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How to breathe when lifting weights

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by Yuan

There is conflicting information on how to breathe while lifting weights, I want to clear it up with practical/scientific knowledge and some good old common sense. A lot of it depends on the amount of weight you are handling.

How to breathe when lifting light or heavy weights

Light and heavy completely depends on your own work capacity. The weight becomes heavy as it gets closer to your one rep max (1rm). While this weight may be light for someone else, it is heavy for you and that’s what matters in this case.

When you are handling a light weight, the breathing pattern doesn’t really matter. Your body is not under a lot of stress and you can afford to breathe in any way that’s comfortable for you.

As the weight gets heavier, it becomes increasingly important to raise your intra-abdominal pressure by using a forced exhale or using the valsava maneuver. This will not only increase your strength, it will also protect your spine.

Before we get into the exact how-to’s, let’s talk about the conflicting information. Some argue against raising your intra-abdominal pressure:

This video reminded me of an old experiment by Penn and Teller, where they got people to sign a petition to ban water. In this campaign, they referred to water as dihydrogen monoxide and talked about what water is, without any proper context. The water banning campaign was recreated in 2013 and the results were shocking. After a day of collecting signatures, only one person asked, ‘Isn’t dihydrogen monoxide…water?’

Like the water banning petition, listing the potential side effects without context can be worrying. Drinking too much water can cause water intoxication and it can kill you. People have gotten hurt from opening jars before, and etc…

When it comes to internal pressure and blood pressure, any muscular effort will raise it. You’ll find that every competitive strength athlete or fight sport athlete uses forced exhales or the valsava maneuver to raise their intra-abdominal pressure. Apply common sense, if you have any medical condition, consult your doctor about it first.

How to breathe for more strength

Athletes that focus on power (short burst of strength) will use a forced exhale because their movement is short and the internal pressure only needs to be raised for that moment. If you watch boxers train, they’ll use the forced exhale with their punches. The instance is extremely quick and the sound it makes is a sharp ‘tss’ or ‘tchh’.

Olympic weightlifters need to be explosive, but their instance of power lasts longer than a boxer’s punch. Their forced exhale will last longer and some opt for the valsava maneuver.

A rep of the squat/bench press/deadlift will take even longer and your internal pressure needs to be maintained for the whole time. At this point, you’ll need to hold your breathe for the entire rep on max effort lifts.

The science behind breathing for strength

Using the valsava maneuver does two things:

    1. increases strength/power output
    2. protects your spine

Researchers have found that power output can increase as much as 11%.

Biomechanist Vladimir Zatsiorsky writes that “Intra-abdominal pressure increases during muscular efforts, especially during a valsava maneuver…as a result of internal support, the pressure on the intervertebral discs can be reduced by 20% on average and up to 40% in extreme cases.”

Now that we’ve established the benefits of raising your internal pressure through breathing, here is how you do it for heavy lifting.

How to breathe when lifting heavy weights

The key is breathing into your stomach and holding it. This is how we all breathed as babies or young children, but eventually the majority will start breathing to their chests. Don’t go to any extremes, try to get a feel for it first and practice some moderation before attempting max effort. If it’s hurting you, stop and try something else.

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