While beginners in the weight room have a tremendous number of things to worry about, one aspect of lifting weights doesn’t seem to get talked about enough: proper breathing during weight training. While this isn’t a make-it or break-it kind of thing for recreational lifting, proper breathing is important for high performance. There are also some safety issues to consider. I want to look at them all.
It’s More Important That You Breathe Than How You Breathe
While “optimal” breathing during weight training will always give the best performance, it’s far more important to breathe period. By that I mean it’s not uncommon to see people, generally but not always beginners, holding their breath while lifting. This is especially true in the early stages when there is so much to be thinking about already. What muscles are being worked, how quickly to lift and lower the weight, overall form, etc. It’s a lot to take in.
And what I found in training folks was that trying to get them to also focus on a certain breathing pattern would overwhelm them completely. And the end result was that they’d end up holding their breath and end up gasping for air halfway through the set.
So in the early stages of lifting, I mainly emphasized THAT they should breath rather then HOW they should breathe and that is what I would cue. In the early stages when light weights are being used, how someone is breathing is of very little importance. I’d wait until several workouts later to bother teaching them how I wanted them to breathe.
Some Basic Definitions: Muscle Actions
Ok, a few definitions are in order. Fundamentally, skeletal muscle can do three different things: it can shorten, stay the same length, and increase length.
In nerd terms, these are called concentric muscle actions (the muscle shortens under load), isometric muscle actions (the muscle doesn’t change length) and eccentric muscle actions (the muscle lengthens under load). You think of this as lifting, holding and lowering the weight. I’m not going to worry about isometrics here.
If you’re wondering why I’m dealing with technical jargon (concentric, eccentric) instead of using simpler terms like up and down or forwards and backwards or towards and away, it’s because things aren’t always quite as simple as they look in the weight room.
In some movements, the concentric action (muscle is shortening) occurs when the weight or handle is coming towards the lifter. In others it is when it is moving away. Thinking in terms of forwards and backwards often gets people into trouble.
In a bench press or shoulder press, for example, the concentric action happens as the lifter is pushing the weight away from them (towards the ceiling). In a cable row or pulldown, the concentric happens as the lifter is pulling the weight towards them.
Basic Breathing During Weight Training
Perhaps the simplest approach to breathing while lifting is to inhale during the eccentric contraction (when the muscle is lengthening and the weight is being lowered) and exhale during the concentric (when the muscle is shortening and the weight is being lifted). Honestly, for most recreational trainees this is not only good advice but sufficient advice.
In general, exhaling makes people a bit stronger. It’s why boxers and martial artists exhale when they throw a punch or kick. Since it’s harder to lift a weight than to lower it, it make sense to synchronize breathing with the difficulty of the movement. So inhale as you lower the weight when it’s a bit easier and exhale as you lift the weight and it’s harder.
While this type of breathing isn’t optimal for maximal performance, it’s a little bit safer as it has the least impact on blood pressure. From that singular perspective, breathing fairly continuously throughout the set in the manner I’ve just described tends to be safer compared to what I’m going to describe shortly.
Quite in fact, some groups are adamant that the above is the ONLY way anyone should ever breathe while lifting.
The Partial Valsalva Maneuver, IAP and Spinal Stability
While continuous breathing may be the safest from the standpoint of blood pressure during lifting, there are other issues to consider. One of the most critical is spinal stability.
During lifts that load the spine (e.g. squats, deadlifts, overhead press and many others), it’s critical that the spine be supported to prevent injury. This is especially true as the weights get heavier.
Now, there are a lot of different mechanisms including muscles, ligaments, etc. that act to support the spine during lifting but I’m not going to discuss them in detail here. But one of the key ones is something called Intra-abdominal pressure or IAP.
IAP is pretty much what it sounds like, an increase in pressure that occurs within the abdomen. For reasons I’m not going to get into here, this helps to mechanically stabilize the spine and prevent it from buckling under heavy loads. This is critically important when lifting heavy weights.
The primary way to increase IAP during lifting is through what is called the Valsalva or Partial Valsalva maneuver. This refers to actively trying to exhale while your windpipe is closed. It’s sort of an active way to hold your breath.
More specifically, to increase IAP while lifting, the following should be done:
- The lifter should inhale into the belly (note: this is different than breathing superficially into the chest) filling the stomach with air.
- The lifter should then try to exhale but without letting any air escape because the windpipe is closed off.
