By Dain Wallis
Missed reps. Back problems. Digestive issues. What do these items have in common? They can all be avoided with proper use of breath.
Breathing is the most underrated and ignored aspect of lifting weights. When I was introduced to the gym, nobody spoke to me about breath until I started doing heavy squats at which point using the Valsalva maneuver was the only advice provided (which we’ll touch on below).
Humans breathe about 10-14 times per minute, which adds up to roughly 20,000 breaths per day. What else do you have the chance to improve- or screw up- that many times each day? If your breathing is off you will create daily dysfunction that gets magnified over time, much like any poor movement pattern will results in an injury over the long haul.
As a strength athlete, there are a few key things about breath to be aware of outside of the gym:
- Posture: Poor posture will prevent you from achieving a full (diaphragmatic) breath. Upper cross syndrome (extremely common within the Strongman and strength training community), which is easily identified by rounded shoulders, forward head carriage, and thoracic kyphosis, results in impaired breathing function due to the inhibition of primary breathing muscles and the resulting rib cage position. That childhood nag of “sitting up straight” wasn’t just for appearances.
- Psychological: Mouth and chest breathing is a poor pattern that, if trained daily, will become default over time (usually due to the point above about posture). This type of shallow breathing is linked to anxiety and tends to occur in high-stress individuals, which then leads to facilitated (i.e. tight and shortened) muscles in the neck, shoulders and upper back, which can limit performance and result in injury over time. Athletes who mouth-breath outside the gym default to the same patterns during training as they ultimately lack the ability to breathe any other way.
- Digestion: The rhythmic compressions of the breath cycle helps the digestive tract move along and any issues with breathing can lead to poor digestion or even allergic reactions over time. Heartburn is often a case of poor breathing mechanics. If you’re constipated or can’t seem to lose weight, check your daily breathing patterns.
- Core & Back Health: The intrinsic core muscles are responsible not only for “core strength” (otherwise know as the stabilization of vertebra through increasing Intra-Abdominal Pressure, or IAP), but they are also responsible for, and strengthened by, healthy breathing patterns. Dysfunctional day-to-day breathing will weaken these muscles, leading to inadequate stabilization of the spine under load. Add repetitive stress (training) to the mix and lower back pain will be the result.
Why does this matter?
Breath is the lynchpin for core stability. As mentioned above, if you can’t breathe well, you won’t brace well, and you won’t be able to handle big weights well. Remember, IAP is increased directly through healthy (diaphragmatic) breathing and provides stabilization for the lumbar spine: If you want to be stronger and keep your back healthy, you need to train your breath.
Chest breathing vs. diaphragmatic breathing
In chest breathing, the chest expands and contracts with each breath while the abdominal area does not. Chest breathing results in short, quicker breaths using only a small portion of the lungs while delivering a relatively low amount of oxygen to the bloodstream. This pattern of breathing is associated with stress and keeps the body in fight or flight mode which can be used purposely in sport but should never be a daily default pattern.
Diaphragmatic breathing promotes deep breathing and maximizing lung capacity. The diaphragm and abdominal muscles pull down on the abdominal cavity to fully inflate the lungs. This type of breathing involves deeper breaths that can be varied in tempo (i.e. 2-in-4-out or 4-in-8-out) depending on whether you need to breathe and brace for a lift or calm down and create a relaxed state to recover. Taking longer to inhale and exhale will deliver a significantly larger amount of oxygen to the bloodstream. This type of breathing has been shown to improve core and pelvic floor muscle function, improve oxygenation of the blood and musculature, reduce fatigue, decrease stress/anxiety and lower blood pressure.
What this means in the gym:
If you’re feeling tired and slow, you can use short, shallow chest breathing to hype yourself up before a lift. On the flip side, if you’re too hyped up, you can use deep belly breaths to calm yourself down to focus before a lift. A forced exhale is also a great tool that improves with experience over time which we’ll touch on below.
What this means outside of the gym:
Outside the gym, diaphragmatic breathing can be used daily to help improve quality of sleep and/or to relieve stress and anxiety- many meditation practices emphasize deep breathing for this very reason. As mentioned above, if your day-to-day breathing habits are dysfunctional, you’ll be throwing off everything from sleep quality to spinal stability to digestion and more.
How to properly brace: The Coles Notes
- Inhale deeply into your belly keeping your shoulders relaxed – you should feel an increase in pressure (IAP).
- Imagine someone is about to punch you in the gut and brace your abs accordingly without a change in posture. This isometric contraction locks in the pressure and core stability.
*The intensity of the brace will depend on the demand of the activity
Forced exhale vs. Valsalva maneuver
Once you’ve braced your core, you’re ready to lift- but when, and how, do you take your next breath? During a lift, there are two options:
Forced Exhale – During activity, you’ll want to simultaneously maintain breathing while you brace so that you do not lose stability at the spine by exhaling fully. A Forced Exhale is a breathing option that helps engage all core muscles and momentarily increases IAP to get through a sticking point: think of a short and intense pss/sh/grunt or yell as seen in various sports such as boxing or tennis. This forces out a small portion of your breath and can be used during a heavy, slow yoke run, or can be used to accelerate through sticking points in a lift. The full brace is never lost but rather intensified during those forced exhales with room to “top up” your inhale right afterwards.
The Valsalva Manoeuver is a forced exhalation against a closed glottis (the part of your throat that can close). You breathe, brace and hold your breath until the lift is completed. This method is great for 1-RM lifts and some events (like a light, short and fast yoke run). If used incorrectly it can lead to a failed lift, dizziness, or even blacking out.
Both types of breathing have their place in the strength training and competitions, but both hinge on the fundamentals of healthy daily breathing capabilities.
To belt or not to belt
The usage of weight belts is a hotly debated topic. Some endorse using a belt as often as possible to maximize the amount of weight lifted across all workouts. Others believe that a belt can become a crutch and that relying on one will result in a relatively weak core. What we know for certain is that you need excellent core stability and endurance to lift big weights, both of which should be able to be accomplished with or without a belt. A belt is much to lifting as a nutrition supplement is to diet: It will only accentuate your performance if your foundation (your diet, your brace), is sound.
If you are fairly new to lifting, it’s advisable to train your breath, movement patterns and strength without a weight belt to build up core stability and endurance. The biggest mistake you can make is to rely on a belt before your breath/brace/core is strong enough to handle heavy weight on its own. Belts are not designed to substitute for core stability just as supplements are not designed to counteract an unhealthy diet. Furthermore, a belt has the potential to provide nothing more than a false and dangerous sense of security should a weak brace be the only thing it is challenged to support.
At the end of the day, breath is the foundation of both both health and strength. If you don’t know how to breathe, you’ll never reach your strength potential as an athlete.
Dain Wallis is a Nutrition Coach from Toronto, Canada, passionate about helping people better their lives through improved health and performance. An expert in nutrition and change management, Dain is a graduate of the Physical & Health Education program at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada, and also holds his CSCS and Pn1 & Pn2 Nutrition Coaching certifications. Also a DTS Fitness Education Instructor and avid writer, Dain lives to lead by example. A former powerlifter, Dain now competes internationally in the sport of Strongman and is currently Canada’s Strongest Man under 80kg