relax more fully or give into the stretch a little further, but make sure that you never stretch past a seven on a scale of 1-10.

Joseph Pilates used to say, “Even if you follow no other instructions, learn to breathe correctly,” which is why breathing takes center stage during his mind-body exercises. Pilates typically involves lateral or ribcage breathing, which differs considerably from the diaphragmatic breathing explained previously. With your abdominals engaged (naval pulled toward your spine), inhale deeply through the nose without allowing your belly to rise; instead, think about the air filling your lungs and expanding them laterally and into your back while your belly remains tight and flat as if you are wearing a corset. On your exhale, open your lips slightly and push all of that air out of your mouth both forcefully and slowly, making your exhale audible (like a “whoooooo” or “seeeeeeee” sound). This style of breath keeps the abdominals engaged and helps you to perform Pilates exercises with greater ease and better control.
Like strength training, you will most often exhale during the phase of an exercise that involves the most exertion. However, breath is used in Pilates as a way to hold your attention; your instructor will ask you to exhale on the part of the exercise where they want you to focus your intention, which may or may not always be the hardest part of the exercise. It’s OK if you mess up when to inhale and exhale in Pilates, but do you best to maintain this lateral breathing technique. Over time, it will get easier to breathe properly and at the correct times during your exercises.
In yoga, “breathing serves a variety of purposes,” according to Stepfanie Romine, a certified Ashtanga yoga teacher. Like Pilates, yoga has a unique form of breathing known as “ujjayi” breathing. During this slow, even breath through the nose, one should inhale for 4-5 heartbeats, pause slightly, and then exhale for an equal length of time. The back of the throat constricts slightly to allow the air to create an audible sound. The audible breath serves as a “moving meditation” during a yoga practice, Romine says, meaning that when poses get difficult, the mind can focus on the rhythm and sound of the breath to stay calm. This breath, which sounds like the ocean, helps you stay in the moment and centered while practicing yoga. In addition, “the breath serves as a metronome for the body, each movement timed to the length of an inhalation or exhalation,” Romine says.
In yoga, each pose (or new movement within a pose) should start with an inhalation. Inhalations are used for movements that involve standing taller or lengthening in a folded pose. The exhalation is used to go deeper in a pose: sinking lower into a lunge in Warrior pose, getting the nose closer to the knees while folding; exhalations are also used to get out of a pose.
There is a lot more to proper breathing than just going with the flow. Keep in mind that you may need to consciously practice these various techniques for a while before they become automatic, but your workouts will improve dramatically if you are able to perfect them. When all else fails, just breathe!

Summit Medical Group Web Site

Proper Breathing During Exercise

With healthy lung month here, what better time to consider how you breathe when you exercise?

Whether you enjoy walking, running, swimming, cycling, or resistance training, proper breathing is important for exercising safely, comfortably, and effectively.

That’s because taking in regular, deep breaths promotes the transfer of oxygen that powers the muscles, and pushing out regular, deep breaths eliminates waste gases such as carbon dioxide.

See your Summit Medical Group practitioner
to ensure it is safe for you to exercise.

Although breathing at rest or during exercise is instinctive, there are breathing techniques that can increase the amount of time you are comfortable exercising (your endurance) as well as improve the quality of your workout.

Proper Breathing During Exercise

The most important technique for breathing during exercise is to use the muscle that extends across the bottom of the chest cavity (the diaphragm). Breathing from the diaphragm instead of the chest (where you breathe when you are not exercising) will allow you to get deep, full breaths that fill your lungs with air and oxygen that your body needs for exercise.

To know if you are breathing properly from the diaphragm, place your hands on your lower ribs. As you breathe in, you will feel your ribs rise. As you breathe out, you will feel your ribs fall.

