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Breathing while Exercising or Weight Lifting

Breathing. Through our entire life, we do this very simple task every couple of seconds without even thinking about it…well now you are. This very simple task is also one of the most important functions your body performs. To put it in perspective, a human being can survive weeks without food, days without water, but only minutes without oxygen. This simple action can also mean the difference between a successful lift and an unsuccessful lift.

Weightlifters, whether they be Olympic weightlifters, power lifters, strongmen, body builders, or recreational gym goers all have held their breath during an exercise at some point. What are the advantages and disadvantages to holding your breath during a lift? Well, let’s begin by defining the action of “holding one’s breath.” This phenomenon of holding your breath while performing a heavy lift is called the Valsalva Maneuver. It’s characterized by a forced exhale against your epiglottis (the flap of skin that separates your trachea from your esophagus). This forced exhalation caused a dramatic increase in pressure inside your body. This increase in pressure helps to keep your body aligned. This action is paramount in heavy lifts between 1-3 reps (even 5 reps for more experienced lifters). Anything beyond 3-5 reps will become more detrimental for your body.

When lifting about a 5 rep range, why don’t we just keep holding our breath? Before we answer this, ask yourself “How long can I hold my breath?” 30 seconds? 45 seconds? 1 minute? Now imagine trying to hold your breath while performing an exercise, bodyweight or externally loaded. This will lead to poor form, injury, or even syncope (passing out). So how can we achieve the benefit of bracing without passing out? The answer lies in how we breathe. The easiest way to breathe during an exercise is to match your breath to your movement. When you are moving with gravity, breathe in. When you are moving against gravity, breathe out. Take decent size, controlled breaths at a relatively slow pace (this way, you won’t hyperventilate). Once you can learn to control your breath and match it to your movement, you will see your workouts become easier!

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