Why Holding your Breath on the Deadlift is not Only Helpful, but Absolutely Necessary!
The deadlift, considered the “king” of exercises, is one of the most effective exercises to develop strength, power, posterior chain development and skill transfer for life and sport. The deadlift is a functional movement, and not functional in the buzz word sense that every mindless trainer uses in the industry today. Functional in the meaning that is is an organic, natural multi joint movement done from infancy to our older years (or at least should be). Faulty deadlift position in real world or sport practice is reason to one of the most common instances of “blowing out your back”, and many people lose this natural skill into their older years due to lack of physical independence. The deadlift when performed correctly in the weight room, has tremendous advantages including: developing triple extension of the ankle, knee, and hip which is a vital movement in sports across all arenas, strengthening the glutes and hamstrings as well as the lower back to help our huge 9-5 population wake up those dormant muscles, and teaches us HOW TO LIFT OBJECTS SAFELY.
All too often, people sustain lower back injuries from picking up objects from the group with poor positioning. Many don’t know that the proper way to lift objects off of the floor is by deadlifting them. However, the term “deadlift” has gotten some dirty press, especially by those who we trust the most, the medical community. Although well respected and an authority on pathology, the medical community are not exercise and lifestyle experts as is quite evident with their recommendations with musculoskeletal injuries, nutrition and weight loss. We have all heard way too often that doctors say not to squat or not to deadlift. What a tragedy as they are denying their patients of living an independent life by telling them not to do movements that are a necessity. It is not that the deadlift or the squat for that matter are dangerous movements. In fact they are quite safe and are the most beneficial exercises that you can perform. The issue is that most don’t do it properly and our medical community does not properly educate on how to perform these movements safely. Every time I get a client who tells me their doctor told them not to squat, I ask them how they go to the bathroom or get into/out of their car, or up out of bed, or up/down the stairs… yeah that’s what I thought too.
One of the biggest KEY points missed when coaching the deadlift is the fact that you should hold your breath (valsalva maneuver) during the lifting portion of the movement (concentric). Most times, everything else is in order: the back is rigid with a neutral spine, the chest is up and erect, arms are straight grabbing onto the barbell or implement, weight is in the heels, all good stuff. However many times the point of holding your breath is missed. Most exercises “require” you breathe out during the concentric phase, but on a deadlift as with a few other exercises, this should be an exception to the rule. Holding your breath during this part of the movement will ensure you keep your back position throughout the movement. Think of holding your breath as wearing a weight belt to protect your back. Filling your body up with air to keep the spine rigid, only to breathe out at the top of the lift when you have achieved triple extension (Standing up). But wait, wait, won’t holding your breath spike your blood pressure? Momentarily, this may be true and at maximal loads, or for pro powerlifters, passing out may be a result of this but choose your risk/reward carefully. Being a little lightheaded for a while or having something in your low back pop and being out for 6 months? Also note that the pressure of holding your breath in is EQUAL to the pressure of air going out. If you breath out DURING the lift, you are letting air escape while lifting a load which puts the spine in a very vulnerable position.
Should you be training at near maximal loads? For most people, this is not the case. However the practice of holding your breath while deadlifting should be including as a coaching cue (and cases of dizziness or being lightheaded at submaximal loads is very low). The objective is to develop the skills of the deadlift to become second nature when lifting real life objects, even if it’s some light groceries, an equipment bag, your case of beer, or what have you.
The deadlift, the “king” of exercises when performed correctly, pays huge returns for not only your health and fitness, but your independence.