The Valsalva Myth
It’s pretty common to hear some uneducated trainers tell their clients they need to “inhale on the way down, and exhale on the way up”. The thought behind this is they will better be able to control blood pressure during the lift and lower the risk of a cardiovascular event during exercise. Here’s the problem, when you exhale during a lift, you destabilize the spine and other structures surrounding the torso. This makes you weaker and way more susceptible to an orthopedic injury. The practitioners who perpetuate this myth are both overestimating the occurrence of cardiovascular events in exercise and underestimating the occurrence of orthopedic injuries and exercise. People are much, much more likely to suffer an orthopedic injury than a cardiovascular one. Matter fact, the CDC states that you are 94 times more likely to suffer an orthopedic injury in sports than a cardiovascular injury. Keep in mind this statistic was including all sports, not just lifting weights.
The valsalva maneuver is the technique where the lifter basically holds their breath and braces from the start of the lift to the finish, and it has evolved with humans as a way to exert force on another object. The spinal support given by the valsalva maneuver is both a natural and necessary human function.
If you want further proof, try this. Next time you’re doing some gardening, ram your spade into the ground as hard as you can. Now, think about it step by step. What did you just do? Purse you lips. Brace your abdominal muscles. Drive the shovel into the ground. Congratulations, you just performed a very natural movement. You managed to do a valsalva and not suffer an aneurysm or stroke (insert sarcastic smiley here).
Diaphragmatic breathing, you know, that really silly thing that I make my clients do during their warm ups. I first heard about strength coaches and trainers starting to use diaphragmatic breathing in their warm up and corrective programs a few years ago. At first, I just wrote is off as a fad that would come and go like many others in the industry do. Fast forward about a year later and I am having some serious thoracolumbar pain that is radiating around my right rib. My right spinal erector was so tight that when Bill Hartman put his thumb on it, I literally about jumped off the table. My problem? I was a chronic “chest breather”. By not properly using my diaphragm to breathe, my thoracic spine had been locked into a lordotic posture. This posture was putting an undue amount of pressure on my vertebral disc, which was putting pressure on my nerve and causing pain.
The job of the diaphragm is to act as a bellows for the lungs and work as a synergist to the abdominals in pulling the rib cage down. Lordosis will cause the diaphragm to become inhibited (down regulated or “weak”). Diaphragmatic breathing, along with some anterior torso work can help to correct this issue. It’s common to see someone (me), who has a severely inhibited diaphragm, spasm when first learning to breath diaphragmatically.
Stop Mouth Breathing!
For the average person, mouth breathing has been linked to asthma in children, allergies, dental occlusion, and problems with the adenoids. For the lifter, or average person who ever has to pick up something heavy, many people think the nose has more baroreceptor pathways than the mouth. This will lead to better central nervous system stimulation and bigger weights lifted.
When summing up nose, diaphragmatic, and valsalva breathing, I think Charlie Weingroff said it best:
“While some are still fairly staunch with the TA (transverse abdominus) and multifidus training, I think this will continue to fall behind the curve in favor of the diaphragm being the primary focus of inner core training. It continues to completely baffle me how one can push the draw-in and expect to facilitate the diaphragm and intra-abdominal pressure.
Yes, there is more than 1 way to skin a cat, but there’s also good-better-best. And there’s also benign and useful.
Something that I have recognized sociologically is that when you look at folks that push TA and multifidus, I don’t see too many folks that have ever held serious weight in their hands, ran really fast, or done anything more athletic than pilates. I think this is a missing piece in either understanding and/or accepting that the diaphragm is the starting piece to breathing and the musculoskeletal keyhole to the ANS (autonomic nervous system).”