General tips for breathing properly during exercise include:

  • Relaxing your muscles and mind
  • Being aware of your posture and body as you warm up
    • Stand up straight or position yourself to breathe from the diaphragm
    • Relax and open your chest
    • Lift your chin
    • Breathe in and breathe out evenly and deeply
  • Breathing through the mouth or nose at even intervals when engaging in cardiovascular exercise such as walking, running, cycling, or swimming
    • Make each breath you take in equal to each breath you push out
  • Breathing out when you resist (or lift) weight and inhaling as you relax into starting position
    • Taking deep breaths in can help stabilize muscles of your abdomen, back, and sides (core muscles) and protect your spine during exertion
  • Not holding your breath
    • Adjust your breathing or speed/intensity so that you may breathe in and out at a rate that matches your exercise pace
  • Keeping a rhythm
    • Counting breaths in and out
    • Using your steps, cycling rotations, or another rhythm in your movement to help guide your breathing rhythm
    • Listening to music that aligns your breathing and exercise rhythm
  • Slowing your exercise pace if you cannot catch your breath
    • Stand up straight with your hands over your head and breathe in and out deeply and evenly until your breathing rate returns to normal
  • Adding yoga to your workout routine to learn mindful breathing techniques (pranayama) you can use in your cardiovascular and weight training workouts
  • Focusing on maintaining slow, even, and deep breaths until your breathing returns to normal as you cool down after your workout

Benefits of breathing properly during exercise include:

  • Exercising more comfortably, safely, and for longer periods
  • Preventing injuries such as hernias, spikes in blood pressure/strain on blood vessels, and back pain
  • Increasing blood flow throughout the body
  • Increasing your ability to relax
  • Helping you let go of distractions and stay focused on your exercise

If you are just starting back to exercise or if you are exercising for the first time, you may find that it’s difficult to control your breathing. But the good news is that heart and lung (cardiovascular) fitness improves quickly if you continue exercising regularly, and soon you will develop breathing patterns that are second nature to your activity!

If You Aren’t Breathing Like This, You’re Sabotaging Your Workout

During a workout, your focus is most likely on completing the exercise at hand with good form. And while that’s the meat of it, there’s another part of the equation that often gets critically overlooked — proper breathing.

Paying attention to your breathing during strength training can really work for you.

It allows your body more control, keeping you calm and alert throughout your workout so you can actively engage all your muscles. It might even give you the ability to lift more.

And in the long term, practicing proper breathing will:

  • reduce the amount of air you need to breathe in and out during given exercise
  • help your muscles produce less carbon dioxide
  • improve blood circulation and heart health
  • maximize your workout and fitness level

Breathless no longer!

How to breathe for maximum efficiency

The general rule of thumb is to inhale through your nose, so the air enters your belly, right before the eccentric (muscle-lengthening) part of the motion.

Exhale during the concentric (muscle-shortening) part of the motion completely through your mouth.

via Gfycat

Take the squat for example: You should inhale just before you begin to lower down, and exhale as you extend your legs back to the starting position.

Or the pushup: Inhale, bend your elbows to lower your body down to the ground, and exhale as you rise back up.

It may be tempting to hold your breath during weight lifting — don’t!

Making a habit of holding your breath can cause your blood pressure to rise, possibly resulting in dizziness, nausea or even a heart attack.

Instead, use your exercise as a time to practice deep breaths. Deep breaths can lower your blood pressure, enhance relaxation, and may even play a role in how our bodies break down sodium.

Get connected to your breath with breathing techniques — like the ones detailed here — and become more cognizant of how and when to breath during strength training.

After some practice, it’ll be second nature.

Nicole Davis is a Boston-based writer, ACE-certified personal trainer, and health enthusiast who works to help women live stronger, healthier, happier lives. Her philosophy is to embrace your curves and create your fit — whatever that may be! She was featured in Oxygen magazine’s “Future of Fitness” in the June 2016 issue. Follow her on Instagram.

Here’s How To Perfect Your Pull-Ups

You do not need the gym to pull off the humble pull-up. All you need is a door frame and a pull-up bar, and you are good to go. So, why is it that many of us struggle with pull-ups? It is because they are famously challenging to execute

This is why we associate pull-ups with boot camp and shredded gym fanatics. However, do not let the fact that pull-ups are difficult discourage you. With a few hacks, some persistence and a lot of elbow grease, you too can perfect the pull-up.

Why Pull-Ups?

Why not pull-ups? Sure, you may be at the gym, trying your best and wondering why you bother. You might get nervous as you imagine what the random trainer over there thinks of your efforts. Do not worry about it; they have seen worse.

The reason you should perfect the pull-up is simple. It is arguably the best exercise to increase your upper body strength. Also, a well-executed pull-up is the benchmark of a successful fitness regimen.

