Key Takeaways

  1. In a recent study, researchers wanted to see if hyperventilating before weightlifting would help people get more reps in each set (which could lead to more strength and muscle gain over time).
  2. After hyperventilating, the weightlifters were able to get significantly more reps in each set and became less fatigued throughout the workout than after breathing normally.
  3. Keep reading to learn whether you should try this workout protocol, and exactly how to (safely!) use hyperventilation to boost your workout performance.

You’ve probably heard a lot of strange ideas about how to get stronger and build muscle.

You know, things like drinking a gallon of milk a day, doing ten sets of ten reps of every exercise, sipping flavored water BCAAs between meals, and so forth.

And if you’ve put any of these ideas into practice, you’ve also learned they’re more or less all humbug. 

If you’re following a well-designed strength training program, eating enough protein and slightly more calories than you burn every day, and sleeping at least 8 hours per night, there’s little else you can do to further goose muscle growth or strength gains. 

That said, it’s you’re doing all of those things, it’s worth exploring what that “little else” might entail.

For example, although blood-flow restriction sounds like something from the pages of Fifty Shades of Gray, it’s actually a scientifically validated method for boosting muscle growth and strength. 

Recently, researchers have uncovered another potential way to increase strength (and thus muscle growth): hyperventilation training.

Hyperventilation? 

Isn’t that what happens when you have a panic attack? 

Well, yes, it can occur in response to extreme anxiety, but specifically, hyperventilation refers to a situation where rapid, deep breathing causes an imbalance in the ratio of carbon dioxide (CO2) to oxygen (O2) in your blood. 

When you “overbreathe” (as some people refer to hyperventilation), you exhale CO2 much faster than you inhale O2. 

This causes the level of CO2 in your blood to plummet, which can lead to a variety of unpleasant side effects like lightheadedness, dizziness, shortness of breath, and intense tingling in your fingers and face, with the effects becoming more intense the longer you hyperventilate . . . 

. . . which sounds like the last thing you’d want to experience while lifting heavy weights. 

According to a new study conducted by scientists at Juntendo University, though, hyperventilating briefly—enough to slightly decrease your blood levels of CO2, but not so much that you experience negative effects—may temporarily make you stronger.   

Keep reading to learn why and how hyperventilating can boost your strength.

 

What Did the Researchers Do?


why do you hyperventilate when you cry


 

One of the causes of the burning sensation you feel in your muscles during workouts is the buildup of acidic compounds in the blood, like lactate, hydrogen ions, and carbon dioxide (CO2). 

The harder and faster you contract your muscles, the more acidic your blood becomes, and this acidity impairs your muscles’ ability to contract.

This is one of the many reasons your muscles fatigue during a workout.

Of course, the more bushed your muscles become, the more you have to reduce the weight, reps, or sets, which eventually leads to less productive workouts and less strength and muscle gain over time.

Read: Is Getting Stronger Really the Best Way to Gain Muscle?

So, what’s the best way to improve your muscles’ ability to resist the fatigue-inducing effects of these acidic molecules? 

Well, training more is one way. 

While there aren’t many studies on weightlifting, specifically, research shows that one of the reasons people get faster and stronger over time is their training improves their muscles’ ability to remove these waste products before they impair performance. 

That is, as you become fitter, your muscles can contract harder and longer before your body releases large amounts of these acidic compounds, and you can continue training hard despite the presence of these molecules. (Scientists refer to this as your muscles’ buffering capacity).

Some supplements can help in this regard, too. 

For example, one of the reasons beta-alanine can boost performance is that it reduces the acidity of your muscles, and there’s some evidence sodium bicarbonate may improve endurance performance in the same way (although it’s been less impressive in this regard). 

Read: The Definitive Guide to Beta-Alanine Supplementation

So, where does hyperventilation fit into all of this? 

Some scientists have hypothesized that hyperventilation can reduce the acidity of your blood and boost your workout performance in a similar manner to supplements like beta-alanine.

Remember that one of the acidic substances that builds up in your blood is CO2. By definition, hyperventilation involves breathing in such a way that the level of CO2 in your blood drops, which is normally considered a bad thing (and if you take it too far, it definitely can be). 

In the case of working out, though, this can be an advantage.

In theory, lowering the level of CO2 in your blood will lower the acidity of your muscles, which will allow you to train longer and harder.

A team of scientists at Juntendo University recently conducted a study to test this hypothesis. 

In this study, researchers had 11 male strength and power athletes between the ages of 19 and 31 years old with an average of 7 years training experience report to the lab and complete the following workout: 

Six sets of bench press followed by six sets of leg press with 80% of their one-rep max (1RM), taking each set until absolute failure, resting five minutes between each set.

Here’s where things get interesting.

The researchers also had the participants intentionally hyperventilate throughout their workout. 

The exact protocol was a bit convoluted, but the gist is they had the participants breathe deeply and quickly for 30 seconds (hyperventilation) after about half of their sets. 

