Sweat was dripping on the arm-wrestling table as I locked in with a Harley Davidson type. "Don’t let me hear you breathe,” warned the long haired biker with forearms that could be featured in a spinach commercial. To make his point, the veteran arm bender pinned my arm in a flash of inside pressure, forearm tattoos a blue blur - just as I finished exhaling.
The effect of breathing patterns and intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) on strength is oddly ignored by most strength authorities. They may mention the positive effect on spinal stabilization or nag about cardiovascular risks but not say a word about strength. In a scientific online forum, I came across a thread where one researcher inquired about the reasons for a sprinter to hold his breath. Not one of a dozen of the responses, all from people with an alphabet soup behind their names, mentioned the excitory effect of the Valsalva maneuver on the motoneurons.
Russians took power breathing more seriously and concluded that breath holding and straining is best for strength. For the record, authoritative Soviet The Physical Culture and Sports Encyclopaedic Dictionary defined straining (usually referred to in the West as the Valsalva maneuver) as "a contraction of the expiration musculature while keeping the vocal slit closed." An increase in strength caused by the Valsalva was also observed by researchers Farfel & Freyberg, Zimkin and Vinogradov.
The IAP increases linearly with the force. The opposite is also true. Vinogradov explained the strength increase from straining with excitation of intero-, mechano- and chemoreceptors in the lungs and the abdominal cavity that increase strength via reflex action. The pneumo-muscular reflex has a profound effect on your strength. This neurological phenomenon can be compared to the amplifier of your stereo whereas your brain is the CD player and your muscles are the speakers. Special sensors in your abdominal and thoracic cavities register the internal pressure and adjust your muscular tension like the volume control knob. The higher this pressure, the greater your strength and visa versa.
The Valsalva maneuver is not the only way to up your strength by increasing the IAP. Vorobyev determined that both holding one’s breath and groaning increase strength. Screaming is not bad either. According to Ikai & Steinhaus, subjects who shouted during exertion got a respectable 12.2 percent strength boost!
Martial artists have possessed the knowledge of the pneumo-muscular reflex for centuries. They expressed it as "matching the breath with the force." A karate master synchronizing a board splintering strike with a blood curdling “K-i-a-i!” does exactly that. Sudden squeezing of the air by a powerful contraction of the respiratory muscles and the abdominals peaks the internal pressure at the moment of the impact. This maneuver dramatically increases the muscular tension, or force, for a fraction of a second. That gives you a hint why heavy weight boxers have yet to break the punching power record registered on a dynamometer by a 130 pound Japanese karate master.
By the same token, fighters know that once the power breath is out, you are there for the taking and you had better get out of the way! Just watch The Karate Kid. My arm-wrestling buddy did. He waited for me to exhale and cleaned my clock.
What does all this mean to a powerlifter? First, lift with a breathing pattern that maximizes the IAP: groan, scream, hiss or just plain hold your breath. Second, maintain high IAP until the end of the rep. Do not expel all of your air, or you will lose tightness and stability following the exhalation! A bench lasts a lot longer than a punch. Try to "kiai" your way out of a big press, and the bar will collapse your sternum as surely as a karate chop! As you exhale forcefully, you will amplify your strength for a moment – only to become weak as a kitten once your breath is out.
For the bench press, try holding your breath until you reach the sticking point and then – not earlier or you will sink your rib cage, take the tension off your pecs and hurt your shoulders! – hiss through it while flexing your abs and glutes. I guarantee you will put up a personal best, especially if you practice the following drill recommended by Prof. Vladimir Zatsiorsky, a leading Russian strength authority who betrayed the Dark Side of the Force and immigrated to the US. This exercise is known in the martial arts circles as "Bending the Fire" because that is what your breath would do to the flame of a candle if you had one in front of you. "Bending the Fire" is a very powerful technique. Mas Oyama, a Japanese karate great famous for battling bulls unarmed and chopping their horns off barehanded (!), regularly practiced drills of this type to build up his might.