Pull-ups use your own bodyweight to exercise your core and your arms. As you pull your body upwards, you will work the muscles in your chest, shoulders, arms, back, and abdomen.

Anyone looking to do strength or resistance training should learn how to maximize the effect of each pull-up. Here are some tips that will help you do just that.

It Starts With The Grip

Bodyweight exercises like pull-ups are great for building the strength needed for martial arts like Muay Thai, BJJ, and MMA.

The way you grip the overhead bar or doorframe determines how well you work those muscles. To start off with, hold the bar with your palms facing away from you. Your thumbs should be on the side of the bar that faces away from you, in what is known as a full grip. Also, your hands should be directly above each shoulder.

At shoulder width, your grip will force you to use your core and shoulders to lift your body. This is what you want if you are a newbie since you will need all the muscle you can get to clear the bar with your chin or chest.

Later on, you can space your hands closer together. This will leave most of the work to your arms, your biceps in particular. When you improve, you can position your hands right next to each other. This will force the muscles in your forearms to work harder. After you get the hang of that, you can experiment with different gips, the hammer grip, the mixed grip, etc.

How To Pull Yourself Up

Once you get the hang of the regular pull-up, start experimenting with different types of grips.

You could try to pull yourself up by the strength of your arms alone. This is one of the more challenging forms of the pull-up, so do not do that. Not yet.

Instead, help your arms out by using muscles in your chest, shoulders, and back. So start by gripping the bar and hanging there for a second. We call this a dead hang. Next, tighten all the muscles in your core. This will keep your body straight and prevent you from swinging. Now it is time to use your lats, pecs, and shoulders to lift you up.

Let us start with the chest. Flex your pectoral muscles so that your chest moves upwards and forwards. Like you are trying to pull the bar towards your ribs. This will push your body up, even as your arms pull.

Retract your shoulders by flexing the shoulder muscles downwards and backward. This action will also help to propel your body upwards.

Haul As Little Deadweight As You Can

It is harder to carry a person that is unconscious, and a fireman will confirm this. Reason being that the person’s muscles are relaxed, leaving the body completely slack. And a lot heavier. Hence the term deadweight.

It is the same when you do not engage the muscles in your core and back. When your body is slack, then you will have to work a lot harder to clear the bar. So tighten your upper body for each rep. It will keep you in good form and make your work easier.

How To Breathe

The key to pull-ups is consistency.

As you are in a dead hang, inhale deeply and hold that breath. Engage your core and as you pull yourself up, exhale slowly. Breathe in on your way down and exhale again on your way up.

As you breathe in, remember to keep your core muscles engaged the whole time.

Other Exercises That Help To Perfect Your Pull-Ups

Not everybody can do a great pull-up on their first try. To improve your form, you can use other exercises to increase your upper body strength. A few examples of such workouts are:

1. The Pull-Down

The lateral pull-down machine lets you pull a weight of your choosing towards your chest. Doing a pull-down mimics the muscle action of a pull-up. The exercise strengthens the lats, which you will need to pull your bodyweight past the pull-up bar.

To do a proper pull-down:

  • Grip the bar and lean back a little
  • Engage your core to maintain this posture
  • Pull the bar towards your chest and squeeze your shoulder blades like you are trying to make your elbows touch behind your back

2. The Negative Pull-Up

Hoist yourself so that your chin or chest is level with the bar. You can use a step or a small ladder to help with this. Now tighten the muscles in your core and slowly lower yourself to the ground.

This exercise is easier than hoisting your body upwards. It will strengthen your chest, shoulder, and back muscles. You can use it to work up to a full pull-up rep.

Work Towards A Full Range Of Motion

Pull ups make use of, and strengthen 13 different muscles.

If you are trying pull-ups for the first time, you may not even clear your chin past the bar. Keep trying, because the effort you make strengthens your muscles each workout session. If you keep at it, you will be able to clear the bar with your chin. Remember to focus on quality rather than quantity.

With time, you will be able to clear the bar at chest level, in perfect form. This is the end goal that you should be aiming for.