Ok, this is turning out to be harder to describe than it is to teach or demonstrate in person.
This may make it easier: think about what happens when you’re sitting on the toilet and straining a bit, odds are you reflexively take a breath and then hold it while pushing down. Boom, that’s a partial Valsalva. That’s what should be done prior to a heavy repetition in the weight room.
As noted, the major benefit of breathing in this fashion is spinal safety, the spine is mechanically buttressed from the front by the pressure created in the abdominal area. The drawback is that, at least acutely, this can cause blood pressure to spike. Obviously, for people with pre-existing issues with blood pressure, the advantages of breathing in this fashion may be more than outweighed by the potential negatives.
It’s also worth mentioning that many lifters wear a lifting belt to help with the development of IAP. With a belt worn properly (i.e. tight enough), the lifter can physically push out their abdomen into the belt, further developing IAP and further stabilizing the spine under heavy loads.
So how do we put that into practice in the weight room?
High Performance Breathing During Weight Training
So let’s start from the top, a lifter is squatting with a reasonably heavy weight. They have taken the bar out of the rack and are standing, preparing to perform their first repetition of the set. They should begin by taking a breath into the belly (this is also a good time to get the chest and head up, if they aren’t already) and then perform a partial Valsalva as they descend. So they close their windpipe while exhaling actively/bearing down. This is done at least through the sticking point of the movement.
Once through the sticking point, opinions and practice vary somewhat.
I tend to cue exhaling just past the sticking point (making a bit of noise, as necessary since a sharp exhale tends to increase strength) as this often helps the lifter not only get through it but finish strongly to the top of the movement. However, the lifter can’t let too much air out too quickly or they will lose IAP and spinal stability. It’s a fine balance.
Others advocate keeping the breath held until the repetition is completed and breathing at the top. The advantage of this is that the lifter maintains IAP all the way through the repetition. The disadvantage is that, if the reps are slow, the lifter may feel like they are running out of air near the top of the movement.
Still others advocate letting the air escape more slowly through clenched teeth in a “sssss” sounding kind of thing. This may provide an optimal balance between the two methods, the lifter gets the benefits of exhaling (which tends to make folks stronger) but without losing spinal stability by exhaling too much or too quickly.
Once at the top of the repetition, regardless of what happened, the lifter should then inhale and perform another partial Valsalva prior to the next repetition. In this context, I tend to cue lifters who are somewhat new to lifting to treat each repetition of the set almost as an individual single. This is both a breathing and setup thing as many lifters start to rush (especially when it gets heavy).
So for a set of 5 repetitions, I want them to treat it as 5 perfect single repetitions with each repetition starting off with a proper inhale and tightening up prior to beginning the eccentric. This also gives me a chance to give a quick form cue as needed for each repetition since there is a brief break between each repetition. Or for the lifter to think momentarily about what they are doing prior to beginning the repetition.
As lifters become more advanced, many get comfortable with inhaling and performing the partial Valsalva as they are already beginning their descent and they don’t have to take as long between reps setting up. But this only comes after quite a bit of practice. Lifters must have automated the performance of the partial Valsalva first before trying this.
What’s the Bottom Line on Breathing in the Weight Room?
So what’s the best way to breathe in the weight room? As usual context is key.
For complete beginners (who should always be using light weights anyhow), it’s more important that they breathe than how they breathe. This is especially true during the first few workouts when there is so much other stuff that needs to be worried about. So long as they aren’t holding their breath, I don’t really care what they do.
For general lifting for health or fitness type purposes, I’d probably err on the side of the basic “exhale while lifting, inhale while lowering”. Admittedly there will be some loss of stability but usually basic fitness type lifting isn’t aimed at maximal performance and it would be rare for low repetitions or massively heavy weights to be used. It tends to be less common to see squats or deadlifts in those types of routines and a lot of other movements just don’t require the same degree of IAP/spinal stability.
As well, individuals with any type of pre-existing cardiac or blood pressure issues would generally want to stick with the basic type of continuous breathing. Breath holding would need to be avoided since there can be a very big spike in blood pressure.
However, once trainees start pursuing more performance oriented goals and assuming that they don’t have any sort of pre-existing issue, mastering the use of the Partial Valsalva during lifting is crucial. Not only will it provide the most spinal safety, it will improve performance during the use of low reps and/or heavy weights in core movements like squat, bench press, deadlift, etc.
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