Find That Breath!

Happy Holidays everyone!  I hope you had a Merry Christmas (if applicable, of course), and that Santa was as great to you as he was to me.

On a related note, don't the days immediately after Christmas - but preceding the New Year - just feel like the outro from the song "Layla?"

(Whenever I can link to Eric Clapton in a blog post, I view that as an epic win.)

Anyway, as I was taking a break from work this week, I realized I have yet to write about an important point I drive home to many of my clients - the importance of breath and getting tight when lifting heavy.

First, it's important to dispel some of the "conventional wisdom" about holding breath when you're working out.  No, I don't want you to hold you breath for more than a few seconds, and this post probably isn't applicable if you're still in the pink dumbbell category.  But for heavy squats, deadlifts, presses, etc. it's important that you take in air in order to KEEP you safe.

Neutral spine, packed neck, big air....clearly, this is a client of mine.

Neutral spine, packed neck, big air....clearly, this is a client of mine.

Perhaps the best explanation on why it's best to hold your breath comes from a balloon. When you inflate a balloon it's much more stable than it's deflated brethren, and your body is the same way.  When we're able to fill our diaphrams with air and lock in pressure, we're giving ourselves the internal stability we need to lift heavy things.  This stability will help lock our spines in place (which is a good thing), and eliminate any leaks in the chain, making the lift easier.

Now, contrary to what you might have heard, holding your breath through a heavy squat or deadlift will not result in having your eyeballs pop clean out of your skull.  In fact, one of my favorite books, Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe, clears up this confusion:

The conventional wisdom that this thoracic and abdominal pressure is also being applied to the cardiovascular system embedded in the trunk...that this increase in pressure has the potential to cause a cerebrovascular accident, such a stroke or blown aneurysm. This ignores the fact that the same pressure is being applied to the cerebrospinal fluid....balancing cardiovascular pressure in the blood/brain interface.

Don't get me wrong, we're not holding our breath on a certain rep for more than 3-5 seconds.  And, I often get a ton of puzzled looks, especially from those with an extensive Yoga background when I talk about getting tight, holding your breath, and creating as much tension as you can.  

So how can you teach yourself this valuable skill, and make sure you're doing it correctly?

Presenting: a weight belt, and one dude with a sweaty chest.

Presenting: a weight belt, and one dude with a sweaty chest.

One trick I've recently employed is having someone put on a weight belt tight around their stomach, just below their ribs.  After cueing them to "tuck their ribs down," I have them take in a deep breath, so they can picture their entire body filling up with air and pushing out against the belt.  Without breathing out, they then press as hard as they can against their weight belt, trying to do their best imitation of what they feel like after their Thanksgiving/Christmas/other indulgent American holiday meal.  Usually, this helps someone feel what it's like to take in a deep breath and get as tight as they possibly can.

If this topic doesn't completely make sense to you, then that's OK.  It took me a few years to understand the importance of getting tight before a big lift, and then what getting TIGHT actually meant.

But, being able to take in a deep breath and staying unbelievably tight, will only help you when it comes to the major lifts.  Heck, I've seen a bunch of people set new PR's only minutes after they were finally able to grab this concept.

In the meantime, eat, drink and be merry!  Happy New Year!