Breathing during weight lifting isn't as clear-cut as you might initially believe.

Proper breathing during exercise and weight lifting

Breathing during exercise is one of those topics that never seems to go away. Everyone has an opinion about the correct way to breathe during weight lifting, and it seems like the “experts” all think differently about how best to breathe during heavy lifting.

Is there a concensus about breathing during exercise?

Arnold Schwartzenegger is famous for saying it doesn’t matter how you breathe while lifting weights. In his definitive book about bodybuilding, he shrugs this topic off. He almost seems amused by it.

Other writers scream and pull out their hair and shout from the rooftops that you must always breathe out during the concentric portion of the lift and in during the eccentric! (In case you forgot: the concentric part of the lift is when your muscle(s) is contracting to cause movement. Usually, it’s when you’re fighting gravity.)

Still others — most of whom were influenced by Eastern mysticism — prescribe bizarre breathing exercises. They promise all sorts of near-magical benefits if you will only learn how to breathe correctly.

What are the facts about breathing during exercise?

If you are going to lift weights, there are a few important points that you need to understand. Without going into things too far, I’ll give you the rundown:

Blood pressure and intra-abdominal pressure

When you hold your breath — especially during intense exercise — your blood pressure spikes. Additionally, your intra-abdominal pressure increases.

Powerlifters — and some other advanced weight lifters — take advantage of this phenomenon. They intentionally hold their breath during very heavy lifts because the increase in intraabdominal pressure acts to solidify their core which in turn helps to support the spine.

Weight lifting belts also increase the intra-abdominal pressure when an experienced lifter uses them correctly and appropriately.

So, when an experienced powerlifter holds his breath during a heavy lift (and also when he pushes against a properly-worn weightlifting belt) he markedly increases his intra-abdominal pressure. Thus, he can move more weight.

However, as I mentioned earlier, this same powerlifter’s blood pressure also increases during the intense lift. This can be a problem.

Weightlifters sometimes suffer from Valsalva retinopathy. This is a hemorrhage of the retina caused by holding your breath while “pushing”. While the damage isn’t usually permanent, it’s still something to think about. If you have vision problems after an intense lifting session, you now know the reason.

Also, there is some tenuous information that links heavy weight lifting with an increased risk of glaucoma, another eye disorder.

The vagus nerve and the Valsalva maneuver

There is a nerve called the vagus nerve which runs down your neck close to your carotid artery.

When this nerve is stimulated, it reduces the heart rate and/or the blood pressure.

Some experts speculate that a blood pressure spike during heavy weight lifting can overstimulate the vagus nerve, leading to light-headedness or fainting. Unfortunately, there’s really no reliable way to test this hypothesis.

The Valsalva maneuver during heavy weight lifting

Did you know that you can intentionally decrease your heart rate and blood pressure temporarily, whenever you want? Well, you can, simply by using a technique know as the Valsalva maneuver. Wikipedia describes the Valsalva maneuver as a “forcible exhalation against a closed glottis”.

The Valsalva maneuver is named after the doctor who first described it during the Italian Renaissance. Although he was primarily interested in using this maneuver to diagnose disorders of the inner ear, modern cardiologists have long known that it can also be used to diagnose heart problems and manipulate the heartrate.

How holding the breath during a lift can cause immediate fainting

Picture yourself bench pressing a very heavy weight. Maybe you can only get a few reps because you are trying for a new personal best. Your heart rate is all the way up, your breathing is deep and labored, and you’re right on the edge. This is strength training at its most intense.

Now, when you are under the bar and straining for that last rep, it’s almost impossible to breathe. No matter the exercise — bench press, squat, overhead press — when you are close to failure you can’t breathe during the rep because you need a strong, stable core to support your spine.

So, holding your breath and pushing is the only way to complete the rep. During a squat, it’s not such a big deal because you might be able to jump out from under the bar. But during the bench press, it’s not so easy to get to safety.

When you hold your breath during intense weight lifting, you inadvertently perform the Valsalva maneuver. Your heart-rate drops, along with your blood pressure, and if you are already at the edge of consciousness with your vision creeping inward and your thoughts muddled, it just might cause you to faint. Then again, maybe you’ll be perfectly fine. Nobody can tell beforehand how their body will act.

