The Valsalva maneuver is a specific breathing technique that you can utilize to immediately improve your weight training performance and safety.
It creates a pocket of pressure in the abdominal and thoracic cavities. The results are that you increase your power output potential and provide core support to protect your lower back from injury.
That’s a win-win outcome, if you ask me.
Although the Valsalva maneuver is especially effective for weight training, it’s not a phenomenon restricted solely to the realm of pumping iron.
As a matter of fact, it’s something that could potentially occur any time you have a bodily function…
…For example, you will involuntarily perform the Valsalva maneuver if you strain while sneezing, coughing, gagging, tossing your cookies, taking a leak or dropping a deuce (generally unpleasant topics, I know, but I’m just stating the facts here).
Additionally, you’ve undoubtedly done it while straining to lift, push, pull or otherwise exert force upon some very heavy object. Heck, you may already be doing it unknowingly in your workouts.
How to Perform the Valsalva Maneuver
Even though your body knows how to do this naturally, you may still need some guidance on how to use it voluntarily while weight training.
- Inhale Before or During the Negative. Start by inhaling before or during the negative repetition. After you’re done inhaling, hold your breath in. Complete the negative repetition.
- Exhale Against Closed Glottis at Start of the Positive. As you initiate the positive repetition, exhale against your closed glottis – The glottis is a structure in the windpipe that allows air to pass when open, and prevents air from passing when closed. If done correctly, your gut should be pushed out with your abs tightly contracted.
- How & Why It Works. When the air can’t escape, the result is elevated intra-abdominal and intra-thoracic pressure, which fills the abdominal and thoracic cavities. These pressure-filled cavities “insulate,” and therefore reduces the load on, the lumbar (lower) and thoracic (middle) spine. In other words, you’re able to keep your spine straight and safe. Plus, the built up pressure enables increased power output on the positive rep to help get you through the sticking point.
- Exhale After Sticking Point & Complete the Positive. You can finally breathe out once you get past the most difficult part of the positive repetition. Breathe however you’d like now; deep breaths, short breaths, whatever you gotta do to get that oxygen circulating (this technique isn’t just about holding your breath the whole time, ya know). Proceed to finish the repetition.
- Repeat. Repeat the process for the remaining repetitions in your set.
Valsalva Maneuver Videos
Commentary from Mark Rippetoe:
Many trainees mistakenly believe that the proper way to breathe while lifting weights is to inhale on the negative, exhale on the positive and never hold your breath.
However, as Mark Rippetoe so eloquently explains in the video below, that is an unnatural breathing method, and therefore a nonsensical strategy:
Although he doesn’t mention the Valsalva maneuver by name, that is precisely the breathing method for which he is advocating in this clip.
Commentary & Demonstration by Boris from Squat Rx:
This is a great video that details the dos and don’ts of the Valsalva maneuver. This should answer any lingering questions you may have about the technique.
Is the Valsalva Maneuver Safe for Weight Training?
Contrary to what some may believe, the Valsalva maneuver is actually quite safe.
But since it does temporarily raise your blood pressure and slow your heart rate, there is there is some amount of potential risk associated with it. (And while I’m on the topic of potential risks, here’s my disclaimer page that you can feel free to check out. :-D)
The good news is that you can eliminate much of the risk by taking a few precautions. Consider the following:
- If you or your family has a history of heart or blood pressure issues, then I urge you to consult a qualified physician before even trying it out.
- Even if you have sterling health history, it’s always a smart idea to consult a physician prior to implementing any major new training practice. I mean, who knows – You could have a pre-existing heart condition of sorts.
- Make sure you’re doing it right. Watch the Squat Rx video again (above) to reinforce your knowledge. One big thing I like to reiterate is that the Valsalva maneuver isn’t simply the act of holding your breath. You gotta create internal pressure, and yes, you do eventually have to let the old air out and take in some new oxygen!
- In the unlikely case that you become dizzy, experience blurry vision, feel chest pains or notice anything else out of the ordinary when using the technique, then you should take it easy and lower the weight (or stop altogether).
Having said all that, I should note that the vast majority of Valsalva maneuver-induced injuries occur amongst weak and sick elderly people; resulting from strain endured during a bodily function (e.g. sneezing, going number 2, etc.)…
Plus, if you do it correctly and are in good health, using the Valsalva maneuver actually keeps you much safer from injury (e.g. lower back injuries) than if you didn’t use it at all…
…And just in case you were wondering, NO, you don’t have to worry about your eyes popping out of their sockets from the pressure, or anything of that nature.