PT on the Net Research

Breathing During Exercise


My client has been asking me about the importance of breathing in strength training. Other than blood pressure changes, is there any special way to breath to increase strength?


What a great question! I have been waiting for someone to ask a question such as this one. Like many other of the questions asked, there are short and long answers. I tend to answer somewhere in between. The most important factor in resistance training is that your client does breath. We do not want them to engage the Valsalva Maneuver. The Valsalva Maneuver is when you hold your breath and force against the internal cavity, which causes one’s blood pressure to rise and can lead to stroke. With that said, the base of your question was if different types of breathing would enhance one’s strength potential. The answer is yes. The way you engage breathing can have huge effects on strength output. Please refer to Paul Chek’s article on The Inner Unit. In brief, I will describe the fundamentals of proper breathing technique for maximal strength output.

Our body will naturally create the most conducive environment in which to produce force and protect the body. The system that is most involved in the production of force has been coined the “inner unit.” The inner unit consists of the transverse abdominus (TVA), the multifidus, the diaphragm and the muscles of the pelvic floor. These muscles create a chamber of inter compartmental pressure (ICP) that will protect your lower back and enhance your stable base from which to produce force. Remember, you can’t fire a cannon from a canoe. If your core or base is not stable, you can’t produce force or keep yourself from getting injured. When we inhale, our diaphragm will go down to make room for the expanding lungs. This should cause your abdomen to go out. As you exhale, your abdomen should come toward your spine in the same approximation as your diaphragm is rising. The abdomen coming in is done through the contraction of the TVA. This will create a consistent ICP and will give you a stable base of support at all times. When asked to produce large amounts of force, the natural tendency is to hold one’s breath. We need to teach our clients not to hold their breath but to slowly exhale as they are contracting the TVA to keep consistent ICP or even increase the ICP depending upon the demands. The trick to creating more ICP is the controlled contraction of the TVA. You need to contract the TVA with greater intensity than the releasing of air during the exhale. The first step in getting this system to function proper is practicing to engage and control the TVA. Although it is a natural function at birth, somewhere between birth and adulthood we stopped belly breathing or contracting our TVA efficiently. This type of breathing is also commonly called diaphragmatic breathing. It is trained to many individuals who need high efficiency in breathing such as long distance runners, opera singers, yoga practitioners, etc. One of the best books I have ever read on the function and importance of the inner unit is called Therapeutic Exercise for Spinal Segmental Stabilization and Low Back Pain. This book goes into much greater detail of how the inner unit works during force production and how it works to prevent injury. I do need to warn you, it is written for the clinical practitioner and not your average coffee table reading. It is yet another example of how social pressures and the onset of technology has decreased the functional capabilities of the human species. All the more reason that well trained personal trainers and exercise therapists will always be in such high demand!