Breathing is an important part of any exercise and the deadlift is no exception. I’ve found that breathing properly is the best way to brace the core, which is why it’s one of the most important technical elements in setting up the deadlift correctly.
So how should you breathe in the deadlift? Before we initiate the lift, we want to breathe deep into our belly, and think about ‘forcefully exhaling’ without letting out our air. By holding this breath throughout the lift it will give us stability through our core where we can derive the most power. This is important for safety but also required to lift maximal weights.
Breathing sounds simple, but when we’re breathing to lift maximally there are ways to do it wrong. In this article, I will elaborate on the correct ways to breathe in the deadlift.
If you want to learn more deadlift cues, make sure to check out our article on the TOP 10 DEADLIFT CUES FOR STRONGER PULLS.
The Purpose of Breathing
Let’s start with why we should breathe, aside from our innate need to do so.
In the deadlift, we start with the concentric portion of the lift (the ascent phase). The weight is at a dead stop and we have to generate enough force to lift the weight off the floor. We don’t have the eccentric range of motion (lowering phase) to get our muscles tight. Therefore, we have to create proximal stiffness by bracing our core.
Creating stiffness through our core starts with breathing — and breathing starts with the diaphragm.
The diaphragm is a muscle responsible for inspiration (breathing in) and expiration (breathing out). What we’re trying to create by breathing in and breathing out is ‘intra-abdonimal pressure’. This is a process in which we breathe in, hold our breath, and without breathing out, forcefully exhale (also known as the Valsalva maneuver). It’s like you’re trying to breathe out, but you’re still holding your breath. When we brace our core in this way we stabilize our spine.
In the sport of powerlifting, we want to lift the most amount of weight possible. To do this, we need to hold this pressure until the lift is executed to near completion or completion. The importance here is about holding the breath, but further, to hold the brace that you have obtained through breathing.
Research suggests increasing intra-abdominal pressure, and contracting the core musculature could take hundreds of pounds of load off of the spine (Hukins et al, 1990).
Can I Breathe Throughout The Lift?
Breathing On The Way Up
You might see some lifters breath out (sounds like a sprinkler) on the way up. Certainly, this happens but it’s usually near the top of the lift or after the ‘sticking point’. It’s not advised to breathe out at the bottom range of the lift, or when you’re trying to initiate the first pull off the floor. This is a common deadlift mistake I see in newer lifters.
As you pull off the floor, you’ll want to obtain the intra-abdominal pressure as described above.
Breathing On The Way Down
After you’ve completed the lift, and you’re standing up with the weight, it would be acceptable to start letting out your air.
This is, unless, you are doing a controlled eccentric (like in a tempo deadlift). If you plan on doing a controlled lowering phase, then you’ll want to take a mini breath at the top, and continue to hold the air on the way down.
But under normal circumstances, it is not necessary to breathe or brace on the way down as you are guiding the bar back down to the floor, as there is no load going through your body.
As You Cycle Through Reps
Some lifters like to do touch and go deadlifts. This essentially means bouncing the weight off the floor, or not resetting it to a dead stop in between each rep. In this case, people typically take another breath at the top before performing subsequent reps.
You may also do this if you feel the need to take another breathe as you don’t want to pass out throughout the lift. A good general rule of thumb is once the lift is completed (or near completion), breathe out all you like, just be sure to breathe and brace before performing another rep.
If you’re doing reset deadlifts, which most powerlifters would, you would want to take a breath at the bottom of the lift again. You would repeat the process by breathing, bracing, lifting, then letting your air out at the top of the movement.
A quick caveat is that if you have any cardiovascular issues, you may want to avoid holding your breath due to health reasons such as high blood pressure. Consult with a doctor should you have any concerns before performing the Valsalva maneuver.
How to Properly Perform The “Brace”
So now you know when you should be breathing, what is the proper way to breathe?
Often times we see people breathing into their chest and visually observe it rising and falling. We want to avoid this when lifting maximal weights as this does not create any proximal stiffness where we need it most (in the lumbar spine). Instead, we want to breathe deep into our belly, and keep our rib cage “down” (basically the rib cage should not rise during breathing).
If you find you’re passing out on deadlifts then read our article on 4 reasons why people pass out on deadlifts.
