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If You Make This Mistake When Lifting Weights, It Can Raise Your Blood Pressure

Cathe Friedrich lifting weights

Lifting weights and working your muscles against resistance has so many health and fitness benefits that you can’t afford NOT to do it. Some of the benefits, backed by science, of strength training, include:

  • Stronger, denser bones
  • Muscle strength
  • Reduced loss of muscle mass and strength from aging
  • Better blood sugar control
  • Greater flexibility and mobility
  • Greater self-esteem
  • Improvements in balance
  • Weight control
  • Reduced risk of injury

You wouldn’t want to miss benefits like that, but it’s also important to use proper form when strength training, especially when you work with weights. The quality of your reps counts more than quantity.

Don’t Make This Mistake When Weight Training

What’s a common mistake people make when lifting weights? They don’t breathe properly! Not only do they time their breathing wrong, but too many people hold their breath when they lift weights and that’s problematic.

Holding your breath when you lift, also known as the Valsalva maneuver, expands your abdominal cavity and reduces blood flow back to your heart. When this happens, your blood pressure initially falls, which may cause lightheadedness, blurred vision, or dizziness. To restore blood pressure, your nervous system leaps into action, and blood vessels constrict, causing a surge in blood pressure.

For a healthy person without hypertension or cardiovascular disease, the rise in blood pressure may not have serious repercussions, but if you have high blood pressure or heart disease, a blood pressure spike could be risky to your health. If you have hypertension, the rise in blood pressure may also be more extreme, especially if it’s not well controlled.

A sharp rise in blood pressure would also be harmful if you have an aneurysm in one of your blood vessels. An aneurysm is a dilated, weakened artery that could rupture with a sudden rise in blood pressure. Of the factors that cause an aneurysm to rupture, weightlifting or lifting heavy weights tops the list. Extreme stress, anger, and excessive caffeine are also on the list, as they cause a sharp rise in blood pressure.

Some weight trainers who hold their breath when they lift develop retinal hemorrhages, also known as Valsalva retinopathy. One sign of this is painless loss of vision, a black spot within the visual field, blurred vision, and the appearance of numerous floaters. The prognosis is good, but this type of hemorrhage can rarely lead to permanent loss of vision.

Intentional Breath Holding While Weight Training

Some serious weightlifters intentionally hold their breath when they lift. Why? Taking a deep breath and holding it increases the volume and pressure in their abdominal cavity. The increased pressure helps stabilize their trunk and spine when they hoist a heavy weight, giving them more control. Doing this improves lifting performance, much like wearing a weight training belt for stability. But it comes at a price if you have poorly controlled high blood pressure or an undiagnosed aneurysm.

What’s the Right Way to Breathe When Weightlifting?

The proper way to breathe when you lift is to breathe in during the eccentric phase of the exercise, the portion where you’re lowering the weight or lengthening your muscles, and breathe out during the concentric phase, the portion where you’re lifting the weight or contracting your muscles.

For example, when you do biceps curls, the concentric phase is when you raise the weights toward your shoulders. During this phase, exhale the air from your lungs. When you lower the weights back down to the starting position, breathe in and fill your lungs with air. That’s the pattern to follow each time you lift.

Breathing properly matters when you do body-weight exercises too. For a push-up, breathe as you lower your body toward the floor, and breathe out as you push your body away from the floor.

When you breathe, inhale and exhale slowly and in a controlled manner through your nose, not your mouth. Breathing in through your nose rather than your mouth helps warm the air and control your breathing. Plus, inhaling through your nose increases nitric oxide, which boosts oxygen delivery to cells and tissues.

Breathing through your nose rather than your mouth also activates the parasympathetic component of your autonomic nervous system, the portion responsible for relaxation and digestion. This creates a sense of calm and reduces stress. Inhaling air through your nose is a way to calm your mind and body even when you aren’t exercising.

The depth of your breaths matters too. Shallow breaths deliver less oxygen to your lungs and bloodstream. Plus, taking short, shallow breaths reduces the efficiency of your breathing. In turn, that degrades your performance.

The Bottom Line

Breathing is an important part of weight training and an aspect that many people get wrong. Oxygen delivery is a major part of exercise performance, and you want that delivery to be as efficient as possible. Holding your breath reduces oxygen delivery and can cause a significant rise in blood pressure. The worst thing you can do is forget to breathe when you lift. But it’s also important to do it correctly – inhale as you lower the weight and exhale as you lift it. It takes practice to get your breathing right, so start working at it now and work toward mastering your breathing technique over time.

References:

  • The Washington Post. “Could nasal breathing improve athletic performance?”
  • Hackett DA, Chow CM. The Valsalva maneuver: its effect on intra-abdominal pressure and safety issues during resistance exercise. J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Aug;27(8):2338-45. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31827de07d. PMID: 23222073.
  • Cholewicki J, Juluru K, Radebold A, Panjabi MM, McGill SM. Lumbar spine stability can be augmented with an abdominal belt and/or increased intra-abdominal pressure. Eur Spine J. 1999;8(5):388-95. doi: 10.1007/s005860050192. PMID: 10552322; PMCID: PMC3611203.
  • Simakurthy S, Tripathy K. Valsalva Retinopathy. [Updated 2021 Jul 26]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK545219/

Related Articles By Cathe:

7 Smart Strategies for Avoiding Strength Training Injuries

Weight Training and Shoulder Injuries: The Importance of Strengthening Your Rotator Cuff

Shoulder Training: Why It’s More Important That It Be Balanced

Ways To Stay Injury Free When You Fitness Train

Building Strong and Beautiful Shoulders: is Your Shoulder Workout Balanced?

The Most Common Fitness Training Injuries & How to Prevent Them

Common Shoulder Problems: Keeping Your Shoulders Healthy When You Lift Weights

Research Reveals the Most Effective Shoulder Exercises

Related Cathe Friedrich Workout DVDs:

STS Strength 90 Day Workout Program

All of Cathe’s Strength & Toning Workout DVDs
Total Body Workouts
Lower Body Workouts
Upper Body Workouts

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