The rationale for this protocol is that since muscle acidity spikes during and immediately after a hard set, hyperventilating after some of their sets could help bring their muscle acid levels back to baseline faster, thus helping them get more reps in the next set.

In other words, the goal of hyperventilating after a set was to help the participants recover faster before their next set, which would help them get more total reps throughout the whole workout.

Here’s what the exact protocol looked like: 

Bench Press

Rest and breathe normally for 4 min 30 seconds, then hyperventilate for 30 seconds

Set 1

Rest and breath normally for 5 minutes

Set 2

Rest and breathe normally for 4 min 30 seconds, then hyperventilate for 30 seconds

Set 3

Rest and breath normally for 5 minutes

Set 4

Rest and breathe normally for 4 min 30 seconds, then hyperventilate for 30 seconds

Set 5

Rest and breath normally for 5 minutes

Set 6

Rest and breathe normally for 4 min 30 seconds, then hyperventilate for 30 seconds

Leg Press

Rest and breathe normally for 4 min 30 seconds, then hyperventilate for 30 seconds

Set 1

Rest and breath normally for 5 minutes

Set 2

Rest and breathe normally for 4 min 30 seconds, then hyperventilate for 30 seconds

Set 3

Rest and breath normally for 5 minutes

Set 4

Rest and breathe normally for 4 min 30 seconds, then hyperventilate for 30 seconds

Set 5

Rest and breath normally for 5 minutes

Set 6

Rest and breathe normally for 4 min 30 seconds, then hyperventilate for 30 seconds

Then, the participants returned to the lab a few days later, and completed the same workout with a twist: instead of hyperventilating before their first, third, and fifth sets and after their sixth set, they hyperventilated before their second, fourth, and six sets. 

While the participants trained, the researchers had them wear masks that measured a variety of respiratory parameters, including the total amount of air breathed per minute, total number of breaths taken per minute, the amount of air in each breath, and the amount of CO2 or O2 exhaled with each breath.

They also carefully measured the participants’ joint angles, the speed at which they completed their reps, and the number of reps they completed in each set (all markers that can indicate their level of fatigue and total work output).

Finally, the researchers took blood samples from the participants before and after their workouts to measure their blood pH levels (remember, the goal of hyperventilating is to lower the acidity of the blood), and blood lactate levels, which typically rise as the blood becomes more acidic.

Summary: Hyperventilating reduces the acidity of the blood, which researchers believe could boost muscle endurance and allow you to get more reps in each set. 

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What Were the Study Results?

As you’d expect, when participants breathed normally before their sets, the speed at which they completed each rep and the number of reps they could perform in each set decreased as their workouts dragged on.

You’ve probably experienced this yourself: maybe you’ve gotten 8 reps in your first set or two, but as you become more tired, you get 7, then 6, you get the idea.

That’s not what happened when the participants hyperventilated, however.

When the participants hyperventilated after a set, they were able to perform significantly more reps in the next set, and didn’t experience the normal drop in reps throughout their workout that usually occurs as fatigue sets in. 

Here’s what the results looked like: 


Average-Number-of-Reps-Per-Set-With-or-without-Hyperventilation


As you can see, hyperventilating before each set significantly boosted the participants’ muscular endurance—the number of reps they were able to get on average in each set. 

Hyperventilating not only helped the participants get more total reps throughout the workout, it also prevented the normal drop in reps per set that occurs after several sets.

For example, after four sets of leg press and then breathing normally for five minutes, most participants got about two fewer reps on their fifth set.

After four sets of leg press and hyperventilating, though, most participants got about two more reps on their fifth set.

In a word, that’s astonishing. 

There are very few supplements, training protocols, or other hacks you can use to boost the number of reps you can get in your fifth set of an exercise, especially if you’ve already taken the four previous sets to absolute failure. To put this into perspective, not even a supplement like beta-alanine has produced results like this.

The researchers also found that when the participants hyperventilated before their sets, they were able to better maintain the speed at which they completed their reps (another sign of improved muscular endurance).

How do we know the benefits were due to hyperventilating, though? 

After all, the weightlifters knew when they were hyperventilating and when they weren’t, and their results could have been partly due to the power of the placebo effect. 

Read: Does the Placebo Effect Really Work?

That probably wasn’t the case in this study, though.

When the researchers analyzed the acidity of the participants’ blood, they found that it was significantly elevated at the end of their workout. 

When the participants hyperventilated, though, their blood acidity plummeted back to its normal, baseline level, and they experienced less muscular fatigue as a result.

In other words, the participants experienced an actual decrease in blood acidity, which was probably responsible for their improved performance (not the placebo effect).

Summary: Hyperventilating briefly between sets reduces the acidity of your blood, which can help you get more reps and maintain your workout performance on subsequent sets.

What Does This Mean for You?

 


hyperventilation syndrome


You should always be wary of supposed “hacks” and “shortcuts” for getting stronger, building muscle, losing fat, or accomplishing any kind of fitness goal. 

That said, this study is strong evidence that hyperventilation might offer a simple, effective, and free way to boost your workout performance. 

