Written by: Kevin Cann
The majority of people reading this have probably been told by a coach, or read an article that said that you need to take a big breath and hold it while lifting. This seems like an easy task. However, it is not as easy as it seems. It is one of the pieces of lifting effectively that people get wrong the most.
You may be asking “Isn’t breathing subconscious? How can we possibly be messing it up?” The thing is, respiration is subconscious, but breathing is a conscious action. To properly breathe to lift maximal weights is not as easy as you think.
We need to take an effective ”belly breath” into our diaphragm. One of the biggest mistakes I see people make here is that they breathe into their chests. There are a few problems with this. For one, we want to brace and protect our lower back. Placing air in our chest will not help this.
Also, this makes our lifting less effective. In the squat, when we raise the chest we are pushing the bar further away from our hips. If we squat with the bar in a low bar position, this would turn it into more of a high bar squat. Thoracic extension demands are increased, and they are increased while we are not bracing effectively.
If we let the chest rise when we breathe during the deadlift, we are making the lift a longer lift. When the shoulders and chest rise, the arms come with them. This would mean we would lock out the weight higher, increasing its ROM. Long arms are an advantage in the deadlift, we do not want to shorten them.
On the bench press, if we raise our shoulders we actually increase our risk for a shoulder injury. The shrug of the shoulders mixed with the internal rotation of the press is a recipe for labral issues, impingements, and irritation to the bicep tendon.
Taking a diaphragmatic breath will expand our abdomen. However, this is not effective bracing on its own. Breathing is not bracing, it allows us to brace more effectively. Another mistake that I see people make is that they take their breath into their belly, but do not brace effectively after the breath.
Once we take in that breath, we want to expand our belly in a 360 degree radius. If you are wearing a belt to lift think about pushing against the belt all around your torso. This should be an extremely uncomfortable feeling. This will activate all of the musculature surrounding our lumbar spine, keeping it safe.
The other mistakes people make while breathing is they take too big of a breath and they hold it for multiple repetitions. There are not too many studies performed here in America looking at how much air we need to take in and how duration of holding your breath effects the movement.
However, in Russia there are. I have not seen this study myself, and even if I did I can’t translate it. I trust Boris Sheiko’s understanding of it. In Russia it is an honor to be a strength athlete, and they take great pride in their success in the strength sports. It is not as big of a deal here in America, so we just do not see many studies performed.
This study was done by I.M. Seropegin in 1965. It showed that breathing was most effective in strength athletes when the lungs were ¾ full and the breath was held for a short amount of time. This means that we do not need a massive breath to effectively brace our abdomen.
All we need is a small huff of air into the belly (filling our lungs ¾ of their capacity). Anything more than this is just a waste of energy. We also do not want to hold our breath for multiple reps. The longer we hold our breath the less effective the breathing. We should rebreathe after each repetition to effectively brace.
When you take this breath, just open your mouth and breathe in. Don’t push your head forward or pucker your lips. Pushing the head forward pulls the body forward and can lead to a less than optimal starting position. Puckering the lips and sucking in the air hard is just a waste of energy. Remember that breathing is not bracing, it just allows us to brace harder.
Some reading this may be worried that holding your breath while lifting is dangerous. The thought process is that we get a spike in blood pressure and this can lead to a stroke. The research just does not back this finding up.
Holding your breath while lifting is known as the Valsalva maneuver. This is a normal human movement when lifting heavy objects. Your body will naturally do this, probably due to the increased abdominal pressure. Studies looking at Valsalva and blood pressure hold the subjects breath for 20 to 30 seconds. A lifter holds it for far less time. There is no risk to lifting under Valsalva. However, lower back injuries are most prevalent under a barbell. Not holding your breath increases your risk of hurting your lower back.
When we are lifting heavy we want to take a small huff of air into our belly and push it out as hard as we can in a 360 degree radius around our lower back (think into the belt). We want to take a breath in for each rep and not hold it for multiple repetitions as it loses its effectiveness. This will take a lot of conscious effort at first, but over tie it will lead to more weight on the bar and new PRs.
For more information on breathing: