“Don’t Forget to Breathe”

Posted: July 17, 2016 in Uncategorized

I’m going to start this article with a short rant. There is a point to this, so bear with me. Here we go:

There are a few training cues that are so ubiquitous that every lifter has heard them at one point in their lives. For example, “Drive through the heels,” “Stay tight,” and “Lock it out” are all fairly common phrases that are heard shouted in gyms across the world to the point where they almost become catchphrases. Most of these common cues are fine, but there is one that irritates me beyond rational belief. This cue is “Don’t forget to breathe.”

dumb guy

I KNEW I was forgetting something

Seriously, no human being in the history of time has ever forgotten to breathe. Not only is it impossible to forget to breathe, it’s physically impossible to not take a breath when you need one. Have you ever heard of somebody committing suicide by holding their breath until they died? Of course you haven’t, because it’s goddamn impossible. But for some reason this cue is still shouted by well-meaning trainers, parents, and workout buddies all over the place, and has weaseled itself right into the weight training lexicon.

Why Is This Even a Thing?

I assume that when somebody feels the need to remind another fully functioning human to inhale oxygen, they’re actually referring to the old rule that everybody learns in gym class, which is to inhale during the eccentric motion of a lift and exhale during the concentric motion of that lift. That is, you’re supposed to breathe in on the way down, and breathe out on the way up. However, that is not the way that experienced lifters breathe when moving heavy weights. If you want to learn how to instantly increase your ability to move heavy weights, you need to act like an experienced lifter and master the art of the Valsalva Maneuver.

The Valsalva Maneuver

The Valsalva Maneuver consists of attempting to force air out of the lungs against a closed glottis. This sounds complicated, but it really just boils down to taking a big breath of air at the top of a lift, holding your breath on the way down, then holding your throat closed and forcibly exhaling while on the way back up. This method increases intra-abdominal pressure, which adds support to the spine. This is also know as “bracing your core.”

Proper bracing technique can help you lift more weight because when your brain senses that the spine is well supported, it allows your limbs to move with more force. Conversely, when your brain senses that the spine is NOT well supported, it restricts the amount of force with which your limbs can move.

So if you’re allowing air to leave your lungs while completing the concentric portion of the lift, you’re effectively sapping your strength by decreasing the amount of intra-abdominal pressure in your torso. For this reason, the “breathe in, breathe out” method is tragically flawed, and inferior to the Valsalva Maneuver when it comes to weight training.

How To Use Your Breath to Your Advantage

At the top of your lift -or the bottom, if you’re deadlifting- take as big of a breath as you can. But instead of filling your chest with air, think about trying to fill your belly with air by taking what’s known as a “diaphragmatic breath.”

diaphragm breath

Once you’ve expanded your belly with air, brace your core by squeezing your abs and trying to force air out of your lungs while keeping your throat closed (similar to the way you’d pop your ears on an airplane ride.)

Maintain this braced state throughout the entirety of your lift, making sure not to exhale until you reach the top of the lift. If you do exhale, your core will lose tension which will take support away from the spine. This is known in lifting circles as “losing your air” and will likely result in a missed lift or an injury, so be sure not to let this happen.

If you’ve never used this method before, practice using the bracing/Valsalva Maneuver with lighter weights first, then once you are able to hold your air consistently you should start using the technique with heavier weights. Remember, a supported spine is a happy spine. And you definitely don’t want an unhappy spine.

For a visual example of the Valsalva Maneuver, watch this video of me squatting. You’ll see my belly expand right before I descend into the squat, and I maintain that intra-abdominal pressure all the way through the motion:

 

As a former “breathe in, breathe out” lifter, I can tell you that it makes a HUGE difference when you learn to brace properly. So if you’re looking to really develop your strength, take the time to learn the Valsalva Maneuver and watch your lifts go through the roof.

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