by: Matthew Niglio
If you want to lift heavy barbells in the safest and most efficient way possible, you need to be performing the Valsalva maneuver every time you lift. It doesn’t matter if you are training for the Olympics, to lose 20 pounds, or anything in between, the Valsalva is an essential and easy to learn technique that will put pounds on the bar and reduce the chance of injury the first time you use it correctly.
What is the Valsalva Manuever?
Although the name might give you the idea that this is a sophisticated technique, the Valsalva is nothing more than taking a really big, deep breath during the rest part of a lift and holding it in
throughout the entire lift. With the squat, for instance, it is as simple as unracking the bar, getting your feet and back set like normal, and then taking a deep breath that fills your chest with as much air as possible. Holding your breath the entire time, you then complete the rep as normal. Once back in the rest position, you exhale if necessary and then take and hold another deep breath before you start the next rep. If you are having difficultly understanding what taking and holding a full breath feels like, here’s an easy exercise you can try. Imagine someone bigger than you is slowly winding up to punch you in the stomach as hard as possible. If you value your life, your body’s survival instincts will kick in by forcing you to taking a quick, deep breath and contracting your abdominals to ‘hold it in’ and brace for impact. This, essentially, is the Valsalva maneuver and is what you need to reproduce every single time you lift heavy. I’ve heard the cues ‘Breathing into the bottom of your lungs’ and ‘Holding the breath with your abs’ work for people, so
you can try to visualize these if you are still having difficulty with the technique. One last point: your breath is being held by closing your throat (specifically the glottis), not your mouth. If done correctly, you should be able to keep your mouth open while performing the lift. If you look like a chipmunk with nuts stuffed it its cheeks, you’re doing it wrong.
Why is the Valsalva Effective?
Imagine there’s a driveway covered in a foot of snow that you have been hired to clear. You have two shovels at your disposal; they are identical except one has a steel shaft and the other rubber. Which one do you choose? Unless you bill by the hour, everyone would pick the steel shovel. Instinctively, you know that the steel shaft will make moving the snow much easier, but why is that? Put simply, steel is a much harder and more rigid material than rubber and t
hus more efficiently transfers the force generated by your muscles through the shovel and to the object being affected, which in this case is the snow.
Hopefully, you can see how this analogy applies to the Valsalva maneuver and weightlifting. Your torso is basically two neighboring cavities: the upper torso is mostly air and the lower torso is mostly water. By filling the upper cavity with as much air as possible, you incr
ease its volume and subsequently increase the pressure in your abdominal cavity. The increased pressure of the air and liquid pushing against the outsides of your body is what causes the torso to become more tight and rigid. Figuratively speaking, with the Valsalva you have transformed your torso from rubber to steel. Again using the squat as an example, more of the force generated by your legs and glutes will be transferred to the bar through a rigid torso than a looser one, which translates into you moving bigger weights with the same amount of base strength.
Why is the Valsalva Safe?
First let’s briefly discuss spinal safety. Obviously, one the biggest concerns with weightlifting is maintaining spinal health. While lifting heavy barbells does carry some inherent risk, the using the Valsalva maneuver is a good way of minimizing it. By increasing the rigidity and stability against the anterior or ‘underside’ of the spine, it is easier to keep it in a locked neutral position, especially under heavy weights. While it certainly doesn’t reduce the need to always use good form, the Valsalva does serve its role in preserving spinal health while getting strong.
Now, if you were to mention to the typical gym goer that you hold your breath for every single rep, you’re likely to get one of two responses: “Nah man, you gotta breath in on the way up and breathe out on the way down,” or “I think I heard about this guy who had a stroke doing that.” Hopefully by now you’d be able to explain why the first response is silly, so I’ll address the second.
Yes, it is true that your blood pressure does increase, sometimes dramatically, while lifting heavy weights. This is a perfectly natural and appropriate response, and one that your body is well equipped to deal with. With regards to cerebral injury, your brain is enclosed in a very hard container called your skull. The finite volume of your skull works to limit the maximum amount of pressure that rushing blood to the brain can exert. Here’s a crude example of this concept at work: Imagine placing a balloon inside a mason jar and trying the blow up the balloon until it popped. After a few blows, the balloon will expand to fill the jar, but the volume and hardness of the jar will prevent you from increasing the pressure inside the balloon enough to pop it no matter how hard you blow.
However for me, the most convincing argument for the safety of the Valsalva is the empirical evidence. Every weekend in this country alone there are dozens of weightlifting and powerlifting meets held, with hundreds of lifters participating. Considering there is not an epidemic of lifters experiencing brain hemorrhages on platform while moving huge weights, I think its safe to say that holding breathe during your training is OK.
Hopefully, this article was able to effectively introduce the Valsava maneuver to those not previously aware of it or explain its usefulness if you were. For every rep I do, I will be taking a deep breath and holding it, so until you see my head explode at the bottom of a heavy squat, you need to be using the Valsava maneuver every time you lift as well.