Why Holding Your Breath During Resistance Training Can Hurt Your Back

Ever seen someone at the gym with a red face grimacing as they try to push a weighted bar into the air during the bench press? 

Have you ever strained to lift just a few more reps during the bicep curl and find yourself holding your breath to get that last little bit of motion?

Myth: Holding your breath helps you lift more weight

Truth: Breathing correctly helps you lift more weight

When physical exertion increases, it is natural for people to hold their breath. This is known as the valsalva maneuver. Your body wants to do this.

The problem is that it is not efficient and can increase your risk of back pain.

When you are doing strength training or resistance training, you will be more efficient if you inhale as you lower the weight and exhale as you lift the weight.

 

For the bench press:

  • Exhale as you push the weighted bar into the air
  • Inhale as you lower the weighted bar towards your chest

For a bicep curl:

  • Exhale as your lift up the weight
  • Inhale as you lower the weight

When you lift a heavy bag of groceries:

  • Exhale as you lift up the bag
  • Inhale as you set the bag down

When you squat:

  • Inhale as you squat down
  • Exhale as you stand up

When you lunge:

  • Inhale as you lunge
  • Exhale as you return to the start position


As with any exercise, you need to maintain a stable trunk - also known as a stable “core.” The “core” is not just your abdominal muscles. The “core” includes your abdominal muscles, back muscles, diaphragm, and pelvic floor muscles. 

When you combine poor breathing technique and weak “core” muscles, you increase the risk of back injury.

I remember treating a professional basketball player. I was treating him for a knee injury but we were also trying to strengthen his “core” as part of his rehabilitation. He struggled with correct breathing technique during squats and lunges. He was getting frustrated with him because I wouldn’t add weight. The problem was he couldn’t do the exercises correctly without weight.

I asked him to slow all his movements down. His goal was to complete:

  • 5 sets of 2 push-ups (6 different variations = 12 push-ups each set)
  • 5 sets of 5 forward lunges
  • 5 sets of 10 squats

We focused on breathing technique and knee position during lunges and squats. He left angry with me because he wasn’t allowed to add dumbbells to his lunges or squats.

Two days later when he returned for his appointment he shook his head at me. He was mad because he was “so sore the next day, I couldn’t believe it!”

He shared with me that he just “always lifted hard.” He never realized that when you breathe correctly and use correct technique with your movements, then you recruit more muscle fibers and build strength. Slowing down his workout so that he couldn’t use momentum to rush through it and correcting his breathing + movement technique forced his muscles to work more efficiently… thus, giving him a better workout.

The next time you are working out I encourage you to slow it down. Don’t just “go through the motions.” Check your breathing. Check your technique. Your body will thank you for it!





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