Holding Your Breath? It Could Be Harming Your Health and Weightlifting Form

February 11, 2013 | Z Altug

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Are you holding your breath during weightlifting? Although it might not seem like a huge deal, proper breathing technique is a tremendously important—yet often overlooked—factor in strength training.

Referred to as the "Valsalva maneuver," it simply means a person holds his breath while attempting to exert force (Venes 2009). (Read Improve Your Breathing Technique to Become a Better Athlete.) In weightlifting, improper breathing during weight training (like the Valsalva maneuver), or lifting above your max weight limit, has been associated with serious medical conditions, from blacking out to heart and brain injuries. (Pott et al. 2003, Kocak et al. 2003, Pierson et al. 2002, Dickerman et al. 2000, Gwan-Nulla et al. 2000, Haykowsky 1996, Schor et al. 1993, de Virgilio et al. 1990, Compton et al. 1973).

There is debate about the proper breathing form when exercising, especially when lifting weights. One guideline recommends exhaling through the most difficult point (referred to as the "sticking point") in the repetition and inhaling during the easiest point (Baechle et al. 2008). You'll often see Powerlifters and Olympic lifters using various breathing techniques, including a brief period of breath-holding.

However, for fitness- and sport-related weightlifting, the key is to breathe freely and not hold your breath during exercises (McGill 2007). One way to avoid holding your breath is to count softly out loud. When you are speaking, it is much harder to hold your breath. Focus on exhaling in a steady manner as you exert force—e.g., as you press a barbell up from your chest—and inhaling in a steady manner as you lower the weight.

All athletes should undergo medical checkups and use proper training techniques to minimize injury in the weight room. If in doubt about your breathing form during exercise and weight training, speak with your conditioning specialist for specific guidelines.

Further Reading

  • Baechle TR, Earle RW, eds. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, 3rd ed. Champaign IL: Human Kinetics, 2008, page 327-328.
  • Compton D, Hill PM, Sinclair JD. Weight-lifters' blackout. Lancet. 1973;2(7840):1234-1237.
  • de Virgilio C, Nelson RJ, Milliken J, et al. Ascending aortic dissection in weight lifters with cystic medial degeneration. Annals of Thoracic Surgery. 1990;49(4):638-642.
  • Dickerman RD, McConathy WJ, Smith GH, et al Middle cerebral artery blood flow velocity in elite power athletes during maximal weight-lifting. Neurological Research. 2000;22(4):37-40.
  • Edwards MR, Martin DH, Hughson RL. Cerebral hemodynamics and resistance exercise. Medicine and Exercise in Sport and Exercise. 2002;34(7):1207-1211.
  • Findley BW. Is the Valsava maneuver a proper breathing technique? Strength and Conditioning Journal. 2003;25(4):52-53.
  • Finnoff JT, Smith J, Low PA et al. Acute hemodynamic effects of abdominal exercise with and without breath holding. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. 2003;84(7):1017-1022.
  • Fleck SJ, Dean LS. Resistance-training experience and the pressor response during resistance exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology. 1987;63(1):116-120.
  • Gwan-Nulla Davidson WR Jr, Grenko RT, et al. Aortic dissection in a weight lifter with nodular fasciitis of the aorta. Annals of Thoracic Surgery. 2000;69(6):1931-1932.
  • Haykowsky MJ, Eves ND, Warburton DE, et al. Resistance exercise, the valsalva maneuver, and cerebrovascular transmural pressure. Medicine and Exercise in Sport and Exercise. 2003;35(1):65-68.
  • Haykowsky MJ, Findlay and Ignaszewski AP. Aneurysmal subarachnoid hemorrhage associated with weight training: Three case studies. Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine. 1996;6(1):52-55.
  • Hill DW, Butler SD. Haemodynamic responses to weightlifting exercise. Sports Medicine. 1991;12(1):1-7.
  • Kocak N, Kaynak S, Kaynak T, et al. Unilateral Purtscher-like retinopathy after weight-lifting. European Jjournal of Ophthalmology. 2003;13(4):395-397.
  • Lisenbardt ST, Thomas TR, Madsen RW. Effect of breathing techniques on blood pressure response to resistance exercise. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 1992;26(2):97-100.
  • MacDougal JD, McKelvie RS, Moroz DE, Sale DG, McCartney N, Buick F. Factors affecting blood pressure during heavy weightlifting and static contractions. Journal of Applied Physiology. 1992;73(4):1590-1597.
  • MacDougal JD, Tuxen D, Sale DG, et al. Arterial blood pressure response to heavy resistance exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology. 1985;58(3):785-790.
  • McCartney N. Acute responses to resistance training and safety. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 1999;31(1):31-37.
  • McGill SM. Low Back Disorders, 2nd ed. Champaign IL: Human Kinetics, 2007, page 186-187.
  • Narloch JA, Brandstater ME. Influence of breathing technique on arterial blood pressure during heavy weight lifting. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. 1995;75:457-462.
  • O'Connor P, Sforzo GA, Frye P. Effect of breathing instruction on blood pressure responses during isometric exercise. Physical Therapy. 1989;69(9):757-761.
  • Palatini P, Mos L, Munari L, et al. Blood pressure changes during heavy-resistance exercise. Journal of Hypertension Supplement. 1989;7(suppl 6):S72-S73.
  • Pierson JC, Suh PS. Powerlifter's purpura: A Valsalva-associated phenomena. Cutis. 2002;70(2):93-94.
  • Pott F, Van Lieshout JJ, Ide K, et al. Middle cerebral artery blood velocity during intense static exercise is dominated by a Valsalva maneuver. Journal of Applied Physiology. 2003;94(4):1335-1344.
  • Schor JS, Horowitz MD, Livingstone AS. Recreational weight lifting and aortic dissection: case report. Journal of Vascular Surgery. 1993;17(4):774-776.
  • Venes D, ed. Taber's Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary, 21st ed. Philadelphia, PA: FA Davis Company, 2009.
  • Verkhoshansky Y, Siff M. Supertraining, 6th ed - expanded edition. Rome, Italy: Verkhoshansky, 2009, pages 467-468. www.verkhoshansky.com and www.melsiff.com.
  • Wiecek EM, McCartney N, McKelvie RS. Comparison of direct and indirect measures of systemic arterial pressure during weightlifting in coronary artery disease. American Journal of Cardiology. 1990;66(15):1065-1069.
Z Altug
- Z Altug, PT, MS, CSCS, NSCA-PT, is a licensed physical therapist and athletic performance specialist out of Los Angeles. He co-authored the 2012 Healthy Lifestyle...
Z Altug
- Z Altug, PT, MS, CSCS, NSCA-PT, is a licensed physical therapist and athletic performance specialist out of Los Angeles. He co-authored the 2012 Healthy Lifestyle...
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