Written by Onfit E-tutor Claire Watson
Firstly, let’s have a look at what happens when we hold our breath, otherwise known as the Valsalva Manoeuvre (VM). The Valsalva Manoeuvre is the name of the occurrence of holding ones breath. This happens naturally to brace the spine during the lifting of objects such as weights or unblocking your ears on a flight. Although there is a benefit to holding your breath while lifting (such as bracing the spine), the risks are far more detrimental.
The VM is one of the body’s ways of increasing intra-abdominal pressure, which it does by not allowing air to escape from the lungs. Unfortunately, the VM has the ability to increase your blood pressure, causing symptoms of dizziness, fainting, decreased blood flow to the heart, and even stroke. As you can see, there’s a reason we are concerned about you holding your breath!
So I bet you are now wondering how you can brace your spine to protect it from injury and breathe at the same time. Well it’s quite simple really. All you need to do is brace your abdominal muscles (core) at the start of the exercise. This still allows you to breathe normally whilst still protecting your spine. This can be hard to master, but a good and easy way of doing this is by counting your repetitions out aloud through the entire movement to ensure you are not holding your breath. As you lift the weight or perform the exercise, you should be breathing out, counting the repetition that you are performing, and while lowering the weight (e.g. during a bench press) or finishing the exercises you should breathe in.
Effects on Blood Pressure
So earlier I mentioned that VM increases blood pressure. So I just thought this would be the perfect opportunity to give some more detail considering that “One in five Australians had high blood pressure and the prevalence was higher in men than women” (Melanie Nichols, 2014).
The purpose of a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, was to record the blood pressure response to heavy weight-lifting exercise in five experienced body builders. “It was concluded that when healthy young subjects perform weight-lifting exercises the mechanical compression of blood vessels combines with a potent pressor response and a Valsalva response to produce extreme elevations in blood pressure. Pressures are extreme even when exercise is performed with a relatively small muscle mass” (Sutton, 2014). So, what does this mean for people training with Hypertension? As shown above, it’s not just beginner (unconditioned) clients with high blood pressure we need to worry about, but also healthy (advanced) lifters who should also be very vigilant when it comes to breathing correctly during lifts. Increase in intra-abdominal pressure (caused by VM) can be potentially very harmful. It is for this reason that gym instructors, PTs and individuals need to learn how to breathe with correct technique.
Some tips for breathing during resistance exercise:
- Straining, groaning, grunting, and even speaking during your set means that you are performing Valsalva and not breathing correctly.
- It is also incorrect to BLOW air by pursing the lips and puffing out the cheeks, to HISS air through a grimaced mouth, or to BURST air after holding it. Louder air does not mean FLOWING AIR.
- Breathe through the mouth primarily. Try to keep the jaw loose (unclenched), the mouth open, the lips un-pursed, and the teeth parted. If you’re breathing properly, your breathing sounds will be lighter – whisper-like – and you will take in more air with less work.
Happy breathing everyone!