You hear a lot of conflicting info when it comes to the subject of how to breathe while lifting weights. Many books say to exhale when you are lifting and inhale while you are lowering. Many people say that you should hold your breath or use the valsalva maneuver to get a max lift. I’m going to show you the problem with each of these before I tell you how I suggest you breathe.
First, lets talk about what the Valsalva Maneuver is. Its basically a fancy way of saying that you are holding your breath and pushing hard – like I am in the below picture. Some beginners hold their breath thru the entire set Powerlifters often use the valsalva maneuver but typically only with 1RM. Why isn’t the Valsalva maneuver (holding your breath) a good idea? Because it makes your blood pressure go sky high! So what you say? High blood pressure can cause lots of problems, some of them very dangerous and some just annoying. Imagine what would happen if the city raised the water pressure in the cities water distribution system from 40psi to 120psi, what do you think would happen? Well, if its a brand new city with new plumbing probably nothing as all well engineered systems are over-designed. But what if its a hundred year old city with old pipes? All heck will break loose. Old, fragile mains will crack, joints will pop apart, rusted fire hydrants will pop off resulting in geysers. Holding your breath and raising your blood pressure can cause a nosebleed, passing out, or getting red-eye. High blood pressure can cause much more serious problems though. You might get retinal detachment or hemorrhaging in your eyes and go blind, or you might have stroke and die. What is the chance of those things happening? Pretty low if you are young and healthy but everything you do in life is a risk/benefit analysis. The older your plumbing is, the more risky raising your blood pressure is. YOU need to decide for yourself if the marginal gain in 1RM lifts is worth putting yourself at an admittedly small risk of very serious health problems. For someone trying out for the olympic team, its clear, they need every possible edge and their careers depend on it so they are going to use the valsalva maneuver.
So, how much can holding your breath raise your blood pressure? The results of a study documenting dangerous rises in blood pressure related to the Valsalva maneuver was published in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. During a double leg press exercise, when study subjects exhaled upon maximum intensity, blood pressure was recorded at 198/175 mm Hg. When study subjects performed the Valsalva maneuver during maximum intensity, blood pressure was recorded at 311/284 mm Hg. The highest recorded pressure was a dangerous 370/360 mm Hg.
OK so its clear you shouldn’t hold your breath. What most PE classes teach is that you breathe in sync with your lifting, exhale while lifting, inhale while lowering. It seems 90% of the websites out there preach this type of breathing but its really just a learning technique for beginners. Its a good technique to start with because if you are breathing in sync with your lifting, at least you are not holding your breath! Lets look at the problem with sync breathing though. When you are not exerting, the resting rate of breathing is about 15 breaths/minute – thats about 4 seconds per breath. Perfect! Since I advocate 2 seconds up and 2 seconds down that matches perfectly. But wait! Thats the *resting* respiration rate. What happens when you are exercising vigorously? Of course, you breathe faster! Under high exertion, up to 60 breaths per minute are quite common, thats one breath per second. What is your set going to look like if you are breathing at 60bpm? 1/2 second up, 1/2 second down – your entire 8 reps will be over in 4 seconds! What kind of form do you think you will use at this speed? Thats right, horrible form! Sync breathing is fine for teaching beginners not to hold their breath but the moment they get that mastered, its time to move on to the recommended breathing method …
Breathe normally! Don’t pause or hold your breath. Don’t breathe in sync with anything. Just keep the air moving in and out at whatever rate feels right. Some people like to breathe really fast and shallow like a steam engine locomotive going up a steep mountain, if you do this just be careful that you don’t hyperventilate. When you are trying to crank out that last rep its tempting to hold your breath to ‘pop’ that last rep but don’t do it. Please remember, Don’t hold your breath!