How To Breathe Properly During Weightlifting

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Breathing: it’s a very relaxing word. When I think of breathing, I think of yoga classes, meditation.

However, breathing can help facilitate many different things…even intense workouts.

From increasing abdominal pressure, to increasing recovery time between exercise sets, there are a lot of useful purposes for owning our breathing mechanics.

“Breathe In On The Way Down, And Out on The Pushing Phase?”

The general prescription for breathing during exercise is inhalation during the concentric portion of said exercise, and exhalation during the eccentric phase. To give an example using the barbell bench press, inhale before lowering the bar to the chest, and exhale when you are pushing the weight away from you.

However, research does not support any potential benefits doing one over the other. That is, as long as you are creating stability for the spine by using the appropriate abdominal muscles to create a “brace”, there is no research that says exhalation during the eccentric or concentric helps to facilitate said movement.1

How To Breathe Properly To Create Stability

You can create stability during exercise by inhalation before a big movements, what is called “bracing”. If we are looking to save time and perform an exercise that has the biggest effect on our strength and physique goals, we need to utilize the best breathing techniques in our lifts.

Creating stability by inhaling and bracing our abdominals before the movement will help us move more weight and burn more calories, and therefore look better on top of all that. This bracing maneuver is often referred to as the Valsalva Maneuver. This is a moderately forceful exhalation while you do not let air escape (by closing your airway).2

PRACTICAL APPLICATION: “DEAD BUG” EXERCISE

Try the Dead Bug movement to fully appreciate how abdominal bracing works. Here’s a video demonstration by strength coach Eric Cressey:

  1. Lay flat on your back on the floor, with knees over your hips, and arms out in front of you.
  2. From this position, inhale to reduce the normal spinal curvature in your back from laying on the floor – think about pushing your spine to the floor without losing your current position at the neck and upper back.
  3. Next, simultaneously extend the opposite arm and leg fully out.
  4. The key here is to appreciate what happens at the spine when this movement occurs – do you feel your back come up off the floor? If so, make sure to reposition yourself and imagine your belly button pushing into the floor by exhaling during the arm and leg movement.

How does practicing the Dead Bug help us during real weightlifting activities? By bringing awareness as to where our spine should naturally be during the lifting activity. When we apply this breathing technique to squatting and deadlifting, we can move more weight – and thus burn more calories and get stronger.

How To Breathe Properly To Relax & Recover

As it is a naturally relaxing action, meditation and yoga practitioners regularly practice breathing in an active manner in order to facilitate stress and regulate emotions. 3 Using the application of breathing to relax, we can look at different breathing exercises that are aimed at reducing stress, and relaxing different tight muscles.

If you take a second to examine our breathing, you may notice that you are “chest breathing” – or using different muscles that are better suited to assist in breathing, as opposed to the actual muscles, such as the diaphragm and surrounding muscles of the abdomen.

You can do quick test of this by laying down and placing one hand on your chest and one on your stomach respectively. Next, take a deep breath – which rises first? If it is the chest, you may be breathing inefficiently!

By learning to breathe through your stomach, you can now begin to relax effectively!4

At the same time, if you apply this method of breathing to when you are huffing and puffing after doing an intense exercise, you can amplify your recovery time. During high intensity exercise activities such as sprinting or a high rep exercise such as kettlebell swings or squats, we may exhibit hyperventilatory, or rapid type of breathing. To counteract this and increase recovery time during interval activities, breathe via the stomach and take big breaths to aid in recovery.

Considerations About Breathing During Weight Lifting

There are numerous positive benefits from owning our breathing patterns and the practical applications of it. On that same note, however, there are a few situations when these breathing techniques may not be recommended, such as if you have high blood pressure, holding your breath under exertion may increase it dramatically for a temporary time.5 Also, if not properly taught, anecdotal evidence shows that using these techniques may increase incidences of light-headedness. Technique may be properly taught in person with a fitness professional.

Conclusion

To recap, here are the benefits and considerations of breathing properly during weightlifting:

Benefits:

  • Helps facilitate tonicity or tightness of muscles (think yoga)
  • Helps to reduce recovery time between sets
  • Increases possible weight used when appropriately used during squats, deadlifts, etc.

Considerations:

  • Breathing while lifting heavy weights may require an advanced level of technique (valsalva maneuver)
  • Feelings of light-headedness can occur when breathing improperly

I hope you can now appreciate what we can do by simply being aware of our breathing and learning how we can control it. Now we can use breathing to effectively move more weight within our gym experiences and hopefully relax while outside of the gym as well!

References

  1. McGill S. Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance. Orthopedic Physical Therapy Products (OPTP); 2006. “Should athletes breathe during a particular phase in the exertion? Many recommend that athletes exhale when raising a weight – or the opposite. We hear, for example, that when performing the bench press exercise one should exhale upon the exertion. What evidence is this based on? This pattern will not transfer to the athletic situation in a way that will ensure sufficient spine stability. The spine must be stabilized regardless of whether the individual is inhaling or exhaling.”
  2. Available at: http://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Abstract/2010/08000/Effects_of_Weightlifting_and_Breathing_Technique.29.aspx. Accessed January 27, 2013
  3. Martarelli D, Cocchioni M, Scuri S, Pompei P. Diaphragmatic breathing reduces exercise-induced oxidative stress. Evidence Based Complement Alternative Medicine 2011;2011:932430.
  4. Available at: http://www.koreamed.org/SearchBasic.php?RID=1006JKAN/1999.29.6.1304&DT=1. Accessed January 27, 2013
  5. Terndrup TE, Leaming JM, Adams RJ, Adoff S. Hospital-based coalition to improve regional surge capacity. West J Emerg Med. 2012;13(5):445-52.
Medically reviewed by Dapo Babatunde, M.D.
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