Resistance training is essentially the lowering and raising of an object. The object may be external (barbell, dumbbell, exercise machine), or your own body weight (push-up, sit-up, squat). The correct use of the breath is critical for stability, balance, safety, and injury prevention.
When you exercise, for example when doing a push-up, do you “inhale on the way down and exhale on the way up?” If so, you’re not alone. Most people do it this way, most trainers teach it, and most exercise related sites advocate it. The problem is, “experts” don’t always know best. Conventional wisdom, often based on the questionable research, or even worse, opinions of such experts, is all too often accepted as dogma, and can remain unquestioned for decades.
So, if I tell you the “correct” way to breathe when resistance training, should you believe me? My answer is no, at least not right away. Try it out for yourself and make your own decision. That said, I’m confident that if you give it a chance, you’ll find breathing this way more beneficial.
So, what is the “correct” way to breathe when performing resistance training exercises? The answer is, you don’t breathe, you hold your breath. Let’s take the push-up as an example. In the up position, elbows locked and arms straight, you take a big breath in, hold it, tighten your abdominal muscles, lower down, press up, and exhale.
The experts, or possibly you, might shout, “Hold your breath?! No way, that’s dangerous! You can have a stroke!” To be fair, conventional wisdom suggests that inhaling on the way down and exhaling on the way up is a good way to eliminate the possibility of cerebrovascular injuries during exercise, by lowering peak blood pressure during a repetition. Aside from the fact cerebrovascular injuries caused from resistance training are extremely rare (Do you know of anyone who has had one?), such conventional wisdom does not take into account the hundreds of thousands of years humans have had to figure out the safest way to breathe when moving or lifting something heavy. It also reveals a misunderstanding of the physiological mechanisms involved to do so. More on this shortly.
Say I asked you to try to move a solid, stable wall, and gave you no other instructions. You would approach the wall, place both hands or your shoulder on it, brace yourself, take a big breath in, hold it, make you abdominal muscles very tight, and push as hard as you can. You won’t exhale, except to grunt, or to take another short quick breath, and again push as hard as you can. As an experiment, now try moving the wall (big breath in, hold it, abdominal muscles very tight), only this time exhale as you push as hard as you can. More than likely you will feel like a punctured tire going soft. During resistance training, this loss of stability that comes from exhaling before the completion of a repetition can result in unnecessary injuries, especially to the spine.
The combined effects of taking a big breath in, holding it, and making your abdominal muscles very tight cause an increase in lung pressure stabilizing the upper back, an increase in intra-abdominal pressure stabilizing the spine from the front, and increased contraction of the erector muscles traveling up and down the spine stabilizing the spine from the back. Exhalation during resistance training exercises, i.e. “on the way up”, prevents the development of sufficient pressure to stabilize the spine. A small exhalation in the form of a grunt, though not as effective for spinal stability as holding the breath, allows some increased pressure to be maintained, and is far more favorable than a complete exhalation.
Now, here’s why cerebrovascular injuries (stroke, aneurysm) so rarely occur as a result of holding the breath when resistance training. Though it’s true that cerebral vascular pressure does increase while straining with the breath held, vascular rupture is mitigated because of a simultaneous increase in cerebrospinal fluid pressure, which travels up the vertebral canal to the cerebral ventricles. Much like how cabin pressure maintained on an airplane at high altitude matches the pressure from the outside and prevents the cabin from rupturing, the pressure from the cerebral ventricles matches the pressure of the cerebral vasculature. And, with progressive increases in intensity, i.e. sets, repetitions, and load, this cerebrovascular mechanism adapts just like muscles, ligaments and tendons do to regular resistance training.
So, if you’ve been “inhaling on the way down and exhaling on the way up” I strongly encourage you to stop. Instead, before each repetition of any resistance training exercise (including body weight exercises), take a big breath in, hold it, make your abdominal muscles as tight as possible, complete the repetition, and exhale. You’ll have increased balance and stability, and you will significantly decrease your chances of a back injury.
*Reference – Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training. Rippetoe, M. Kilgore, L. 2nd Edition. 2007.