Core Issues: Dispelling Myths and Misconceptions of Abdominal Training (Part 5)

To maximize intra-abdominal pressure during strength training, research indicates that 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.

There’s also evidence that this action coincides with increased athletic performance. For instance, sprinters typically do not take a breath for the first 15 meters of a race since the body must stabilize for the maximal force of acceleration provided by the drive of the legs and explosive swing of the arms. According to kinesiology expert Paul Chek, “If this stabilization does not happen, the core is soft and power is not optimally directed, resulting in dissipation of energy and loss of performance.”

This is also true in archery and pistol shooting as stability and accuracy are connected with brief phases of breath holding. It’s even common among combat pilots to hold their breath and perform the Valsalva maneuver (exhaling against a closed glottis) to prevent blackout during high G-force aerial maneuvers. In fact, we all perform a Valsalva maneuver unconsciously when confronted with near-maximal efforts.

A Valsalva maneuver or even a partial Valsalva (holding your breath until you clear the sticking point) will help to maintain intra-abdominal pressure to stabilize the spine and make you stronger. If you want proof, try this experiment courtesy of strength and conditioning coach Lorne Goldenberg: Next time you squat or deadlift with a heavy weight, hold your breath for at least the first 3/4 of the concentric (lifting) action and then, on another lift, begin to exhale as you initiate from the floor.

What will you discover?

You’ll realize very quickly that you’re able to handle a much higher load when you hold your breath and blow it out at the end of the movement. Think about it, exhalation is used to release tension and relax the body — not something you want coming out of the hole now, is it? And if you decide to perform heavy squats or deadlifts with improper breathing patterns, get ready for a sore spine!

Many experts now agree that the common recommendation in weight training of exhaling when lifting and inhaling when lowering is a mistake. Sports scientist Dr. Mel Siff once said 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.

Here’s the take-home message: Although a few exceptions exist, let the breathing or breath-holding happen naturally during strength training, just remember to breathe each rep.

Nothing in strength training is engraved in stone, but if you want your abs to look like they were chiseled out of rock, be inquisitive. There are far more myths and misconceptions about abdominal training than any other body part. To find the real answers, you must address the core issues!

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