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.
The general prescription for breathing during exercise is inhalation during the eccentric portion of said exercise, and exhalation during the concentric 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
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:
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.
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.
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.
To recap, here are the benefits and considerations of breathing properly during weightlifting:
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!