If you found this article interesting, here are some others that you may enjoy:

4 Common Strength And Conditioning Mistakes To Avoid

3 Unconventional Workouts That Will Change Your Mind About Exercising

7 Intense Push-Up Variations For A Full-Body Workout

3 Breathing Techniques for Pull ups & Chin ups and Which One is Best for You

There are many different breathing methods that are useful for exercise. And today, I’m going to share three of the ones that are most applicable to pull-up training. The most important things to keep in mind are:

a) always be mindful of your breathing
b) use your breath intentionally
c) find the breathing technique that works best for you

So, with that said, here are three breathing techniques that you can use with your pull-up and chin-up training.

1st Breathing Technique: Power Breathing – Most untrained people either breathe erratically (i.e. no rhythm or rhyme to their breathing), or they implement some kind of power breathing (i.e. inhaling and then bracing or pressurizing during effort). This is a somewhat natural phenomenon, and it’s a useful survival tool when you have to exert near-maximal force in uncharted territory (e.g. doing something you’ve never done before). However, there are some risks that come along with power breathing, especially when it’s used frequently during training. And for most people, the risks aren’t worth the benefits. So, most people would be much better off using one of the following techniques.

2nd Breathing Technique: Exhaling During Effort – Most people, and all beginner trainees, should implement this second breathing technique that involves a strong, forceful exhale during the difficult portion of an exercise. This is standard practice in strength training. You exhale during the concentric portion of the exercise (i.e. the hard part) and inhale during the eccentric portion of the exercise (i.e. the easy part).

So, during the pull up or chin up exercises, you would exhale strongly from the mouth while pulling yourself up. And then inhale passively on the way back down to the bottom, dead hang position. The exhale should be combined with a strong contraction of the core musculature, which will aid in the exhale – effectively squeezing the air out of your lungs – and increasing your total body strength and power generation.

This is the technique that should be used by the vast majority of people.

3rd Breathing Technique: Inhaling on Expansion of the Lungs & Exhaling on Compression of the Lungs – Some advanced trainees may want to experiment with different breathing techniques that involve working with your lungs by exhaling whenever they’re compressed and inhaling whenever there is “room” to do so.

Now, there are different ways to perform pull ups and chin ups, and some of them affect the rib cage differently than others. For example, close-grip chin-ups will affect the rib cage differently than sternum chin-ups (aka chest-to-bar chin-ups).

So, whenever your lungs are compressed from spinal flexion, scapula protraction, and/or shoulder internal rotation – think “hunched over” or “fetal position” – allow the air in your lungs to get squeezed out; instead of trying to hold your breath when there’s little room to do so. On the flip side, whenever your rib cage is expanded from spinal extension, scapula retraction, and/or shoulder external rotation, allow air to come into your lungs. In this way, the movement of performing pull ups can breathe you in-and-of-itself. This is a more efficient technique, and may be worth exploring if you’re so inclined.

As a challenge, you can also try performing pull-ups while:

a) holding your breath, or

b) while holding a full exhale (i.e. between breaths). That is, you train during the control pause after an exhale, and before inhaling again.

Final Words

Again, there are many ways to breathe during exercise. The most important thing is that you breathe mindfully, intentionally, and figure out what works best for you and your goals.

About The Author

John Sifferman is a health-first fitness coach who has been teaching, coaching, and training people in various capacities since 2006. John is the author of The Pull-up Solution, the complete pull-up and chin-up training system that helps people rapidly increase their pull-up numbers in three months or less.

You can get a free copy of John’s 3-month pull-up training program and download more of his premium pull-up training resource as part of his free 5-day Pull-up Training Crash Course.

Photo credit: 1.


Ah…Pull-ups. The pull-up is one of the most versatile exercises out there; you can do them with your body weight, throw on some chains, use wide and narrow grips, even turn your palms over and do a chin-up. This staple movement not only develops strength and muscularity, but it carries over to any real-world scenario where you might need to…pull yourself up and over something. It’s also vital to master the pull-up if you ever expect to do a muscle-up. While the pull-up doesn’t seem all that hard to do, it’s one of the most difficult exercises to even get started with so I came up with this short list of the 7 reasons why you STILL haven’t mastered pull-ups!

