You’ve undoubtedly heard your trainers advise you to use proper breath control during heavy lifts. But what is “breath control” and how does it work? Well, I’m glad you asked! Let’s examine the details of why you should breathe properly during strength training and how to successfully implement it in your weightlifting workout. The overall purpose of breath control is to stabilize your core and lumbar spine for both safety and efficiency.
It’s tough to hold a neutral spine while pulling a heavy deadlift. But if we don’t then we will eventually let our lumbar spine fold into flexion under load and shoot an intervertebral disc out of our lower back and into the whiteboard. Breath control helps keep our spine safely extended.
Part of our training at CrossFit Impulse involves moving the heaviest loads possible. The spine transmits a lot of force throughout the body, so it’s advantageous to keep it as rigid as possible. Would it be easier to lift something with a rigid metal rod or a wet noodle? Breath control helps us make our spine closer to the rigid metal rod. But it’s also about your core—all the muscles that make up your abdomen and attach to your pelvis. Keeping our core rigid through breath control gives heavy loads less chance to break us over. Is it easier to support a load on an inflated air mattress or a deflated one? The inflated air mattress is a core using breath control.
Breath control means that before you perform a lift you take in the largest breath possible by primarily expanding your abdomen–not your chest. Sure, the chest will rise a little too, but we’re looking for the primary motion to be in your gut. At the same time you will contract your abs and try to push outward against them. Hold your breath and continue to hold this outward pressure on your abs. The feeling should be similar to bracing for a punch or trying to keep from crapping your pants. Hold this throughout the squat, press, deadlift, etc and then you can release.
For repeated reps of three, five, or more, after the first rep don’t allow all your breath to completely escape. This would allow the load to compress your core, and you would not be able to make your core fully rigid again without unloading yourself (racking or dropping the bar). Instead, use a technique called “topping off.” After you complete your first rep and are preparing for the next, quickly and shallowly exhale, and then inhale deeply and contract your abs again. By quickly I mean “as fast as you can!” By shallowly I mean, “don’t exhale a lot of breath–just a little.” Then proceed with the next rep.
Before the Lift
The best time to form a rigid spine and core is before it’s compressed by a load. Get your breath control before you pick up the bar. Then if you need to top off before your first rep, use the technique described above. For squats and presses I get under the bar and then tighten up and achieve breath control before I press upward to remove it from the rack. For deadlifts, cleans, snatches, or anything from the floor I achieve breath control before bending over to put my hands on the bar. Your core can be made more rigid by pressurizing it before you bend over.
If you don’t care exactly why breath control works, then you can skip this part. However, you can never fully understand how to apply something until you understand how it works. The term for breath control used during weightlifting is actually diaphragmatic breathing combined with a valsalva maneuver. You inhale by contracting your diaphragm. This pushes the diaphragm downward, which creates pressure in your abdominal cavity because your guts are pressing outward against your muscles and skin. By contracting your abs you provide an even firmer surface that allows you to create even more pressure. This pressure makes your spine and core rigid, similar to how air pressure make a rubber tire rigid and able to support the weight of a car. That’s what it’s all about: creating a rigid spine and core. Rigidity means more safety and better transfer of force to the bar. Yes, proper breath control means heavier lifts!
Weight Lifting Belts
This technique of breath control is also what allows weight lifting belts to work. They further constrain your abdomen and give you something rigid and immobile to press outward against. This further increases intra-abdominal pressure and makes holding this pressure throughout the lift easier for the lifter. It also exposes why weight lifting belts that expand their area over the lower back completely miss the mark. The intent is not to pull on the lower back or pad it. The intent is to have a firm surface to press the abs against, and for that you need a belt that is the same width all the way across. If you are interested in a weight lifting belt for CrossFit then I suggest a 10mm thick leather belt such as the Inzer Forever. Inzer makes variants with a single prong buckle, double prong buckle, and lever. I use the lever version and really like it because I can very quickly cinch the belt for the lift and then very quickly release it for easier breathing when I’m done. All the while the belt stays around my waist. The 10mm thick variant is more than enough for most CrossFitters. Inzer also produces 13mm variants, but they are generally best for…ahem…larger and burlier powerlifters that have a lot of mass to constrain. For the sub-225 lb CrossFitter, a 10mm belt will provide plenty of rigidity and be more pliable for fast movements like snatches and cleans.
Whether to use a belt and how often can be a contentious topic like politics and religion. Whenever the world’s best do something a particular way, it’s useful to take note. The world’s strongest men and women in powerlifting and weightlifting all use weight lifting belts. It’s interesting to note that in one study (Bauer, Fry and Carter; 1999) weightlifting belts were shown to increase the use of spinal erectors even though researchers hypothesized that spinal erector activity should decrease if the belt provided an advantage. So they aren’t making your core weaker–they’re making your core stronger.
Breath control: learn it, practice it, use it…and become stronger!