Before you get out of breath over the results (sorry, I couldn’t resist), though, there are a few things to keep in mind about this study: 

  1. It involved a very small number of people (11), which raises the possibility that the results might be exaggerated due to the small sample size. 
  2. The workouts involved taking every set to failure—when muscle acidity and fatigue tend to be highest—so it’s possible you wouldn’t notice the same benefits when taking your sets a few reps shy of failure (which is generally what you want to do, by the way). 

Despite these caveats, the results are exciting enough that I think it’s worth giving hyperventilation a try in your workouts. After all, breathing quickly and deeply a few times between sets is easy and free, so there’s really no downside. 

So, what’s the best way to get the benefits of hyperventilation? 

1. Hyperventilate for 30 seconds—no more, and no less. 

You don’t want to hyperventilate more than this, as you can experience dizziness, blurred vision, syncopy (fainting), strange tingling sensations, and other forms of discomfort.

If you happen to hyperventilate longer than 30 seconds, though, don’t worry. You’ll probably just experience some dizziness or tingling in your hands, if anything. You typically have to hyperventilate for several minutes to experience fainting, blurred vision, and serious discomfort (strangely, some research shows moderate hyperventilation may even have some health benefits).

The main thing you want to avoid is hyperventilating so much that you experience discomfort, extreme dizziness, or fainting, which is obviously a problem when bench pressing a heavy barbell. 

You also don’t want to hyperventilate less than 30 seconds, because this isn’t enough time to significantly decrease the CO2 content of your blood. 

Thirty seconds seems to be the goldilocks zone when it comes to hyperventilating. 

For example, a previous study by the same scientists found that hyperventilating for 15 seconds before cycling sprints wasn’t enough to notice any benefits; hyperventilating for 30 seconds improved performance and didn’t cause any negative effects; and hyperventilating for 45 seconds was enough to cause mild discomfort, which wiped out the performance benefits. 

Hyperventilating for 30 seconds works out to around 15 deep, rapid breaths (one complete deep breath every two seconds). 

2. Try hyperventilating at home before you do it in the gym.

Hyperventilating can feel strange if you’ve never done it before, and some people experience stronger effects than others. 

Thus, it’s best to try it at home before you try it with a heavy barbell looming over your neck. 

I recommend you try hyperventilating while lying on your sofa. This way, even if you were to lose consciousness (highly, highly unlikely), you won’t fall down. 

Once you’re lying down, take a few deep breaths to familiarize yourself with what this should feel like (think about pulling the air into your abdomen as opposed to your chest). Then, increase the pace of your breathing, so you’re taking a deep breath every two seconds, and keep this up for at least 15 seconds (about seven deep breaths). After your 15 seconds are up, breathe normally for a few minutes.

If you don’t experience any tingling, blurred vision, dizziness, or other discomfort after hyperventilating for 15 seconds, try it again for 30 seconds, following the same protocol. 

Assuming you feel fine after 30 seconds of hyperventilating, try it for 45 seconds (just to ensure you won’t have any issues with 30 seconds while working out). 

Assuming you still don’t experience any negative effects, try hyperventilating for 30 seconds immediately before doing a set of push-ups to failure.

If you still don’t experience any negative effects, try hyperventilating for 30 seconds before your warm-up sets in your next workout. If all goes well, give it a try before your hard, heavy sets. 

It’s also a good idea to first try hyperventilating before exercises that have the least potential to cause you harm, such as the leg press, deadlift, barbell row, or chin-up/pull-up. 

If you start to feel any negative effects during these exercises, you can quickly re-rack the weight (in the case of the leg press) or drop the weight (in the case of the deadlift, barbell row, or chin-up/pull-up) safely. 

If you do experience negative effects after hyperventilating for 30 seconds, give it another shot and see how your body responds. Sometimes your first few times hyperventilating can feel unnerving, but you may get used to it with practice. 

If you always feel uncomfortable hyperventilating, though, then don’t try it while working out. The risk isn’t worth the reward.

3. Hyperventilate before compound exercises.

Hyperventilation is more likely to boost your performance on compound exercises like the squat, deadlift, and bench and military press, than isolation exercises like the barbell curl, leg extension, and the like.

For example, another study found that hyperventilating right before leg extensions didn’t boost performance the way it did for the bench and leg press in this study.

Why?

Exercises that involve the most muscle mass—compound exercises—also tend to cause the largest rise in blood acidity levels, whereas isolation exercises cause only a small increase. 

The reason hyperventilation boosts your performance is by lowering your blood acidity levels, so if your blood acidity levels are already fairly low (as they are when doing isolation exercises), it’s unlikely to offer much benefit. 

So, if you want to maximize the benefits of hyperventilation, do it before your compound exercises like the . . . 

Just remember rule #1: hyperventilate for 30 seconds, and no more. 

When you’re doing isolation exercises, you’ll probably get the most mileage out of breathing normally. That said, there’s nothing wrong with hyperventilating before these exercises, too, if you want to give it a whirl. 

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What’s your take on hyperventilating to boost workout performance? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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