Breathing During Strength Training

“Chin up… Chest out… Look straight ahead… Brace the abdominals… Grip the bar tight… Push the ground away through all four corners of your feet… Drive the hips forward as you clear your knees… Stand tall… Control the lowering… Gently touch the ground, pause and go again…”

“Oh yeah, don’t forget to breathe!”

Strength training has become so technical these days. There was a time when “grip it and rip it” was all you needed to build strength and size, but now we have this field called personal training where a trainer justifies his or her pay, it seems, by the number of instructions they regurgitate! What happened to the KISS principle?

Breathing is right near the top of most trainers’ exercise-instruction list. The rule is “exhale when you lift a weight and inhale when you lower it”. I guess that’s pretty simple, but what happens if you lift a maximal load? Should the breathing still be the same? What about during high-speed, explosive movements? Or what if you practice super-slow training where every repetition can take 14 seconds or more?

I know what you’re thinking, who cares about that stuff! You’re a bodybuilder – your only concern is about building muscle. You don’t use extremely heavy loads, nor do you go extremely fast or slow. It’s more along the lines of moderately-heavy loads done at a moderate tempo for a moderate number of sets and reps, so why not breathe the way we’ve always been taught?

Well, remember one thing: success leaves clues! Pull out any video of your favorite bodybuilding star and watch how they train. In particular, pay attention to their breathing. When Kai Greene is benching 500 pounds or Ronnie Coleman is squatting 800 pounds, are they casually exhaling when they lift and inhaling when they lower?

I don’t think so!

When the going gets tough, the “tough guys” hold their breath. You would, too! In fact, we all perform what’s termed a Valsalva maneuver (i.e., exhaling against a closed glottis) unconsciously when confronted with near-maximal efforts. If you don’t believe me, pay attention next time you’re “exerting force” sitting on a toilet! Trust me, you’re not holding your breath because of the smell! Then again…

Research indicates that to maximize intra-abdominal pressure during strength training, you should breathe deeply – approximately 75% of maximum – into your belly and hold that breath if possible throughout a repetition, exhaling only when you complete the rep. This provides optimal support for the spine with the fewest side-effects, and it makes you stronger!

Breathing, and in particular breath-holding, is an instinctive process though. If you attempt to lift a heavy load, you’ll naturally hold your breath. You really don’t need to think about it.

Both Dr. Stuart McGill and Dr. Mel Siff, two experts in the field of strength and rehabilitation, agree that the common recommendation in weight training of exhaling when lifting and inhaling when lowering is a mistake. Siff contends that the “careful instruction as to the technique of a given exercise will automatically result in the body responding with the optimal muscle recruitment strategy throughout the duration of the movement.” This applies to breathing as well. Let it occur naturally.

Quite frankly, a personal trainer going through all the nuances of so-called “proper breathing” when demonstrating an exercise will only serve to confuse the client and will likely hurt their performance rather than help it.

Of course, there are some moments when a reminder is necessary. For instance, many beginners often stop breathing during repetitive, low-intensity lifts, so a little nudge every once and awhile may be necessary. Also, on isometric (static) contractions, pressure may build up quite high if you’re holding your breathing – in this case, rapid breathing helps. And finally, hypertensive and cardiac patients should be encouraged to breathe through pursed lips or hum out through the nose when lifting.

The truth of the matter is that most of us breathe quite well by instinct alone. Messing around with this could negatively affect performance in the gym (or on the toilet for that matter!)

So to recap this article in one sentence: let the breathing or breath-holding happen naturally during strength training, just remember to breathe each rep!

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