Breathing involves two distinct phases, inhaling and exhaling. It is a vital function of life, and it is an automatic process; so fortunately nobody can just forget to breathe.

But even though breathing is an involuntary function, we can still control it. When engaging in weight training and other physical activities, learning to breathe most efficiently and effectively will actually have a major impact on our exercise performance. Focusing on the correct breathing pattern and learning the breathing techniques most appropriate for our particular sports activity or exercises will ensure that our muscles will stay optimally supplied with oxygen to keep functioning throughout the exertion; this results in increased endurance, delays fatigue, helps to lift more weight with better control, improves posture, and prevents unhealthy blood pressure spikes. On the other hand, breathing incorrectly during exercise, can cause premature fatigue, may cause light-headedness or exertion headaches and can lead to unhealthy blood pressure spikes.

To begin with, optimum breathing technique requires diaphragmatic breathing or “belly breathing” instead of “chest breathing”, which is far more shallow and less efficient. Diaphragmatic breathing encourages full oxygen exchange and involves taking a deep breath “into the stomach”, which causes the diaphragm muscle located at the bottom of the ribcage to contract and to move downwards, pulling air into the lungs. This causes the belly and the lower rib cage to expand.

When it comes to weight-training in the gym, your breathing must be synchronized with the exercise movement as it is performed, because this will increase the function and efficiency of the exercise and allow you to lift more weight. This generally involves to breathe out during the exertion- or lifting-phase ( concentric repetition: the target muscle shortens), and to breathe in while lowering the weight under control back to its start position ( eccentric repetition: the target muscle lengthens).

Most traditional weight training exercises, such as Rows, Leg Extensions, Leg Curls, Biceps Curls, Pull-Ups, Deadlifts, etc., begin with the concentric lifting phase; therefore breathe in deeply before the start of such an exercise-movement, and exhale while executing the first concentric repetition. When this repetition has been completed, inhale again while returning to the start position, and continue to perform any subsequent repetitions according to this pattern, until the entire set is done.

However, some exercises such as the Squat and the Bench Press are slightly different, as these movements start with the eccentric phase of the lift, and some breath holding is required to maintain the posture and core stability required for these lifts.

When it comes to heavy competition lifts such as the Squat, the Bench Press, or the Deadlift, competitive powerlifters use the so-called Valsalva Maneuver, named after the Italian anatomist Valsalva. It involves to take a deep diaphragmatic breath “into the stomach” prior to the lift, and to combine this with maximally bracing the core muscles. This breath is then held throughout the entire repetition, limiting the air from escaping on the way up by forcefully “breathing out” against a purposely closed airway. This technique significantly increases the pressure inside the abdomen and ensures optimum stability in the lower spine and torso to support lifting maximum weight loads.

While generally safe, such a Valsalva Maneuver can unfortunately lead to blood pressure spikes, exertion headaches, nose-bleeding, burst blood vessels in the eyes, and even black-outs or worse; therefore its use should exclusively be reserved to well-trained competitive power-lifters and should be restricted to occasional, short-duration, high exertion efforts.

Beginners, avid gym enthusiasts, and bodybuilders, who primarily engage in weight-training for improvements of their physique, health and strength, are advised NOT to perform the Valsalva Maneuver in their work-outs. The same applies to older athletes, those disposed to high blood pressure, or those at risk for cardiovascular injury.

When performing the Bench Press, Squat, or the Incline Leg Press with submaximal loads for a number of sets and reps, you should inhale during the first segment of each eccentric repetition, then shortly hold your breath for better stability during the most difficult portion of the lift, and finally start to exhale little by little, usually accompanied by a hissing “Tsss”-sound or a grunting sound, as soon as you have cleared the movement’s sticking point. The exact timing of when to start holding your breath during the eccentric ( weight lowering) phase, and when to start exhaling during the concentric (lifting) phase is of no concern, as your brain will automatically determine the exact point, when you need more stabilization of the spine/torso than can be achieved by breathing naturally, and will temporarily stop your breathing at the appropriate time and for just as long as necessary. This is kind of a partial Valsalva Maneuver, an automatic response, which naturally occurs during heavy lifting to generate the required intra-abdominal pressure to stabilize the spine/torso.

To emphasize the take-away point again: When weight-training, don’t ever deliberately hold your breath, but focus on organizing your exercise breathing pattern so that you always breathe out during the exertion phase, and breathe in during the easier return phase of any movement. This even includes the heavy lifts like Squats, Bench Press and Deadlift. Unless you are a competitive powerlifter, who may occasionally use the Valsalva Maneuver during maximum lifts, don’t override your brain’s automatic control, when and for how long it may be necessary to temporarily stop your breathing to ensure your spine’s and torso’s stabilization, but rather allow it to happen naturally without any conscious interference. 

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