One of the most important elements of setting up the bench press is the breathing and bracing process. The two main reasons for this are (1) breathing and bracing correctly enables you to keep stable during the execution and (2) it helps you minimize your chest from deflating.
But, how do you breathe correctly in the bench press? You need to inhale when you have the barbell held above your chest. Inhaling occurs through your nose so that your chest can inflate maximally. After breathing in, you need to brace hard by simultaneously holding your breath and attempting to force your breath out.
This breathing technique might sound contradictory because I’m suggesting that you should both inhale maximally and at the same time attempt to forcefully let your breath out.
In this article, I’ll cover everything you need to know about breathing in the bench press so that you can maximize your bench press performance.
Purpose of Breathing In The Bench Press
There are 3 main purposes of breathing in the bench press:
- To provide oxygen for your muscles to recover
- To create stability around your rib cage and torso
- To minimize the range of motion
When your breathing satisfies these conditions, you achieve a position to perform the bench press in a safe and optimal way.
1. To Provide Oxygen for Your Muscles to Recover
Your body’s systems that provide energy to your muscles and all the organs in your body can be categorized under your aerobic energy system (uses oxygen) and anaerobic energy system (does not use oxygen).
Although strength training predominantly involves using the anaerobic energy system, it still uses the aerobic system too.
So breathing in the bench press can help you gain more oxygen during your bench press set, providing greater energy to your muscles, which is especially important during high rep sets. This is one of the biggest bench press mistakes I see in powerlifting.
2. To Create Stability Around Your Rib Cage and Torso
When you inhale, you take in more air which increases the volume and eventually pressure within your rib cage and torso.
When you increase the volume and pressure within your rib cage, you increase the rigidity of your whole torso.
Also, it puts you in a better position to keep your shoulder blades pinched back and down which is where the barbell weight will be pushing down on.
So if the shoulder blades are in a tighter and more stable position, it gives you more stability for the bench press action.
When your shoulder blades aren’t in the correct position, it can lead to an uneven bench press, which I cover in another article.
3. To Minimize the Range of Motion
When you inhale correctly, the rib cage should elevate up and backward towards the chin, and also the ribs should expand up and outwards.
What this does is increase the height of the surface of the torso for the barbell to touch.
Subsequently, this can decrease the range of motion that the barbell has to travel given that the grip does not change.
Decreasing the range of motion will mean doing less work and making the movement more mechanically-efficient.
Learn more about how to create a bench press arch to reduce the overall range of motion.
How To Breathe and Brace While Benching (4 Steps)
There are 4 steps to breathing correctly in the bench press:
- Step 1: Ensure a Tight Setup
- Step 2: Inhale into the Chest and Torso
- Step 3: Bracing after Breathing
- Step 4: Exhalation after Repetition Completion
Step 1: Ensure a Tight Setup
The set up is key to making your breathing and bracing as effective as possible when you execute.
Your back should be as arched as possible, but as comfortable as possible, with constant leg drive tension. Find out more on how to leg drive properly for the bench press here in this article.
Your shoulder blades should be pinched back and down towards the feet.
Step 2: Inhale into the Chest and Torso
You want to be inhaling through your nose and feel the expansion into your chest and torso as much as possible.
Inhalation should be done through your mouth maximally until you reach maximum capacity.
The inhalation muscles responsible for this are going to be primarily the external intercostal muscles which are between your ribs and the diaphragm.
These muscles work to elevate the ribs and create a negative pressure to draw air in.
Once you reach maximal inhalation, and your chest is as high as possible on the bench press, hold your breath.
You want to set up your breathing prior to the bench press lift off.
Step 3: Bracing after Breathing
Once you have held your breath, it is important that bracing is used to complete the breathing method.
To brace is to seal and supplement the tightness from air drawn in.
The bracing sequence requires the simultaneous attempt of exhalation, but still holding your breath. This means sealing the air at the windpipe and attempting to breathe out at the same time.