Is this a problem? Maybe so, maybe not. Experienced powerlifters — and others — do this intentionally. They know what they’re capable of and they are willing to take an informed risk.

On the other hand, many people have passed out while pushing a weight. While it’s fine for an experienced lifter to assume a known risk, most novices don’t have a clue about how to breathe during weight training.

Deaths caused by weight lifting can be linked to improper breathing during training

This is why it is a terrible idea to bench press with low reps if you don’t have a power rack. If you strain for that last rep and pass out, you are in trouble. If you have a spotter, you’ll probably avoid death, but unless he is very strong and alert, you’ll still get injured.

Although data is hard to come by, weight training accidents in the USA result in between 10 and 20 deaths per year on average, and weight training causes many tens of thousands of emergency-room visits every year. Source: Weight training deaths article abstract. Most of the deaths (and, I presume, many of the injuries) involve bench pressing.

Hyperventilation — should you do it?

Lots of people involved in all areas of fitness and athletic training use hyperventilation immediately before, during, and/or immediately after exercise.

This means the breathe deeply and strongly, fully filling the lungs. And it usually means they intentionally increase the rate of respiration so it’s greater than what their body demands. In other words: fast, deep breaths.

Their reasoning is two-fold:

  1. Lots of people do it, so it must be worthwhile.
  2. It seems intuitive that hyperventilation will increase the amount of oxygen in the blood (which must be good, correct?)

Unfortunately, their reasoning is fallacious.

Mysticism — belief in knowledge that can’t be written down or spoken of, but must instead be experienced.

In many Eastern traditions — from India all the way east to Japan — people are taught mystical breathing patterns that are supposed to increase the body’s health and vitality.

But the supposed benefits of these breathing patterns are not based on any real-world evidence. They’re just baloney (to put it mildly). Lots of gullible people fall for nonsense just because some inscrutible foreigner with a long, white beard and a bunch of sycophantic followers claims that they know the path to enlightenment.

But the true path to enlightenment is already well-developed. And you don’t have to tithe or pay for it. That path is Western science.

And science tells us that there’s no way for a normal, healthy person to increase the oxygen saturation of his or her arterial blood. Your normal, instinctive breathing rate already puts just about as much oxygen in your blood as your blood is capable of holding. No fancy breathing exercise can increase your blood’s oxygen saturation. It’s already almost totally efficient.

So this brings us to hyperventilation.

Obviously, hyperventilation does something. Anyone who has done it knows there is some effect. And anyone who’s heard of the fainting game knows that the effect can be quite extreme at times. The question is: what is that effect that we’re feeling when we hyperventilate?

What science tells us is this: hyperventilation decreasese the concentration of carbon dioxide in the blood. A decrease in your blood’s CO2 concentration is called hypocapnia. And when you are in a hypocapnic state, your urge to breathe diminishes.

That’s because the body doesn’t usually bother to detect blood oxygen levels. Instead, it detects blood CO2 levels, then uses that information to prompt you to breathe. The more CO2, the more rapid your natural breathing. Less CO2 inhibits your urge to breathe.

Therefore, hyperventilation actually ‘tricks’ you into thinking you don’t need to breathe. This kills some breath-hold divers who practice pre-dive hyperventilation. The US Navy warns against this practice here (pdf).

For most of us who are not underwater, the results of hyperventilation are less serious. But it’s still a practice I don’t recommend. Hyperventilating after an intense exercise interval will cause you to recover more slowly than normal, instinctual breathing. Yeah I know you want to look cool by controlling your breathing, but your body knows what it’s doing so leave well enough alone.

Bottom line

So what’s the best way to breathe during strength training?

Breathe however you like. But when the reps get low, you won’t be able to breathe during a rep even if you want to. This isn’t a big deal unless you’re under a bench press with no spotter. Some people — even professional athletes — have lost their lives after passing out during a bench press. None of these people used a power rack and many of these deaths were completely preventable.

All the “tricks” that you use (like keeping the collars off during a heavy bench press so you can dump the weight plates if you get stuck) won’t help if you lose consciousness.

Now, you are informed.

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