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I am a bit confused about the correct breathing technique in lifts that require core strength.

Take the squat as example:

1) Some people say that it is very important to breathe in at the top of the movement, then hold the breath until when you go down until you come up again to the straight position. Then you should breath out. The air should go into the stomach and you should contract the abs at the same time. The reason for this is that the air and the ab contraction increases the intra-abdominal pressure. This leads to a thight core which protects the spine. Additionally this gives you a bit more power for your lift (I guess about 10 percent). However doing this also increases the blood pressure which in turn can lead to cerebrovascular accident or hemorrhoids and simliar things concerning the blood vessels. It can also lead to oxygen deficit in the brain...

Because of this risks, the general advice in training is

2) breathe in on relaxion and breathe out under load. I also found this advice in the german book "Differenzierte Kraftraining" by Axel Gottlob. Where also squats and deadlifts are discussed in depth.

3) Sometimes the variant is suggested to hold the breathe on the bottom and very slowly breath out on the way up.

4) Another variant is to breathe into your stomach as you are standing straight, tighten your abs and let some air go out again, then hold it until you are up again.

5) The last advice I have heared is just not to think about it but breathe just naturally. If I try this, I end up in breathing multiple times during the lift which feels to be wrong. However I can keep my abs contracted while breathing, so my spine should still be protected, isn't it?

So I am very confused about this topic and need an authorative answer how to do it in detail and why. And what is about the concerns I have with the different kinds of breathing technique: Better spine protection but higher blood pressure or vice versa...

I guess that the first method is the best for professional power- or weightlifters.

But I am interested in training for hypertropy for general health and just for fun. So if you don't lift your 1rep max and choose instead of it a weight where you can do 8-15 reps (and 4 sets), which technique would be the most healthy one and why?

How does the risk for the spine increases in this case when I don't hold the breath during the lift?

Edit: To understand the subject completely: How does the recommended speed of execution relates to the breathing technique and to the possible dangerous. For example if you hold your breath, it may be better to execute the lift quickly since this seems to me to reduce the risks associated with holding the breath during the lift...

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I think your question is excellent. I would vote it up twice if I could. Very detailed, very well-written, and very thought-out. This is an exemplary question. –  Daniel Mar 22 at 21:18
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Agree, I look forward to the answers on this question. I can share an anecdota from my experience that breathing out too early can result in a massive loss of power. Like if you breath out before you even reach the bottom of the squat. –  Christopher Bruce Mar 22 at 22:27
    
Great question. Personally I always combine breathing out on the way up with some (3) intermediate resting position deep breaths followed by some (6) short breaths and a final deep inhalation. Don't know if there is any theory behind it, but for me it absolutely adds some extra power to my squats and bench presses (not so much to my dead-lifts). Something I picked up from my first trainer back in the late 80s. Any way, great question, wish I could +10 it ;-) –  Pibara Mar 27 at 5:34
    
Ok, instead of +10ing the question, I've put a bounty on it. If anyone wants the bounty, please also address the issue I pointed out in my above comment. –  Pibara Mar 27 at 5:38
    
voices.yahoo.com/… –  Sarah Apr 15 at 11:27

2 Answers 2

up vote 12 down vote accepted
+50

A very well thought out question. First, the technical term for holding your breath is called the Valsalva maneuver. In the world of weight lifting it has a distinct purpose: to increase the body's ability to protect the spine under heavy load. The Valsalva maneuver does not work alone. There's a pretty fair treatment of the subject on a Rebock Crossfit site (link). It's important to note that crossfiters are not trying to be power lifters or Olympic weightlifters. They are focused on multiple reps at any given weight. Lift Big Eat Big has an article about what the body does to compensate while lifting (link).

While both those articles address why we do the Valsalva Maneuver, they don't address it from the bigger picture of how to minimize risk or how to approach the subject. Are there risks? Yes. If you already have high blood pressure, it's probably not for you. However, lifting does help to correct elevated resting blood pressure over time.

When performing squats, deadlifts, bench press, or just about any compound lift that can put stress on the spine it is imperative to protect your spine during exertion. This will help you finish your long sets, and protect you from injury. However, you do need to breath.

