the joy of strength training


September 10th, 2008 at 10:50 pm

Breathing in the bench press

I recently started holding my breath throughout my heaviest bench press lifts. I never used to do this in the bench press as I wasn’t taught that way, but in the squat and deadlift I consciously hold my breath throughout the rep and it seems to have naturally carried over into the bench press.

This type of technique, where you forceably expire against a closed airway, is known as the Valsalva Maneuver. People do it naturally when straining to lift a heavy weight, or to equalize pressure in the ears (holding your nose and breathing out). It has been adopted by powerlifters to protect the spine and stabilise the upper body when lifting heavy.

However, this technique of holding my breath throughout the duration of the rep has elicited comment from people in the gym who see me bench, as it goes against what they have been told about breathing during lifting.

The argument that my fellow gym-goers usually proffer for breathing out on the upward part of the lift is that it helps you to push upwards more explosively in the bench press. While this may well be a psychological help, I am less convinced of its effectiveness in reality. Imagine that your car is stuck in a ditch and you are trying to push it out all by yourself. As you strain against the car, pushing with all your might, are you holding your breath or breathing out? Practically everyone holds their breath, without even thinking about it. It makes it easier to push.

The reason that people are instructed not to hold their breath while lifting is safety. Holding your breath while your torso muscles are contracted creates intra thoracic pressure which can result in dizziness, blackouts or, in extreme circumstances, a hernia or a stroke.

Most trainers therefore recommend this breathing pattern but Mark Rippetoe is one authority who recommends holding your breath throughout the rep as “it provides support for the chest. This takes the form of increased tightness throughout the thoracic cavity due to the increase in pressure provided by the big, held breath. A tight ribcage allows for a more efficient transfer of power to the bar by the muscles attached to it when they contract.”

Some trainers hedge their bets – such as Dr Ian King or Tom Venuto and Richie Smyth, who recommend that you hold your breath as you change direction and continue holding until you’ve pushed upward through the sticking point. Once that is over, you can afford to start breathing out.

This probably wouldn’t prevent any problems caused by too much straining, as you would still be straining at the sticking point. However, by reducing the length of time you need to hold your breath, it might make you less dizzy and less likely to drop the bar on your head (not that this should be a problem as you will of course be benching with a good spotter!).

There are some interesting issues and choices raised here. On the one hand, the Valsalva Maneuver carries some risk – of blackout, hernia, stroke etc. On the other hand, it gives more protection to the spine, and can help in lifting heavier weights.

For me, use of the Valsalva Maneuver is a no-brainer in the squat and the deadlift. I perceive the risk of a back injury to be much greater than the risk of some kind of hernia, so I choose to protect my back using this breathing technique. It is also true that the body adapts to the demands placed upon it and you would expect the risks to be significantly less for someone who lifts regularly and progressively than for someone who puts their body under enormous strain without any prior training or development.

The bench press, though, is a slightly different animal as it involves much less load on the spine than the squat or the deadlift, so the advantages will be less in proportion to the risk. The issue seems to be more one of efficacy than safety: stabilizing the chest makes the lift more efficient.

I am not sure whether I have managed to change any minds in my local gym so far, but I will continue to use the Valsalva Maneuver in the bench press and see if the results speak for themselves.

More information

Mark Rippetoe on breathing in the bench press (wmv video clip)

Dr Ian King on the bench press (see point 15)

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  • 1

    Hi, I found your blog on this new directory of WordPress Blogs at **********. I dont know how your blog came up, must have been a typo, i duno. Anyways, I just clicked it and here I am. Your blog looks good. Have a nice day. James.

    James on September 18th, 2008
  • 2

    Interesting post. I haven’t done the bench press in a while, but it has made me think about my breathing pattern when I deadlift. I think I have changed my breathing so oddly enough, it’s like a mix between the valsalva and exhaling.

    So I’m in my starting position, breath held. As I initially take the load I’ll let a tiny bit of air out, same amount if I was blowing out a candle, then hold it for 1/3 of the way up, then the remaining time I start to exhale slowly. Once I’m at the top, I exhale whatever is remaining, then take a breath in. I hope that makes sense!

    I haven’t become dizzy so far, although I don’t think I’m lifting heavy enough to become worried yet!

    (That aside, I’m so pleased you’re writing again!)

    Rooroo on September 18th, 2008
  • 3

    Thanks Rooroo 🙂

    gubernatrix on September 18th, 2008
  • 4

    I don’t bench press these days as bad habits–lack of mobility work–have taken their toll. (I’m working on fixing that but it takes time.) However, I do a lot of weighted pushups. (I just pile weights into a backpack–I have not idea what it means but I can do reps with 90 pounds.)

    Anyway, I find I must hold my breath and take small “sips” of air at the top of the motion or else I collapse (the weight buries me—just ask my chin). I haven’t really thought about it much—it’s just something I had to do to make the movement work.

    What does this mean for benching? Probably not much, and as you’ve pointed out to hold or not to hold is really a calculated risk/benefit analysis for this or any movement. Arching your back on the bench press has risks too. But that, plus the solid foundation that comes from holding your breath, will increase your ability to lift heavier weights. I suppose you could make an argument that we “naturally” hold our breath when pushing, pulling, and bracing in real-world activities; and, if so, it’s probably what we were designed to do….

    In any case I’m glad to see you’re back! Sounds like you’ve been having a lot of fun outside and that’s fantastic. I will say that I got used to dropping by here starting early this year. The topics and writing style/tone are refreshing, clear, and engaging and a far cry from the usual “buy our product” artificial testosterone laced drivel (T-Nation and other sites have some good info but after awhile the boilerplate tone wears thin.) But then in April POOF and nothing! I was actually quite worried and thought something catastrophic had happened…. I’m very happy to know that you are okay! Maybe an “I’m on sabbatical” note next time? 🙂

    Keep having fun! What you do in my book isn’t as important as keeping movement/activity a part of your life. Play/fun are a key part of keeping at it and I’m convinced that it keeps us from growing old in mind/body/spirit.

    Ron on September 18th, 2008
  • 5

    Intersting what you say about “sips” of air. In a lot of cases, breathing out completely seems to weaken the body and make it relax too much, so a topping-up style of oxygen intake would help to maintain the tension.

    Thanks for what you’ve said about my writing. I never meant to be away for so long, hence the lack of any note or explanation. I simply didn’t have much to say about strength training for a while. If I’m not thinking about it a lot, the words and ideas don’t flow.

    You are so right about having fun and remembering why we want to be fit and strong in the first place!

    gubernatrix on September 18th, 2008
  • 6

    […] Some people breathe out as they press upwards, others hold their breath throughout the rep. For a more detailed discussion of breathing in the bench press, see this post. […]

  • 7

    […] Breathing in the bench press […]


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