Take a normal breath (former weightlifting world champion Russian Prof. Arkady Vorobyev recommends 75 percent of your maximal air intake) and flex your abs. At the same time, contract your rectal sphincter as if you are trying to stop yourself from going to the bathroom. This bizarre maneuver from Iron Shirt Chi Kung further increases the inside pressure and amplifies your strength. The anal lock also acts as an insurance against hemorrhoids. Powerlifters and couch potatoes alike tend to let their intestines go when they strain. Such constipated style of lifting could lead to health problems and offers no performance advantage. Always pull up the muscles of the pelvic floor when you lift!
Expel the air forcefully in three to five seconds while keeping you glottis closed and your butt pulled in. The Force is with you if you sound like Darth Vader. Another option is pressing your tongue against your teeth and hissing: “Tsss…”
Totally relax between reps. Zatsiorsky recommends 10 to 15 contractions per set, three to four sets spread throughout the day, every day. If you know me, I would double the sets and halve the reps.
For the squat and the deadlift, your best bet is to hold your breath while keeping your waist tight. Do not take a full breath for the dead. Bob Peoples warned that it lengthens the spine and the pull. Seropegin proved that the greatest deadlifting strength is achieved when the lungs contain three quarters of their vital capacity.
What should you do with your stomach when you are lifting? Ian King, Paul Chek and many other experts advocate sucking the stomach in. Louie Simmons argues that bodybuilders do that, and sport bad backs as a result (I agree). The Westside guru states that a powerlifter must push his waist out against the belt.
If you had a fling with bodybuilding (hopefully you got over it), you may have practiced vacuums. Exhale, then expand your rib cage. A drop in the intra-lung pressure will pull your diaphragm up. The diaphragm is a parachute shaped muscle that separates your heart and lungs from your digestive organs. When this plunger lifts up, it sucks the viscera up with it, which is why the maneuver is called "vacuum." The result is a girlish waist and a low IAP. And a lame squat and dead, and a good chance of blowing out a disk if you suck your belly in on the platform.
What if you do the opposite, that is push your gut out against the belt? The flexed diaphragm pushes down against the viscera. The latter tries to move out of the way by forming a pot belly, but the belt does not let it. The result is high IAP, solid spine protection and a quite few more pounds on your total.
There is one problem with this pattern: if you try it without a belt, you could become a proud owner of a hernia. The solution: keep your waist tight to create a virtual belt. Do not suck your soft underbelly in, do not stick it out; just brace for a punch (the latter can be arranged). Now push down with your diaphragm.
The best way to learn this tricky maneuver is the Zercher lift. It places your spinal erectors in an unfavorable leverage and forces you to extend your spine with the diaphragm action.
Wrap a bar on a DL platform with a towel. Pull from the rack if you are on the thick side. Take a moderately wide stance, just wide enough to let your elbows pass between your knees. Bend over (your spine may be/will be flexed) and hook the bar in the crooks of your elbows. Make fists, flex your wrists and semi-supinate your hands to make the pressure easier on your forearms.
Inhale in this constricted position, contract the sphincter and lift the barbell in a slow and tight fashion, trying to use your abs somehow. Start the lift while looking down and lift your eyes at the pace of the lift. Contract the glutes and abs hard as you are locking out.
If you do the drill right, you will hardly feel a thing in your back. My young US Navy SEAL friend John Faas, whom I had trained for over a year before he joined up, swears that Zercher lifts have saved his back on many occasions where he had to lift from an awkward position.
Work up in singles, doubles or triples. Note the exact sensation in your midsection. If you go heavy enough – eventually shoot for at least half your best deadlift – you will feel like "your upper abs are ready to explode." Right after Zerchers, do a few moderately heavy, low rep sets of squats or deads and attempt to reproduce the same feeling in your midriff. Imagine you are deadlifting the bar with the power of the diaphragm pushing down against your flexed abs and obliques. When you squat, make a point of initiating the drive out of the hole, not with your legs but with the diaphragm "plunger," and only then kick in the glutes and then the quads.
Practice Power Breathing and Zerchers, do heavy ab work, and your total will go up within weeks, guaranteed.