You have likely heard breathing cues such as “big air” but what does this even mean and how do you do this?
To illustrate this, I’ll give you an analogy.
Think of your body as a soup or pop can. When you crush the can, the sides expand. This is similar to what you want to achieve; you want to breathe down and around your belly in a 360-degree fashion. By expanding in all directions, it creates a more powerful and effective brace than just breathing our belly out in front of us. As you breathe in, your diaphragm pulls down to do this, just like crushing a can.
Try this out by placing your hands on the sides of your belly and breathing out into your fingers. It will be a little difficult at first, but with practice it will become natural. You can also keep one hand on your sternum to cue yourself to keep your ribcage down (chest is not rising).
How hard should I be breathing?
Breathing should be natural, and you don’t need to breathe with 110% effort to create a good brace. Doing so can actually be counterproductive as you are working so hard while breathing, you don’t have anything left for the actual lift. What I like to think about is bracing your core as if someone is going to ‘punch you in the stomach’. It should be a hard brace, but not where it distracts you from other components of the lift.
Sometimes “hard bracing”, especially if you’re wearing a belt, can cause nosebleeds when deadlifting.
Spine Position While Breathing
Now that you know how to breathe properly, you may be wondering what your spine position should be while breathing, in particular, your lower back.
Should my back be straight? Is it ok if my back is flexed?
The way I teach the deadlift to someone who is just starting is to keep a neutral, straight spine. There are people who deadlift with a rounded back, but this is an advanced technique and only applies to the upper back, not mid or lower back (we’ll save this specific talking point for another time).
It’s important that the spine does not move while lifting. When the spine moves during lifting, it is subject to more forces (in particular shear forces) and it can create an energy leak. This may increase the chance of injury, but there is a definite impact on performance.
Let me entertain you with another analogy.
If you have water going through a hose and there is a leak somewhere, the power output of the water would be reduced. So if your spine is flexing under load, it can create a similar ‘leaking’ effect. Personally, I find that when my spine flexes when deadlifting, I lose my positioning and the deadlift becomes very hard to lockout.
When you’re breathing and bracing, you’ll want to ensure your spine position stays neutral and doesn’t change throughout the lift.
Don’t forget to check out my article on The 9 Best Ab Exercises For Powerlifters.
Putting It All Together
Say you are about to have a heavy deadlift session. Try practicing breathing a few times before pulling. You can work on your breathing by implementing it into other exercises as well such as front planks or bird dogs. Feel free to do this during your warmup or even in-between sets.
As you set up for your pull, breathe deep into and all-around your belly and hold that brace before you initiate the pull. As you finish the pull, you can opt to take another breath at the top and repeat for another rep, or you can guide the barbell down and take another breath at the bottom. Some people also like to take one big breath for multiple reps, but that is entirely up to you and how many reps you’re doing. Play around and see what you like.
Learn more in my article on Why Do Powerlifters Hold Their Breath?
What If It’s Not Working?
So maybe you’ve tried the above and it either doesn’t make sense to you or the deadlift still feels weird.
Breathing is just one component of the deadlift, and there could be other reasons why your deadlift is feeling off. Don’t be afraid to play around with different styles or forms of technique, and most importantly give it time. Change doesn’t happen overnight so don’t give up and keep at it. Taking videos, or getting someone experienced to watch you lift is a great way to get more feedback.
By spending some time to work on your breathing, you can create a stable base for yourself to perform at higher levels. Next time you deadlift, don’t forget to use your diaphragm, its a muscle too!
What To Read Next
Hukins DWL, Kirby, MC, Sikoryn, TA, Aspden, RM, and Cox, AJ. Comparison of structure, mechanical properties, and functions of lumbar spinal ligaments. Spine 15: 787–795, 1990.
Kocjan, J., Adamek, M., Gzik-Zroska, B., Czyzewski, D., Rydel, M. (2017). Network of Breathing. Multifunctional Role of The Diaphragm: A Review. Advanced Respir Med. 85(4): 224-232.
About The Author
Clifton’s most notable achievement is winning the 2017 IPF Classic World Championships in the Junior 66kg class whilst setting an Open World Record Deadlift. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology and is currently pursuing a Doctor of Chiropractic.