From the time you are born, you have the ability to breathe. You inhale and bring oxygen into the lungs, and exhale, releasing carbon dioxide. It seems like a simple task that cannot get screwed up, but somehow we’ve accomplished that and developed some really bad breathing habits. Bad habits in breathing can have an effect on numerous things, and since this is a fitness forum, you can guess where I am going with this. Insufficient breathing can hamper your lifestyle and, drum-roll please... your training.
When it comes to developing proper abdominal muscles for breathing, there should be as much importance placed on this as there is in developing a well-rounded shoulder, as to prevent injuries. Why is this so important? Well, it’s to prevent your midsection from crumbling like a sand castle some kid just destroyed when you try to squat 500 pounds.
Before I explain some ways to learn how to breathe correctly during exercise, we should take the time to learn a little bit more about the anatomy of the your abdomen and why it does what it does. Now, most of you think the diaphragm is the prime mover in breathing, right? A diaphragm opens up your chest cavity and allows for air to rush in and fill it up, but it is not the only muscle responsible during the process of breathing. The area where breathing takes place in the body is known as the thoracic cavity. Inspiration (breathing in) and expiration (breathing out) are the ways your body takes in oxygen and kicks out carbon dioxide. We need oxygen to function, and can’t use carbon dioxide, which is actually poisonous in too high of amounts. Imagine your lungs are like a fireplace where fuel goes in, and once it's used up, smoke is released. While breathing in, your external intercostals raise the lower ribs up and out, while the scalene muscles and sternomastoids push the upper ribs and sternum up and out as well. This causes an increase in thoracic volume, and air rushes into the lungs and fills them up. During expiration, your abdominal wall (made up of smaller muscles) is the big mover and pushes all that air that was brought into your lungs back out, thus decreasing the thoracic volume. This is why your chest puffs out when you breathe in, and shrinks when you breathe out (assuming you even do that correctly).
The reason this is important to know is because there is a technique when trying to lift heavy objects that we all do (whether we know it or not). This move is called the Valsalva Maneuver. In the Cliff Notes version, this technique consists of taking in a deep breath on the descent of a lift, and pushing up against a closed glottis on the ascent. Before you start with the, “What the heck is a glottis?” questions, I will tell you. A glottis is the part of your windpipe that opens and closes when you are taking air in and releasing it. During the Valsalva Maneuver, you are packing air in your gut and holding it there with your glottis closed while you complete the lift.
Why is this important? Well, while your body is trying to squat a heavy weight or pick up a stone, that packed air pushes your stomach out and up against your abdominal wall. Some people cannot handle heavier loads, so a weightlifting belt may also be used. Regardless of what your preference is, this move pushes air up against your abdomen wall and “braces” you for the load you are about to take on. If you think this is not helpful, I encourage you to give it a shot anyway. Put a moderately heavy weight on the bar and squat it without really taking a breath. Now try the same thing, but take a big deep breath before you go down. I will put money on the fact that the lift was easier the second time (as opposed to the first). Next time you are doing some heavy sets of anything--even upper body lifts--try the Valsalva Maneuver and see what a difference it can make for you.
As with all of the advice I offer, this also has the caveat that this may or may not work for you. I go off of my experiences and education and believe this to be a superior technique, but something else might work better for you. Breathing is such a simple thing and people will often mess it up doing the simplest of tasks. Subconsciously, many people use this technique every day--not just in lifting weights, but while moving potted plants, pushing a wheelbarrow, etc. It may not be to the same extent as a 400-pound bench, but it’s along the same lines. Our bodies naturally use this method to brace our abdominal walls when preparing for a lift. But oftentimes people have either tried to learn a different way to breathe while lifting, or have been coached to do something else such as exhaling through the eccentric portion of the lift.
I highly recommend that before you decide to lift anything heavy again, keep in mind that bracing yourself for impact is a matter of preparing your body for the load that it is about to take on using packed air and your abdominal wall. Try to forget everything you were ever taught about breathing and your body should naturally take care of the rest.
David Spitz – David is the founder of California Strength Academy in San Ramon. This former high school football player was also a USA Junior National Team thrower in track and field. He is currently working towards his CSCS certification. Clients he has recently trained include Chris Cooper (just resigned with the Oakland Raiders), TJ Ward (second round 2009 / 2010 NFL Draft pick) and Cameron Colvin (former Oregon Ducks and San Francisco 49ers player).