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Breathing and lifting – it’s something you have to know how to do. Whether you want to build more size, lift more weight, or just not pass out during a hard lift, breathing and lifting plays an important role. However, just what is the “right” way to do it?
Breathing and lifting correctly is actually pretty simple – inhale during the eccentric portion (i.e. lowering a weight) of your movement, and exhale during the concentric (i.e. lifting a weight). It doesn’t matter much if you’re breathing through your nose or your mouth, though some recommend inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth if possible for maximum airflow. That said, as you fatigue and your work rate goes up, you’ll probably both inhale and exhale through your mouth.
The biggest point of contention about breathing and lifting is holding your breath. Lifters moving big weights do it – especially really strong powerlifters. It’s also not uncommon to see professional strongman competitors do it. In fact, you’ve probably found yourself holding your breath while going for a new max lift.
This is called a “Valsalva maneuver” – where you take a deep breath in and hold it to create intra-abdominal pressure by attempting to exhale hard against a forced glottis (think about when you’re “pushing” hard while sitting on the toilet). Leading spine researcher Dr. Stuart McGill always recommends bracing the core as much as possible while lifting to avoid injury, and this is an extension of that.
There’s no question that performing a Valsalva maneuver can help you lift more weight. The question is if you should do it, as there can be conflicting advice. One study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine came to the conclusion that more inexperienced lifters shouldn’t because of how much blood pressure is increased when holding your breath while lifting.
Conversely, a 2010 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research concluded that lifters going for a new 1RM employing the Valsalva maneuver experienced only minimal increases in blood pressure. So which should you pay attention to?
Really, it comes down to breathing and lifting for the specific application. During warmups, cooldowns, and otherwise “normal” sets, use the standard inhale/eccentric and exhale/concentric prescription outlined above. This is also what newbie lifters should be doing all the time, no matter what type of set they’re doing or how heavy they’re going.
However, advanced lifters can employ the Valsalva maneuver, but only during their biggest lifts. They should take a deep breath prior to the rep, hold for that one rep, and then breathe immediately after. If you’re going to go for a set of a hard few reps, you could use the Valsalva maneuver on every rep, but only if you take several breaths between reps. That being said, remember that this is only for your top end sets requiring the most effort. The rest of the time, you should breathe normally.
In the end, breathing and lifting doesn’t need to be that complicated. For most it comes naturally, and can also be a marker to help push harder during certain exercises. For instance, lowering a barbell slowly as you inhale and exploding out as you exhale during a bench bress.