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Proper breathing technique doesn't make you less strong

When you start training in a decent gym, it's usually the first thing you hear. 'Breathe out when your muscles contract. Don’t hold your breath in.' Easier said than done, you discover pretty fast – doing this seems to make you less strong. But this is not the case, researchers at the University of Montana discovered.

Valsalva manoeuvre

Proper breathing technique doesn't make you less strong
In 1704 the anatomist and physiologist Antonio Maria Valsalva [see portrait] devised the Valsalva test. This involves holding your windpipe closed, but at the same time trying to breathe out. Valsalva did this to check the functioning of the heart, but during strength exercises you do this almost automatically. The pressure built up in your body by the Valsalva manoeuvre stabilises your organs and vertebrae.

The disadvantage of the Valsalva manoeuvre, however, is that your blood pressure rises – and if you train the big muscle groups it can shoot through the roof. That's why instructors tell you to exhale when you lift weights up and your muscles contract.

The researchers wanted to find out whether good breathing technique leads to less strength development during weight training. They took 10 test subjects and measured the maximal force during extensions [Ext] and flexions [Flex] of the knee joint [leg extensions and leg curls], the extension and flexion of the elbow [the triceps extension and the biceps curl] and the abduction [ABD] and adduction [ADD] of the shoulder joint [with the lateral raise and the movement shown below].

Proper breathing technique doesn't make you less strong

IN = conscious inhale; OUT = conscious exhale; VM = Valsalva manoeuvre. The figure below compares maximal strength during IN, OUT and VM with the force you can develop when breathing normally.

Proper breathing technique doesn't make you less strong

None of the differences between conscious breathing and the Valsalva manoeuvre were statistically significant. So conscious breathing technique does not come at the expense of your strength, say the researchers, even though it may feel unnatural. And for shoulder adductions, it seems that you build more strength with a good breathing technique.

J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Jan;23(1):127-32.

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