What happens when you do this is that you are increasing the pressure within your torso by attempting to squeeze the air out. A good analogy would be squeezing a plastic bottle with a lid that is sealed shut.
This is also known as the valsalva maneuver.
Step 4: Exhalation after Repetition Completion
Once the repetition is performed, exhalation can happen after or at lockout of the arms when you press the bar out.
The reason why the breath should be held in throughout the repetition is that tightness and intra-abdominal pressure is needed to stabilize the shoulders throughout the repetition.
Exhalation should happen after the repetition has finished, or near lockout as the exhalation can assist in the elbows locking out.
Is It Bad To Hold Your Breath While Benching?
No, it is not bad to hold your breath while benching if you are a healthy individual. It is normal practice in powerlifting for the breath to be held during benching.
In fact, it is desirable for bench press performance to hold the breath.
You should always consult a qualified medical professional if you experience chest pain or fainting.
In our article, Should Powerlifters Do Yoga, we explain how certain yoga poses may help improve your breathing for bench press.
How To Breathe On High Reps In Bench Press
There are 2 options for breathing on high reps in bench press:
- Hold your breath throughout the set
- Resetting breath after every rep or every few reps
I will explain why resetting the breath might be more desirable and how to do it.
Hold Your Breath Throughout the Set
The advantage of holding the breath throughout the set is that you maintain consistency in the setup and tightness of your shoulders throughout the set.
The disadvantage of this is that you may find that the build-up of carbon dioxide may be too much for you and you may be forced to breathe out. You may also find that holding your breath can limit the performance of high reps too due to restricting fresh oxygen.
You may also risk passing out.
If you want to hold your breath in the bench press, then execute the breathing and bracing as usual.
Resetting Breath after Every Rep or Every Few Reps
The advantages of resetting your breath after every rep or few reps are:
- Relieve carbon dioxide build-up
- Enhance performance through taking more oxygen in
- No risk of passing out
If you are going to reset your breath during the set, it is important that you do not fully exhale after the completion of a rep.
The reason for this is because when you fully exhale, you deflate your ribcage and force the shoulder blades to protract and come away from their desired stable pinched back and down position.
With a barbell weight pushing your shoulders down, it becomes incredibly difficult to bring the shoulder blades back to where it was in the beginning.
So if the breath reset is used during rep high reps, the exhalation should be a short and shallow exhale to minimize shoulder blade interruption.
Does Breathing Change When You Max Out On The Bench Press?
Breathing does not change when you max out on the bench. The standard breathing procedure applies to this.
What you may want to remember is to be more patient and intentional with the breathing procedure during the max out of the bench press.
This is because if you do not breathe correctly, it can seriously impact the difficulty or even success of the bench press.
Can Wearing a Belt Help You Breathe and Brace Better for the Bench Press?
Some people find that the belt can be useful to have something to brace against and it makes them feel more confident with the bench press.
On the other hand, it can restrict a lot of individuals from being able to arch as much as they can.
There are bench press belts that are narrower than regular powerlifting belts that might be helpful.
You can read more benefits and recommendations for bench press belts in my article on Should You Wear A Belt During The Bench Press?
Breathing correctly is a very important part of the bench press and should be treated with as much importance as the rest of the setup. Breathing should be consistent and practiced as part of the routine set up. Breathing badly during the bench press can leak onto poor movement in the shoulders and therefore the rest of the bench press.
Other resources on breathing:
About The Author: Norman Cheung ASCC, British Powerlifting Team Coach
Norman Cheung is a powerlifting coach and an accredited strength and conditioning coach under the UKSCA. He has been coaching powerlifting since 2012 and has been an IPF Team GB coach since 2016. He has experience with coaching a variety of lifters from novices to international medallists and international university teams. Along side coaching, he takes interest in helping powerlifters take their first step into coaching. He currently runs his coaching services at strongambitionscoaching.com