Exercise Technique Fundamentals: Breathing Considerations

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Exercise Technique Fundamentals: Breathing Considerations

There are several commonalities among resistance training exercise techniques. Most free weight and machine exercises involve some sort of hand grip on a bar, dumbbell, or handle, and absolutely all exercises require an optimal body or limb position, movement range and speed, and method of breath­ing. In this post you will find out what is the proper way to breathe during strength training.

How to breathe during the course of each rep is a somehow debated topic. However, natural breathing – randomly sucking air in and blowing out – isn’t good enough for weight training. Men who inhale and exhale at the right times can dramatically increase their weight loads.

How Should You Breathe While Exercising?

Your breathing while exercising will affect your performance.

General Rule

The most strenuous movement of a repetition—typically soon after the transition from the eccentric phase to the concentric phase—is referred to as the sticking point. Strength and conditioning professionals should typically instruct athletes to exhale through the sticking point and to inhale during the less stressful phase of the repetition. For example, since the sticking point of the biceps curl exercise occurs about midway through the upward movement phase (concentric elbow flexion), the athlete should exhale during this portion. Inhalation, then, should occur as the bar is lowered back to the starting position. This breathing strategy applies to most resistance training exercises.

Breathing while exercising

Inhale and exhale in a smooth, steady manner. Inhale during the easier part of an exercise (when you’re lowering the weight) and exhale during the harder part (lifting). Your breathing should work in harmony with your lifting. Proper breathing will quickly become second nature, and then you won’t have to think about it anymore.

Breath Holding: Valsalva Maneuver

There are some situations in which breath holding may be suggested, however. For experienced resistance-trained athletes performing structural exercises (those that load the vertebral column and therefore place stress on it) with high loads, the Valsalva maneuver can be helpful for maintaining proper vertebral alignment and support. The Valsalva maneuver involves expiring against a closed glottis, which, when combined with contracting the abdomen and rib cage muscles, creates rigid compartments of fluid in the lower torso and air in the upper torso (i.e., the “fluid ball”).

The advantage of the Valsalva maneuver is that it increases the rigidity of the entire torso to aid in supporting the vertebral column, which in turn reduces the associated compressive forces on the disks during lifting. It also helps to establish and maintain a normal lordotic lumbar spine position (also called a neutral spine) and erect upper torso position. Be aware, however, that the resulting increase in intra-abdominal pressure has potentially detrimental side effects, such as dizziness, disorientation, excessively high blood pressure, and blackouts. This is why the breath-holding phase is—and should be—quite transient, only about 1 to 2 seconds (at most). Even a very well-trained individual should not extend the length of the breath-holding phase, as blood pressure can quickly rise to triple resting levels.

Strength and conditioning professionals involved in conducting 1-repetition maximum (1RM) tests in, for example, the squat, deadlift, hip sled, leg press, shoulder press, or power clean, need to be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of coaching athletes in the Valsalva maneuver. While it is obviously important that the vertebral column be internally supported during these movements for safety and technique reasons, it is recommended that an athlete not extend the breath-holding period.

Valsalva maneuver in weight training

The Valsalva maneuver is a specific breathing technique that you can utilize to immediately improve your weight training performance. How to perform Valsalva maneuver? Inhale during the eccentric part, hold your breath, lift the weight past the point of toughest resistance, then exhale.

Closing Thoughts

For most exercises, exhale through the sticking point of the concentric phase and inhale during the eccentric phase. In other words, exhale hard during the exertion phase, then inhale while lowering the weights.  Experienced and well-trained athletes may want to use the Valsalva maneuver when performing structural exercises to assist in maintaining proper vertebral alignment and support. In other words, the breathing pattern that seems to provide the best internal pressure for lifting maximal weights is to inhale during the eccentric part, hold your breath, lift the weight past the point of toughest resistance, then exhale. The problem with this technique is that it can send blood pressure through the ceiling. This is bad news for men with hypertension or risk factors for stroke or cardiovascular disease. But if you’re healthy it’s safe and will allow you to perform more reps and set.

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