  • Your body will naturally brace itself during exertion. This is both normal and desired.
  • You don't need to brace when you aren't exerting yourself. (more on this later)
  • The more you progress as someone who trains with weights, the more important it is that you learn how to manage using the Valsalva maneuver.

Understanding when to apply Valsalva

If you are using machines which isolate your arms or legs so that there is no appreciable load on the spine, there is absolutely no reason you need to use the Valsalva maneuver. However, if you are using a machine or a barbell that does place load on your spine you need to protect your spine.

  • Squats: Breath between reps, but use the valsalva maneuver during your descent and ascent. This works very well for me.
  • Bench Press: If you use an arch, it's a full body lift so the same rules apply for squats. If you don't use an arch it's an isolation lift for the chest and arms, breath as it comes natural to you. (don't overthink it).
  • Deadlift: You only need to brace during exertion. Use the Valsalva from the time you initiate the lift to the time you are standing. You can catch your breath at the top.
  • Overhead Press: Same as deadlifts. It's very hard to make this an isolation exercise, so you can breath at the bottom and breath at the top, but during the lift brace.
  • Any lift where your spine is in a neutral or supported position: breath however is natural for you.

There are some variations of exercises where you intentionally violate the guidelines above. For example, breathing paused squats. Breathing paused squats are where you pause at the bottom of the squat and breath while at the bottom. Then you have to exert yourself to get standing back up. They really cause your core muscles to work hard to support the weight, but you can only do them with relatively light weight.

As I've matured as a lifter, I've found ways to keep air in my lungs during some long sets. The guidelines above will help you sort out when you need to apply the Valsalva maneuver and when you can do what you need without it.

Using the Valsalva

First, and foremost don't grab too big of a breath. Your goal is to stabilize your core, not make your head explode.

  • Breath into your spine: At least this mental image will help you control how big a breath you get and where to hold it. You don't want to puff your chest or your belly out with air, leaving your spine with less support. This is the same way that singers and cheerleaders are trained to breath so they can sing or cheer loudly.
  • Get "just enough" breath: Once your spine is supported, you don't need to keep taking in air. It should be only moderate pressure on your glottis.
  • Hold it during exertion: Once your spine is in a naturally supported position (straight up and down) you can release your breath.

It's easy to overthink it or scare yourself silly with the many articles out there. It's also just as easy to overdo the Valsalva maneuver with all the macho brovado and overstating it's usefulness.

Just remember, if the spine perpendicular to the ground, it is supported by it's natural geometry. Performing certain conditioning work like farmers walks and suitcase carries, you are free to breath naturally. In fact it's really important that you do so.

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Thanks for the long answer and the links. Your advice concerning deadlift, is it just for the regular one or does it apply also do RDL's, one legged deadlifts, hex-bar deadlifts, straight legged deadlifts and other variants. I guess it should be the case because the spine is not perpendicular to the floor, but I am not sure... –  Sarah Mar 23 at 8:37
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Conventional, Sumo, hex-bar apply. RDLs and SLDLs are typically assistance exercises that you aren't loading very heavy (compared to a regular deadlift). As a result you can probably get away with normal breathing with them. Do use your core muscles to brace, but if you practice you can breath while doing that. –  Berin Loritsch Mar 23 at 13:13

I can only give an anecdotal answer: I find that the tightness of the core from the intra-abdominal pressure added by a full breath becomes negligible once one develops a very strong squat. I think that for a strong squatter, the ability to move the same amount of weight likely exists regardless of breathing method. In my experience of trying many different breathing methods, I feel as though I should be able to inhale and exhale fully during any phase of the exercise.

On a philosophical note, I think that it is common for an athlete to pick a preferred method of breathing for their squat, but I don't believe it is necessarily what gives them the strength to perform the squat. To be the strongest at squatting one can be, it is probably best for one not to subscribe to any of these theories, but for one to master a theory that works for them.

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Sounds interesting. Do you have any references? If I understand you correctly that would mean that if you train for muscle-building and not for powerlifting i.e. using not the heaviest weights, your spine should be safe also without valsalva? –  Sarah Mar 23 at 8:38

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