Ever watched someone lifting a very heavy weight or caught yourself grimacing and holding your breath during the hardest part of the movement? It’s an instinctive reaction to lifting something heavy, designed to help increase pressure throughout the core in order to help stabilize the spine during the movement. Indeed, that’s why many powerlifters use a similar technique—called the Valsalva maneuver—on purpose.
But here’s the problem: oxygen is the body’s main fuel! (Many people think CARBS are the body’s main fuel but you can live for a couple of weeks without food…you’ve only got about 4 minutes without oxygen!) So by holding your breath you’re also inhibiting oxygen flow to your muscles (including the ones lifting the weight that might otherwise crush you!) Even more troublesome, holding your breath can throw your body into panic mode (a “fight or flight” response) causing your adrenal glands to flood your body with cortisol, the stress hormone that triggers a quick burst of glucose, and, ironically, causes muscle breakdown, plus delays muscle recovery (a great thing if you’re running from a saber tooth tiger but not so great if you just want to get stronger and healthier!)
The trick is to learn how to brace your spine and breathe simultaneously as you lift. Try “burst breathing” or “Breath of Fire”…very shallow “sips” of diaphragmatic breathing in through nose and out thru mouth. The bottom line is you want to breathe into your belly rather than the top of your lungs, and as the exercise becomes harder, breathe more frequently. If that’s too complicated, simply focus on inhaling during the lowering phase of an exercise and exhaling during the harder, lifting phase (anything’s better than holding your breath, even for a moment!)
Written by Jessica Lewis, CPT, CNC, HCC Lifestyle Coach