Many people have heard or read that they need to breathe through exercises and not hold their breath. I hear it all the time at my job as well as from people online or on television. While I think that breathing in general is probably a good thing, I don’t think that breathing through every exercise is necessary. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research indicates that a brief moment of breath holding is unavoidable during certain lifts. This is interesting because the Mayo Clinic simply says don’t hold your breath at all. Today I’d like to discuss breathing techniques in addition to when it is appropriate to hold a breath during an exercise.
Lets first look at the way many people breathe during exercises. Think to yourself for a moment how you were taught to breathe during a lift. Were you taught to breath out while lifting and in while lowering or the opposite? As far back as I can remember, I was taught “out” while lifting, “in” while lowering. Until recently, I taught that to many of my clients. I know better now.
The fact of the matter is that the proper technique for breathing greatly depends on many factors. For instance, is it a maximal lift or a submaximal lift? Is it a multi-joint movement or single-joint movement? Are you using a machine or barbell? The questions could go on and on. I would bet that most people were taught to breathe this one way — breathe out while lifting and in while lowering. The purpose of this technique is to reduce the amount of pressure that builds up while holding breaths during a movement.
Holding your breath during a movement is called the Valsalva Maneuver (we’ll get to this in a second). To many fitness professionals this should be avoided at all costs. Many people avoid it because it can increase blood pressure to dangerous levels if held long enough. So, in order to avoid it, people are taught to breath out while lifting and in while lowering. This method makes it easy to remember when to breath. However, it is not always the proper way to breath. Let’s look at some different instances where this method is useful.
Breathing out while lifting and in while lowering is a good way to breathe when doing exercises that work the “pushing muscles” (such as the chest muscles). Lets look at the bench press for instance. While lowering the bar to the chest you may notice the chest opens up (while the chest doesn’t necessarily open or close, I think this makes it slightly easier to understand). The chest also opens up when you take a deep breath in. When you press the bar away from you, you may notice it closes. This same “closing” happens when you breath out. You can see how breathing out while pressing the bar away from the body correlates with the movement of the bench press.
On the opposite end, we breathe in while lifting, and out while lowering. Let’s analyze breathing and the movement of the chest while doing a pulling movement such as a seated cable row. During a seated cable row we see the exact opposite mechanics as the bench press. As we are lifting the weight by pulling the cables toward body we notice the chest opens. Consequently, we see that as we lower the weight the chest closes. In this case it may be better to breath in during the lifting segment and out during the lowering segment. That way we our breathing correlates with the movement of the exercise.
Now, I’m not saying that you are going to injure yourself if you breathe one way or the other. However, look at it this way. If you are doing a seated cable row and breath out while lifting the weight you would effectively be fighting against yourself. Your chest would be expanding while you were trying to breath out but you would not be able to breath out because your chest is in the position to breath in! Clear as mud right?
Okay, now to address the issue of holding breath during a movement. During near maximal and maximal lifts it is appropriate to hold your breath. In fact, holding your breath can actually increase the stability of your spine via a mechanism called intra-abdominal pressure (IAP). IAP increases as a result of a handful of “core muscles” (I personally can not stand the term core) that contract around a belly full of air. Imagine your midsection as a cylinder. On the top and bottom of the cylinder we have the diaphragm and pelvic floor, respectively. The front of the cylinder is the rectus abdominis, the back of the cylinder is the lumber spine, and lastly the transversus abdominis (our internal weight belt) wraps around the sides connecting the front and back halves. If we fill the cylinder full of air and then tighten our abdominals the pressure is forced up toward the diaphragm and down toward the pelvic floor. This pressure actually reduces the amount of compression on the spine and increases spinal stability.
If you were to breathe out during a near-maximal/maximal lift, then we lose the effect of intra-abdominal pressure and spinal stability is compromised. It is important to note that it is not safe holding your breath for the entire set of a lift but rather through each of the repetitions. This way, the pressure is increased for a brief amount of time and not over a long period which could lead to dangerous increases in blood pressure. Deadlifts and squats are examples of exercises where it is appropriate to briefly hold your breath during repetitions.
Hopefully this gives you a better understanding of breathing techniques. Breathing is ultimately important and can be done different ways. In general,I encourage my clients to simply breathe. I usually don’t care how they do it, as long as they do! There are circumstances when it is appropriate to breathe, but those instances aren’t quite as common for the casual exerciser.
If you have any questions or input post it up and thanks for reading!
J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Aug;27(8):2338-45.
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