Breathing Tips for Lifting Weights

On Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

Does it really matter how I breathe when I lift weights? — Shannon via Twitter

Breathing is such a ridiculously easy thing to do, even new born babies get the hang of it in seconds. Why would anyone need explicit instructions on how to breathe during any sort of activity? Because in the case of weight lifting good breathing makes a difference. How you suck air into your lungs and push it out again is a matter of safety.

Most fitness instructors will tell you to inhale through the nose as you lift a weight, or exert yourself, and exhale through the mouth as you lower a weight, or release the exertion. With few exceptions I agree with this. To explain why this is true I need to get a tiny bit technical, so bear with me.

At peak exercise effort you may push yourself so hard that you accidentally close down your airways (the throat and nasal passages) but still continue to try to force air out anyway, a phenomenon is known as the Valsalva Maneuver. This causes a lot of excess pressure to build up within your thoracic cavity which can be dangerous for a couple of reasons. In the first place, it reduces blood flow to the heart. In the second place, the excess pressure can cause fainting, blood clots to detach from your blood vessels, irregular heart beats and heart attacks. None of these are good things.

People who are older, out of shape or very overweight are at particular risk for having this happen but I was once training a very young fit person who “Valsalvaed” during an especially heavy shoulder press; he keeled right over. So really everyone needs to remember to keep breathing when they pump the iron.

The only exception is during power lifting; power lifters valsava on purpose to create extra pressure around their abdomen which helps to protect their back and create extra core strength. Power lifters are very experienced and know what they’re doing – and they don’t hold the Valsalva indefinitely.

The best way to avoid holding your breath is to breathe in deeply through the nose as you lift and exhale deeply through your mouth as you lower. This has the added benefit of filtering out dust and germs from the incoming air and also keeping your airways moist. Exhaling through the mouth helps regulate heat and keep you cooler as well. You’re also less likely to hyperventilate using this breathing pattern.

So now you know more about the “ins and outs” of breathing than you probably ever wanted. It’s actually a pretty important topic and something you should pay attention to. But I would also add: If trying to breathe properly really hangs you up and you get confused trying to remember to move air through your nose and mouth in the right way, the most essential thing to remember is to just relax and remember to keep breathing at all. Never put yourself in a situation where you use weights that are so heavy you have to force the movement, fight to hold good form or feel yourself cutting off your breath.

Make sense everyone? Anything to add? Any experiences you’d like to share on the topic? Post here or tweet please.

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