If you want to lift heavy weights in a safe manner you must also learn how to breathe properly. For too long, professionals in the strength and medical field have failed to incorporate proper breathing during lifts.
Fitness and medical professionals are taught, “Breathe in on the way down and breathe out on the way up.” This is fine for an exercise involving lightweight and higher repetitions (i.e., bench press 3 sets of 10 reps). This breathing mechanic however is not entirely recommended when performing the barbell squat. Can you imagine what would happen if a powerlifter let out his entire breath on the way up from squatting 300kg?!
When we squat heavy weight with a barbell (anything over 80% of your 1 rep-maximum), it is advised to take a large breath and hold it through the entire repetition. This breath should be taken prior to and in coordination with the cue to “brace for a punch”. Doing so allows us to dramatically stabilize our core.
To learn how to properly breathe during the squat, try this simple test. Place one hand on your stomach and another on your side (near your lower ribs). Now take a big breath. If you did this properly you will feel your stomach rise and fall. You will also feel your lower rib cage expand laterally (out to the side). Essentially you are feeling the volume increasing inside your core. When we take a big breath the diaphragm just below our lungs contracts and will descend towards our stomach.
If you breathe improperly, you will instead notice the chest rise and fall. Breathing in this manner does little to increase the volume of our intra-abdominal cavity because the diaphragm is never fully utilized. So why is this rise in volume so important?
When we correctly breathe “into our stomach” and combine the action with bracing our core it increases the pressure inside the abdominal cavity (intra-abdominal pressure or IAP). This is because the volume can no longer expand. This is because the diaphragm cannot fully contract and descend if the core is already maximally braced.
Increasing IAP in this manner helps stabilize the lower spine to an even greater degree than with bracing alone. This is how the strongest weightlifters and powerlifters are able to squat tremendous weights without breaking in half!
Holding this breath during the execution of the squat is called the valsalva maneuver. Limiting our breath from escaping in this powerful manner is essential in order to maintain our spinal stability. To perform the valsalva maneuver correctly, the breath is exhaled forcefully against a closed airway. Exhaling a breath completely during the ascent of a squat can lead to a severe drop in IAP.
As the pressure in our abdomen drops the stability of the spine will decrease. It doesn’t matter how hard you brace your core muscles. If you let your breath out completely, you will instantly lose stability. This transfers harmful pressures onto the small vulnerable structures of the spine (intervertebral discs and ligaments).
This is like letting the air out of a balloon too fast. As the air leaves the balloon it becomes less stable. The same goes for our body. However if we only let a small amount of air escape the balloon by maintaining our squeeze on the opening, the balloon stays stable for longer.
In order to keep the pressure in our abdomen and our spinal stability in tact, the exhale must be forcefully stopped from fully escaping. Essentially we need to keep our fingers on the opening of the balloon. There are different ways to do this. Some lifters will use a grunting method or a “tss” sound as they slowly exhale through a small hole in their lips. Both of these methods allow the pressure in the abdomen to stay at a high level during the entirety of the lift.
The breath should never be held for more than a few seconds during the squat. Doing so can dramatically increase blood pressure and cause black-outs and other cardiovascular injury for those at risk. While the valsalva maneuver (even when held for short periods) has been shown to cause an increase in systolic blood pressure, it is very safe for healthy athletes. For most this temporary rise in blood pressure is not harmful. That being said, it should be used with caution with older individuals and anyone with a history of heart disease.