Breathing greatly influences bodybuilding performance and safety. The way of breathing must be adapted, depending on the sport and the type of effort. In view of its importance, it is imperative that you learn to manage your breath as soon as possible, to eventually make it a habit.
Let’s see what it will do for you first, before looking at the different ways of breathing to improve your workouts. We will end with exercises to strengthen the respiratory muscles , not only for the sake of efficiency, but also aesthetics.
The importance of oxygenation and respiration in bodybuilding
Contrary to what one might think, breathing is not automatic , but rather semi-automatic. We can act on the way of breathing, its rhythm, its blocking, to benefit from it. This is why it is necessary to briefly go over the fundamentals, in order to understand why breathing is so important in weight training. The respiratory cycle has two phases:
- The inspiration : we inflate the lungs with air, loaded with oxygen . The blood is then responsible for redistributing oxygen in the body, especially in muscle tissue. This oxygen is essential for the krebs cycle to produce energy.
- The exhalation : you empty the lungs and release carbon dioxide (waste).
Starting from this fact, it is legitimate to say to yourself that it is enough just to inhale on the negative and to exhale on the positive phase not to disturb the cycle, but haven’t you noticed something? during your workouts?
Should you block your breathing in weight training during exercise?
We often hear it said that you should never block your breathing in weight training. Personally, I have never seen an athlete do 100kg squats, breathing without blocking.
In reality, when the effort is short and intense, a respiratory blockage for a few seconds will not interfere with energy production. In this case, we use another energy route: the anaerobic route. This sector uses ATP (energy source), stored in our muscles.
If you are new to bodybuilding, you probably have the reflex to block your breathing throughout a series and from a mechanical point of view, this is normal. In fact, your body is trying its best to make it easier for you.
By blocking breathing, several muscles contract , including:
- The abdominal strap
- The intercostals
- Prevertebral muscles (neck muscles)
Thanks to the contraction of these muscles, in addition to the intra-abdominal pressure, the trunk becomes rigid and powerful. Therefore, in addition to being stronger, it protects your spine.
Of course, needless to say that you should not do freediving either. The goal is therefore to play on inspiration, expiration and blocking to have breathing adapted to the effort.
In summary, knowing how to manage your breathing on a weight training exercise provides:
- A gain in strength
- Safety (stabilizing the spine and pelvis)
- Sufficient ventilation for the body
How to manage your breathing during your weight training?
It would be far too easy to give a universal rule! For example, the way of breathing on a heavy squat is going to be different compared to crunches for your abs. Let’s take a closer look at the different phases:
- Inspiration: This is when you are weakest, most vulnerable, but essential for oxygenation and energy production .
- The exhale: you are stronger than the inspiration. Likewise, essential to reject waste (CO2) before renewing the respiratory cycle.
- The blockage: you are in a position of strength, your bust is rigid and (partly) stabilizes your spine.
In short, we can retain 2 types of bodybuilding effort: short, intense work with heavy loads (6 to 15 repetitions), generally this concerns polyarticular exercises. Or, long sets with a light load, for isolation exercises.
Breathe well during exercises with heavy loads
Losing 1 in 10 reps is 10% less work. In other words, you have to put all the chances on your side to be stronger on your series in order to gain repetitions to progress in bodybuilding.
In addition to that, the heavier you put on, the more dangerous the exercise becomes, especially for your spine (compression …), especially during leg exercises.
For all these reasons, you must take care to control your breath .
Method 1: Partially block your breathing
The goal here is to hold your breath for 1-2 seconds where it is most difficult. This makes explosive work possible while maintaining sufficient force. It’s easy to follow up without resting at each repetition. However, stabilization of the spine is not ensured throughout the movement.
Therefore, this method is more suitable for upper body exercises.
- Negative phase (eccentric): At this time, the muscles are powerful, you have to breathe in .
- End of the negative phase, start of the positive: block your breathing for 1 to 2 seconds to gain strength when starting the positive (difficult moment).
- Positive phase: End the movement by exhaling .
For example, with the bench press, you inhale when you lower the bar, you block to start the push and you end the push by exhaling.
On pulling movements, like pull-ups, it’s a little different because you start on the concentric phase. It is best to start by blocking your breathing , finish the movement by exhaling before coming down again while inhaling.
Method 2: Respiratory blockade, aka, the Valsalva maneuver
Known in medicine and in scuba diving, the Valsalva maneuver is also used in strength sports such as powerlifting. Besides, you do this naturally when you sneeze or cough. The goal here is therefore to exhale with the airways closed.
Note that this method should be avoided for people with heart problems or hypertension (increased blood pressure).