1. You’re too heavy.

More often than not, the folks who have the most trouble with body weight movements like pull-ups are a little on the heavy side and they’ve developed little-to-no general physical preparedness (GPP). Six-seven years from now when you’re carrying 20 more lbs. of muscle you can probably get away with being heavier, but right now, losing that fat will make a massive difference in your body weight movements.

Be honest with yourself: if you have a lot of fat to lose and you’re out of shape, you need to tackle one obstacle at a time. Start by getting your nutrition in order so you can drop some weight. We can help with that. As you work to trim off some fluff, you’ll need to improve your work capacity by doing heavy resistance training with a barbell and dumbbells (more on that in a bit), biking, swimming, walking, rowing, sprinting, sled dragging, and even carrying heavy stuff – which brings us to our second point.

2. Your grip strength isn’t up to par.

Despite this meme, I assure that Chris Bonante doesn’t have any grip strength issues; he’s almost 40, has benched over 400 pounds, squatted 500, and trains regularly for GoRuck events and other endurance sports. This was a defective bottle – if you have the same issue on a daily basis, you’re gonna need to do some work.

If you come from a sedentary background – i.e. you don’t play sports, work a physically demanding job, or get a lot of activity in general – chances are your grip isn’t anything to write home about. If your grip strength isn’t sufficient to hold your body weight, there’s only a slim chance that you’ll be able to do a pull-up. How do you fix this? Contrary to what you may see at your local globo gym, doing thousands of repetitions of wrist curls with 2.5 lb. plates is NOT the ticket to a bone-crushing grip. To improve your grip strength, you need to perform exercises that involve static contractions of the hands, forearms, shoulders and upper back. Hang from the pull-up bar for time, carry heavy dumbbells for distance, load up a barbell and do timed holds for 30-60 seconds, or use a grip trainer. Grip training is hard, so don’t bite off more weight than you can chew; start off light and go for endurance.

3. Your back needs to get stronger.

This may seem like a no brainer – that’s why you’re trying to incorporate pull-ups into your routine anyway, isn’t it? Although pull-ups are one of the best ways to develop back strength, the fact of the matter is that staring at the rig isn’t building a single ounce of muscle. Whether you can’t do a single pull-up or you can only bust out a few ugly reps before you’re gassed, you should add a few upper body pulling movements into your back workout to ensure that you’re getting stronger each week. Try these exercises for 3 sets of 10 repetitions each:

  • Pull-up negatives have tremendous carryover to the pull-up. Stand on something or jump up to the bar and get yourself in the top position of a pull-up. Lower yourself in a controlled fashion until your arms are fully extended, then get right back up there and keep going until you’re done with your set!
  • Ring rows are a go-to pull for building strength in your entire back and core because they get you working with your body weight and can be easily modified as you progress. Start with your feet on the floor, then elevate your feet with a box as you get stronger.
  • Single-arm dumbbell rows are great because they offer freedom of movement and an increased range of motion. Support your body with one arm by leaning on a bench and explosively pull the dumbbell back like you’re trying to elbow someone in the gut.
  • Lat Pulldowns or any vertical pull done with a cable machine can help you develop pulling strength along the same plane as a pull-up and they offer the same freedom of movement as a dumbbell.

These specific physical preparedness (SPP) exercises use the same muscle groups and similar motor recruitment patterns as the pull-up. If you improve at a number of SPP exercises, you can bet your bottom dollar you’ll get better at pull-ups too.

4. Your form needs work.

Pull-ups are like any other exercise or movement – there’s a right way and a wrong way to do them. You can’t just grab the bar and pull all willy-nilly! Here are some tips on maximizing your leverage and getting your back into it:

  • Take a shoulder-width grip! Not only will you tear your shoulders apart by taking too wide a grip, but you’ll also limit your range of motion and use less of your back. You can always work in wider grips as you progress but most of your pull-ups should be done with a moderate, shoulder-width grip.
  • Keep your head up! By lifting your chin and tucking your neck backwards (packing your neck as some may call it), you can engage your upper back muscles and put yourself into a much better position to pull from. To get an idea of what I mean, try first shoving your head forward, looking down, and tucking your chin into your body – do the opposite of that!
  • Pull Up and back! Don’t think of the pull-up as a strictly vertical movement. Instead, lean back and pull the bar to your upper chest, not your chin or neck. Your lower body will be slightly out in front of you and your back will remain neutral – the classic hollow gymnastics position – NOT arched like crazy. Don’t curl your legs – at least not at first.

