There’s so much to focus on when you’re lifting weights. You have to control the velocity of the weight so you’re not using momentum and focus on form so you’ll get maximal benefits. With so much focus on the weight and arm movements, it’s easy to forget about “little things” like breathing. Some fitness trainers are sticklers about when to inhale and exhale, but the most important thing is to make sure you ARE breathing and not holding your breath. Holding your breath during weight lifting can potentially be dangerous, especially if you’re just starting lifting or you have high blood pressure or heart disease. Here’s why you need to breathe.
What Happens When You Hold Your Breath When Lifting Weights?
Some people get so wrapped up in lifting the weight they forget to breathe and unknowingly take a deep breath and hold it. When you lift a heavy weight with your breath held and your glottis closed, it increases pressure inside your abdominal cavity. This puts pressure on the veins that run through your thorax, causing them to collapse. That’s not a good thing.
Why is this a problem? It decreases blood flow back to your heart. Because less blood is reaching your heart, the stroke volume or the amount of blood your heart ejects with each beat goes down. This leads to a drop in blood pressure and reduced blood flow to your brain. When this happens, you may become dizzy, lightheaded, see stars or, in some cases, pass out.
Once you finally breathe again, it’s like a stretched rubber band being released. Your blood pressure rises rapidly to levels above what it should be. If you happen to have high blood pressure or undiagnosed heart problems this sudden surge in blood pressure can be dangerous. It can even impact your vision. When you lift with breath held, it causes a sudden rise in pressure in the blood vessels behind your eyes. If severe enough, capillaries can rupture leading to retinal hemorrhage.
More Important than How You Breath is To Just Breathe
Most fitness trainers tell you to exhale during the concentric portion of weightlifting, the portion when the muscle is contracting or when you’re lifting the weight against gravity, and inhale when you’re lowering the weight. That’s good advice – but the most important thing is to make sure you ARE breathing. It’s another reason why it’s important to focus when you’re lifting weights rather than let your mind wonder. You won’t get as much out of it and you’ll risk injury if you lose focus. Focus on breathing steadily throughout each phase of lifting, and if a weight’s so heavy you have to hold your breath to lift it, choose a lighter one.
One group you don’t want to pattern yourself after are powerlifters. Some powerlifters intentionally hold their breath when they lift a heavy weight. By doing so, they increase pressure within their abdominal cavity to give their spine greater support when they lift. Even experienced powerlifters sometimes experience “complications” from doing this – like a retinal hemorrhage. Don’t follow suit.
The Bottom Line?
There’s a lot to concentrate on when you lift weights but don’t ignore your breathing. The longstanding advice of exhaling on the lift and inhaling on the lowering phase is less important than simply remembering not to hold your breath. So don’t let your mind wander. Keep it focused on your workout, on breathing and keeping good form. It’s safer when you focus and you’ll get better results that way.
Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. May 2003 – Volume 35 – Issue 5 – p S203.