In keeping with talking about fundamentals of training, one thing I’d like to address is the issue of how to breathe while lifting weights since this is yet another place that people often get vastly contradictory advice (usually from folks looking at the same thing from a different direction) and get confused about what they should be doing.
How You Breathe is Less Important than That you Breathe
This subheading may seem a bit silly but it’s actually not. Back when I worked with a lot of beginners, I often found that they would become completely overwhelmed with all of the information I was giving them (that was on top of being generally overwhelmed by being in the gym in the first place).
We’d be talking about a lot of stuff and on any given weight training exercise they were having to worry about what muscles were being worked, how quickly to lift and lower the weight, overall form, etc. It’s a lot to take in for someone who is brand new to exercise.
I found that trying to get them to worry about a specific breathing pattern was often too much and many would end up simply holding their breath. Of course, over a higher rep set (I usually used 8-12 repetitions at that time), they’d end up gasping for air about halfway through.
For that reason, at least in the initial couple of workouts, I found that it was far more important that they breathe than how they breathe. And that’s what I would cue. Whether they were able to hit the optimal breathing pattern right off the bat simply didn’t matter (especially given that the weights being used were so light); I just wanted them to breathe and we’d worry about the details later (usually around the third workout).
Basic Breathing During Lifting
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.
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 (muscle is shortening) occurs when the weight or handle is coming towards the lifter; in others it’s reversed. 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.
In any case, I’m not going to spend much time worrying about isometric muscle actions in this piece, my focus will be only on the concentric (lifting) and eccentric (lowering) part of the movement.
Now, perhaps the simplest approach to breathing while lifting is to inhale during the eccentric contraction (when the muscle is lengthening) and exhale during the concentric (when the muscle is shortening). And there is certainly much logic to this piece of advice.
In general, people are a bit stronger when they exhale (this is part of why boxers and martial artists exhale when they throw a punch or kick) and since it’s harder to lift a weight than it is to lower it, it makes sense to synchronize the breathing with the difficulty of the movement. So you exhale when the weight is being raised and inhale when the weight is being lowered.
As well, and I’ll come back to this in a second, breathing in this fashion tends to cause less issues with blood pressure spiking, at least when compared to holding the breath. So from at least that one perspective (blood pressure), 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.
For this reason, many are quite adamant that this is how everyone should always breathe when lifting weights.
Of Partial Valsalva’s, Intra-Abdominal Pressure and Spinal Stability
While the breathing pattern I described above 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 (and this is especially true as the weights get heavier and/or the repetitions get lower).
Now, there are a lot of different mechanisms including muscles, ligaments, etc. that act to support the spine during lifting; 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.
And how do we increase IAP during lifting? The primary way is by performing a Valsalva or Partial Valsalva maneuver; this simply refers to exhaling against a closed glottis (windpipe). It’s sort of an active way of holding 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.
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 belt to help with the development of IAP. With a belt worn tight enough (and in my experience, many general trainees don’t wear their belts tight enough to do any good), the abs can be physically pushed into the belt; this helps to further develop IAP and stabilize the spine/core while under heavy load.
So how do we put that into practice in the weight room?
High Performance Breathing in the Weight Room
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. In general, the partial Valsalva would be held through the sticking point.
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. The potential disadvantage is that if the lifter exhales too quickly, they may lose some of the spinal stability that the partial Valsalva provided.
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.
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, 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.
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.
So What’s the Bottom Line?
So what’s the best way to breathe in the weight room? As usual, it depends.
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.
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. As well, it’s not as common to see squats or deadlifts being used in those types of routines.
As well, individuals with any type of pre-existing cardiac or blood pressure issues would generally want to stick with the basic type of breathing. Breath holding would need to be avoided.
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.