5. You don’t stay tight.

If you can’t maintain relative body position throughout the pull-up and you flop around like a mudkip, you have what we call an energy leak. What this means is that instead of using your entire body to pull, you’re relying on whatever muscles will do the work – most likely your rotator cuff. (Hint: that’s bad.) Everything should stay tight when you pull; point your toes, lock your legs, squeeze your glutes, pack your neck, tuck your chin, take a big breath, and squeeze your core out as you pull your upper chest to the bar with a vice grip around the handles. Don’t loosen up until you’re done with the set! Sounds uncomfortable, eh? It should be.

6. You aren’t practicing often enough.

You are what your repeatedly do. If your form is on point, but your specific work capacity sucks and you have to jerk your body around to get your chin over the bar after the first repetition, you’re just teaching your body to express an inefficient movement pattern. It’s much more difficult to unlearn bad form than it is to teach it, so you’re going to want to add in some specialized practice whenever possible. One of the best ways to practice pull-ups is to hang a cheap doorframe pull-up bar in a room you enter/exit frequently and knock out 1-2 explosive reps every time you pass through that door. In his book “Power To The People”, Pavel Tsatsouline describes this as “greasing the groove” and it takes advantage of increased training frequency and specificity to perfect whatever movement you apply to it. Here’s a real world example of how you can use this technique over the course of a week if you can only d 5-6 pull-ups in a row right now:

10 sets of 2
2 sets of 3
12 sets of 2
3 sets of 3
10 sets of 3
2 sets to failure

What’s going on here is that you’re accumulating a large volume of perfect repetitions throughout the week. The volume undulates between 9 and 30 repetitions per day with only one day off. By focusing on sets of 2-3 reps, you can focus on form yet still elicit the fatigue required to grow stronger. At the end of the week, you’re trying to hit as many reps as possible across two sets. Over time, you’ll gain pull-up repetitions and really dial in your form.

7. You’re over-reliant on assisted pull-ups.

This is going to shock some people, but doing assisted pull-ups exclusively in your workouts may be preventing you from doing a real, unassisted pull-up. Why? Look back at reason #5 where we went over technique/form. Your whole body needs to stay tight during a pull-up, and assistance – whether it’s on a machine or with a band – removes the legs and core from the equation almost completely. It’s difficult to use your back efficiently with a loose core so you end up pulling with less lat engagement and develop improper mechanics. Assisted pull-ups have their place as a developmental exercise (see reason #3), but you absolutely cannot rely upon them too much. When it comes time to WOD, modify and save the assisted movements for your strength/skill sessions. With these tips in mind, go forth and conquer the pull-up!

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Chest breathing vs. belly breathing

Breathing from the top of your chest uses muscles in your neck and shoulders that aren’t really designed for this purpose. This can increase shoulder and neck tension, lead to a weaker diaphragm, and compromise blood flow during exercise. In contrast, breathing from your belly or abdomen helps strengthen your diaphragm and helps you get a full breath for better physical performance.

Learning to breathe from your abdomen can also help improve your awareness of when your breathing is shallow. Slumped or poor posture and stress are major culprits when it comes to shallow breathing, even in trained athletes.

In contrast, adopting proper posture and paying attention to your breathing can help you perform better and manage stress more effectively. Deeper, slower breathing helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which may quieten your fight-or-flight response.

Nose vs. mouth breathing during exercise

There’s no hard and fast rule for which is better during exercise, breathing through your nose or breathing through your mouth. In general, you face less resistance when breathing through your mouth, so this is often the better option if you find yourself struggling to breathe through your nose.

However, breathing through your nose helps warm the air before it enters your lungs, which is great if you’re exercising in colder temperatures. Nose breathing also helps filter some potential pathogens, allergens, and pollutants, and prevents the mucosal membranes in your mouth from drying out. Accordingly, breathing through your nose, when possible, may mean less irritation to the airways, and a reduced risk of bronchospasm.

Effective breathing during yoga practice

Breathing through your nose may offer added benefits when practising yoga and other forms of exercise designed to help you relax. This is because nose breathing increases carbon dioxide saturation in your blood, which has a calming effect.