Here’s how to do it:
- Take a deep breath before starting your rehearsal.
- Negative and positive phase, blocked breathing .
- End of repetition: breathe out and inhale to repeat the cycle.
For example, in the squat: you breathe in before you start, the descent and ascent is done by exhaling with the glottis closed to finally expel the air at the end of the movement.
This allows you to be fully in a position of strength in addition to stabilizing the spine throughout the movement. On the other hand, it is not possible to go through the repetitions without taking a few seconds of pause, to catch your breath. Working with explosives and / or continuous tension is therefore difficult.
This method is preferred for sets with heavy loads and where the spine is vulnerable, such as squats or deadlifts.
Breathing on light weight training exercises with lots of repetitions
What limits performance in long sets is not so much strength, but rather fatigue and muscle burn . To limit this, you must constantly bring oxygen to the body in order to be more enduring. As a result, respiratory blockage may or may not be useful.
As a general rule, you should:
- Inspire on the eccentric phase
- Exhale on the concentric
As an example, let’s take the curl for the biceps: you inhale on the way down and you exhale on the way up.
Be careful with hyperventilation on low amplitude weight training exercises, especially those for the abdominals. Common sense is required to have a normal respiratory rate .
Improve your breathing by strengthening your respiratory muscles
Given the importance of the respiratory muscles, strengthening them can be beneficial in order to be more efficient.
When you inhale, the diaphragm contracts (it goes down), the lungs fill with air thanks to the phenomenon of decompression and the ribs open ( stretching of the intercostals). Conversely, when you breathe out, the diaphragm rises and the ribs return to their original position to expel the air.
Although other muscles are involved in pulmonary ventilation , we will focus on the diaphragm, separating the abdomen from the thorax and the intercostals.
Deep breathing exercise to strengthen the diaphragm, the Vacuum
Much less popular today, this strength training exercise mainly works the diaphragm and transverse . There is a twofold advantage of integrating this exercise into your program, not only for practical purposes, but also aesthetics, it allows you to:
- Strengthen the diaphragm for respiratory strength and endurance .
- Have a flat stomach (and therefore a slimmer waist) thanks to the transverse.
Moreover, the Vacuum was very famous in the golden age of bodybuilding, in the 70s / 80s, in order to slim the waist and accentuate the V.
If you find it difficult to have a homogeneous and traced abdominal strap, you will have to work more on your Vacuum. Note that it is people with a large rib cage who will benefit from a more marked result.
The advantage of this exercise is that it can be done anywhere without any equipment, whether standing, sitting or lying down. For convenience, it is best to do the exercise lying down.
Nothing could be simpler for that. You just have to empty the air from your lungs , then inhale , glottis closed, in order to retract the belly as much as possible (the principle is the same as inhaled in an empty bottle). The position should be maintained for a few seconds before repeating the movement. If the goal is to be more enduring during your workouts, do not hesitate to do a lot of repetitions (over 30).
The diaphragm being a muscle like any other, it may be interesting to do some series as a warm-up at the start of the session, to be even more efficient.
Soften the rib cage to leave more room for the lungs
Originally, the goal of the pullover is to soften the rib cage (stretching the intercostals) and not to work the pecs or backs (although these muscles are also requested). Simply put, this is work to improve the expansion of the cage during inhalation, when the lungs are inflating.
With regard to the execution of the movement, it is necessary:
- Take a deep breath on the descent
- Blow while going up
Especially when it comes to stretching work, the amplitude should be large, performing a lot of repetitions with a light load. No need to put on heavy even if you are able to lift more, otherwise you will tear the long head of your triceps. Let’s also add that by bringing the dumbbell far in front of you, you also recruit the previous serrations.
Some weight rooms are equipped with a pull-over machine. For having tested a hammer, I find the machine rather well designed. Sitting is more comfortable than lying down, the stretch is sufficient and the tension is constant unlike dumbbells. Ultimately, if you are lucky enough to have this machine available, don’t hesitate to use it if your goal is to soften your cage.
Specific work of the respiratory muscles participating in inspiration and expiration
The accessory muscles involved in inspiration can be worked in specific ways. Strengthening these muscles is especially helpful in delaying shortness of breath .
The exercise is simple to perform and requires little equipment. To do this, you just need to restrict the expansion of your rib cage, during swelling of the lungs on inspiration.
So you can do it very well lying down, placing a load on your chest or standing using a rubber band.
Personally, I prefer to do it standing. To do this, I hang a rubber band (resistance 25kg) on a pole, at chest height. Once inside the elastic, I stretch it so that I have enough resistance to constrain my breathing .
Regarding the number of repetitions, do not hesitate to go beyond 30, 40 repetitions.