How to Breathe When Lifting
Breathing – it’s the most natural thing for humans, and we hardly ever think about it. Except for when we’re lifting, that is! Most of us don’t have to exert ourselves in our day-to-day lives, and our workouts make it VERY apparent that serious work requires serious breathing. A five-rep-max set of squats might not knock the wind out of you, but it’ll damn sure make you think about each breath.
Unfortunately, most gym-goers have no idea how to breath for optimal performance. Taking in the right amount of air doesn’t just give your muscles the oxygen they need to perform – it can give your entire a body a mechanical advantage during a lift. Powerlifters know this, Olympic lifters know this, and you should, too. Here are a few of my top tips for breathing while lifting.
To hold or not to hold?
There’s really not that much controversy about holding your breath while lifting. Most of the people who decry the practice aren’t serious lifters, but doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals who are prone to EXTREME conservatism in their exercise advice.
The fact is, holding your air in can make any given rep FAR easier. That one breath may not “weigh” much, but the air does take up volume in your body. This gives you a wider base from which to push or pull, and a wider base is always more sturdy. Talk to any powerlifter, and he’ll tell you that holding your air is crucial to “staying tight” for a big squat or bench.
All that being said, there are certainly times when you should allow yourself to exhale. Any time you’re doing a super-heavy exercise for multiple reps – squats, deadlifts, or heavy presses – you’re going to need to take a few different breaths. Hold your air in on the negative, sure, and keep holding it for each individual rep. But allow yourself to take another breath – or three – in between reps if necessary. Passing out during a heavy set of squats won’t do you any good!
Exhale on the concentric.
When you do need to let your air out, always make sure you do it on the concentric, or “positive” portion of the lift. For example, never let go of your breath as you LOWER the bar during a bench press. Let it out slowly as you’re pushing, or better yet – in between reps at the top. If you let your air go while you’re lowering a weight, you’ll lose stability and potentially make it difficult or impossible to complete the lift.
This concept is also important for exercises that directly involve your stomach – like crunches. Have you ever tried to breath IN as you sat forward? It’s kind of hard to complete a crunch with a belly full of air! This is important for pretty much any exercise that requires you to stand, as well, since your abs are always working to stabilize the rest of your body.
Use your belly, not your chest.
Ask any man to inhale, and he’ll proudly inflate his chest, making his whole upper body seem just a bit bigger. That may be a great aesthetic trick, but it won’t do you a damn bit of good in the weight room! Remember, you want to hold in your air to give yourself a wider, sturdier base. Instead of making yourself more top-heavy, you want to get as much air into your belly as possible.
Yes, this might make you look “fat” while you’re lifting – but who the hell cares? If you’re lean, your stomach will go right back to the way it was when the lift is over. If you’re not lean, then no amount of sucking in your gut is going to get rid of your rolls, anyway. When you’re lifting, you should be doing whatever is necessary to get the most out of the lift.
Obviously, keeping air in your belly is more important for squatting than for any other movement. Other leg exercises don’t require the same level of stabilization, and even deadlifts aren’t as affected by girth and body weight. When you squat, you basically want to make yourself as “stout” as possible: back arched, shoulder blades pinched, and belly full of air. Not the prettiest sight, but it’s a foolproof way to improve your squat and get bigger legs.
Tighten that belt!
You shouldn’t rely on a belt ALL the time, but you should certainly get the most out of it when you do use it. Tighten it as much as you can stand, and actively try to push your stomach out OVER the belt line. This might not be possible if you’re already lean, but the point is to TRY. The belt gives you a great deal of feedback and lets you know that you are indeed holding your air in your stomach as much as you can.