In the weight room, the two most important things to consider are safety and how much you can lift. For some people, it’s one or the other, but with the right breathing techniques, you will be able to lift more weight effectively and do it without hurting yourself. Here’s how.
How You Breathe When You Lift Matters (But Now How You Think)
In sports like swimming or running, it makes sense that breathing is critical. We need a certain rhythm to shunt oxygen into our muscles and keep up the pace. On the other hand, weightlifting doesn’t technically require oxygen, but that doesn’t stop fitness coaches from telling us to breathe properly. Here we’re told to breathe in on the eccentric, or the easier part of the lift, and then out on the concentric, or effort-based part of the lift.
The logic is that exhaling on the concentric gives us a little boost in power, but as this study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine concludes, there’s no real advantage to exhaling over inhaling on the concentric portion. Plus, trying to remember that pattern may be more trouble than it’s worth, says Dr. Stuart McGill, Director of the Spinal Biomechanics Laboratory at the University of Waterloo, in this paper:
…breathing in and out should occur continuously, and not be trained to a specific exertion effort – this helps to maintain constant abdominal muscle activation and ensure spine stability during all possible situations (of course the opposite is true for maximal effort competitive lifting where a valsalva manoeuvre with the breathe [sic] held is necessary – but performance training is not the emphasis here).
Basically, when you’re not lifting a crazy amount of weight, just remember to breathe normally. In those other high-performance cases, McGill suggests the Valsalva maneuver, which is essentially “breathing out” without actually exhaling, like taking a breath and then holding it while you bear down. It’s also a great way to relieve ear pain when flying or changing altitude.
Watch advanced weightlifters hoist an astounding amount of weight, and you may notice their faces sometimes grimace and glow beet red with the sheer effort of the performance. This is the Valsalva maneuver in action. They’re strategically holding their breath to create control and stability throughout their body, especially around their spine and core. You may already do this, too, like when you strain from the effort of lifting something heavy and forget to breathe, or even when you hold in a sneeze.
In other words, the real goal with “breathing” in weightlifting is to stabilize your spine and core. Specifically stability for when you want to put a lot of weight up over your head, or onto your body, and not bend like a slinky. When you suck air into and expand your belly (as opposed to breathing into your chest) and hold it, you are generating intra-abdominal pressure, a sort of internal cushion. This pressure mechanically cushions the spine and increases tension throughout your body to prepare it for heavy loads.
This is also what people mean by the jargon-y phrase “bracing your core.” I’ve mentioned it in our previous articles on deadlifting and squats because, especially for those exercises, it’s important to keep a tense torso. It’s not useful only for deadlifts and squats either. When it comes to safety and weightlifting, bracing your core is as important as good form for any exercise.
Bracing Your Core Makes a Difference in How Much You Can Lift
The video above from Omar Isuf and featuring Cody Lefever, both of whom I frequently go to for questions about weightlifting (and burritos), demonstrates the difference between lifting with and without a braced core. At about the five-minute mark, Cody shows you how to breathe into your belly instead of into your chest. To learn this, he suggests lying down on the floor and placing one hand over your chest and the other over your belly, and slowly get the hang of breathing by contracting your diaphragm.
When I first tried implementing this breathing into my own lifting, I had trouble making sure I was breathing this way but also focusing on still lifting the weight with good form. I got a better handle on it over time, and now I do it without much thinking, but it definitely felt like I was awkwardly trying to multitask at first. Be sure to practice this breathing from the floor first and gradually applying it to different non-strenuous activities, like sitting and standing, before you move onto heavy weights.
So, how does this work in the weight room? Imagine yourself doing squats: You’re standing with a heavy barbell on your back and are just preparing for the first rep of your set. Right before you descend, take a deep breath to fill your belly, then drop down. You should hold your breath throughout the descent, and feel the pressure and tension within your abdominal area, even as you start to come back up.
The next part is figuring out when to exhale. If you exhale too soon, you may lose the stability and boost in power from intra-abdominal pressure. Most coaches say that you should hold your breath until you work past the most difficult part of your lift and forcefully exhale to finish strongly. Others say to hold your breath throughout the lift to take full advantage of the pressure. Go with whichever feels more comfortable for you and allows you to perform the rep well, but I personally exhale past my sticking point because I already do so instinctively.
The more important thing to remember is to take in another belly breath before you start the next rep. Treat every rep as an individual cycle: set up, breathe, hold, exhale, and repeat.
The Valsalva Maneuver May Not Be For Everyone
The caveat here is that using the Valsalva maneuver with heavier weights may spike your blood pressure even more than lifting weights normally already does. So, I asked Dr. Spencer Nadolsky, a bariatric (weight loss) physician based in Virginia and who also lifts weights, whether we should be concerned. He told me that in healthy individuals the changes are acute (short-lasting), and the long-term effects of weightlifting (i.e. better quality of life, improved posture and confidence, long-term decrease in blood pressure, and better overall health) generally outweigh the known risks.
In essence, if you have uncontrolled high blood pressure or conditions that might be made worse by an increase in blood pressure or intra-abdominal pressure (a hernia, for example), you may want to avoid using the Valsalva maneuver; or lifting really, really heavy altogether, as even a brief Valsalva is unavoidable. If you’re just not sure, check with your physician.
Remember, the Valsalva maneuver is generally used for those super-heavy loads, when the most reps you’ll be doing is between one and three. You know, those power lifts where you’re really pushing your limit. For other normal lifting efforts, just concentrate on breathing in and breathing out naturally.
All in all, learning to brace your core is an important part of lifting heavier weights, but it doesn’t mean you can ignore all the risks associated with lifting heavy weights. As always, be smart and learn to weigh the risk and rewards of what you do in the weight room.
Illustration by Fruzsina Kuhári.