Incidentally, there’s a whole facet of yoga (pranayama) dedicated to breathing, with evidence that practising pranayama can help enhance exercise tolerance.

In yoga terminology, “equal breathing”, or sami vritti, is where you match the length of your inhalation to your exhalation. This may be best for hatha yoga, or yoga practice where the goal is to achieve a state of calm relaxation.

For more robust types of yoga (ashtanga, vinyasa, etc.) you may want to try ujjayi breath, or “victorious breath”. This can make your breath sound a bit odd because it consists of breathing through your nose while contracting the back of your throat.

If you find yourself cramping up during yoga or feeling more stressed at the end of the class than when you started, examine your breathing. Are you holding your breath when you get to the harder poses? This common behaviour can make it harder to achieve the pose and relax into it. Try taking a quick break to shake off your tension. When you’re ready to try the pose again, be mindful of your breathing and… relax.

How to breathe when running

In practice, proper breathing during running looks a lot like a 3:2 ratio of inhaling to exhaling. This means inhaling for three steps (left-right-left) and exhaling for two (right-left). Following this pattern while running can help you remain focused as you develop a new rhythm. If you’re having trouble breathing while exercising, you might want to run a little slower and work on developing this 3:2 breathing pattern.

If you’re sprinting, you’re more likely to naturally fall into a 2:1 inhale-exhale ratio. This can work for short bursts of exercise, but is unsustainable over a longer run as your heart rate rises and lactic acid increases in your muscles.

Proper breathing while exercising with weights

If you’ve not heard of the Valsalva maneuver, you may not be breathing right when lifting heavy weights. The Valsalva maneuver consists of taking a deep breath just before lifting and then holding that breath during the most strenuous part of your lift. This technique increases intra-abdominal pressure, which can strengthen your core and let you lift heavier loads more easily. Watch any professional weightlifter and you should be able to see this in action.

Yes, this goes counter to the general rule of thumb about how to breathe during exercise and could increase your risk of stroke if you have high blood pressure or another health issue. This is because the technique briefly increases your blood pressure. So, as always, it’s best to clear any new type of exercise with your health care practitioner just to be sure.

The Valsalva maneuver is only intended for use when lifting heavier weights. For less strenuous weightlifting, the usual rule applies: exhale during the lift and inhale during the least strenuous part of the movement.

How to breathe better

If you’re struggling to breathe efficiently during exercise, there’s an app for that! Breathe Strong was designed for athletes, but can help even the occasional gym-goer develop better breathing habits.

Interestingly, there is also some evidence that a technique called Controlled Frequency Breathing (CFB) used by swimmers can have benefits for other types of exercise. CFB involves holding your breath for approximately 7–10 strokes before taking another breath. In one study, healthy young men who learned CFB while swimming for 12 training sessions went on to have an 11% improvement in maximum expiratory pressure and a 6% improvement in running economy.

And, of course, quitting smoking, and maintaining good posture and a healthy body weight can also help improve lung function.

Whether you’re already an athlete or are struggling to get back into exercise, learning how to breathe properly when running, doing yoga, or just taking a stroll around the block can make physical activity easier, more enjoyable, and even better for your health!

References: Bernardi L, Passino C, Wilmerding V, et al. Breathing patterns and cardiovascular autonomic modulation during hypoxia induced by simulated altitude. Journal of Hypertension. May 2000; 19(5):947-58. Salinero JJ, et al. Respiratory function is associated to marathon race time. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. Dec 2016; 56(12):1433-1438.

de Abreu RM, et al. Effects of inspiratory muscle training on cardiovascular autonomic control: A systemic review. Auton Neurosci. Dec 2017; 208:29-35.

Mangla PK, Menon MP. Effect of nasal and oral breathing on exercise-induced asthma. Clin Allergy. Sep 1981; 11(5):433-9.

Kaminsky DA, et al. Effect of yoga breathing (Pranayama) on exercise tolerance in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: A randomized controlled trial. J Altern Complement Med. 2017 Sep; 23(9):696-704.

Lavin KM et al. Controlled-frequency breath swimming improves swimming performance and running economy. Scand J Med Sci Sports. Feb 2015; 25(1):16-24.

How to breathe during push UPS?

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