Whether performing a max effort squat or a set of 10 reps, utilizing the optimal technique to breathe must be your priority if your goal is to move the most weight possible while being as safe as possible.
So how do you breathe properly in the squats? It requires a two-step process. First, you must breathe as deep as you can into your stomach and create intra-abdominal pressure. Second, you must brace as hard as you can by expanding the muscles in your torso 360-degrees to create stiffness and rigidity. By utilizing this technique, you can take hundreds of pounds of pressure off your spine, keeping you safe and giving you the ability to lift more weight.
As a personal trainer and powerlifting coach, I have spent over 20,000 hours instructing people how to effectively lift weights and move optimally. In this article, I will take you through the steps that will maximize your breathing technique for squats.
Breathing In The Squat: A Two-Step Process
Before you squat, synchronizing the breathing order must be the first priority. I teach the breathing order using a system called “2B”. The 1st “B” stands for “breath”, the 2nd “B” stands for “Brace”.
Step 1: BREATHE into abdomen
In the 2B system, the first B stands for “BREATHE”.
The athlete must first inhale a large breath into the abdomen, utilizing the diaphragm. Our diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscular membranous structure that separates the thoracic (chest) and abdominal cavities.
Once this diaphragmatic breath is achieved, the next step is to create as much tension in the abdomen as possible. Breathing in this way allows athletes to express strength and protect themselves by amplifying intra-abdominal pressure (IAP). IAP is the pressure rating within the abdominal cavity. Using diaphragmatic breathing contracts the diaphragm creating a vacuum effect that pulls air into the lungs causing an increase of IAP. Higher amounts of IAP provide increased stability throughout the trunk, which in turn stiffens the spine.
Professor of Spine Biomechanics and researcher Dr. Stuart McGill calls this super-stiffness.
Super-stiffness prevents energy leakage throughout the trunk because it’s fixed and unmoved during a contraction. This is the goal because during the execution of the squat we never want any micro-movements happening about the spine. Superstiffness is the goal.
Step 2: BRACE and create as much tension as possible
In the 2B system, the second B stands for “BRACE”.
Brace or bracing refers to protecting oneself as if a bodily impact is about to happen. Imagine someone is about to crack you in the stomach with a baseball bat or you are about to receive a body check in hockey. The natural tendency is to brace our bodies in order to protect ourselves.
How do we do create this optimal brace for the powerlifting squat? Tension!
Creating as much tension as possible in our bodies amplifies this brace effect. Pushing out our entire trunk, that is our six pack, side pack and backpack creates 360 degrees of tension. The result will be neutralizing the alignment of the thoracic and lumbar spine creating the super-stiffness, which is the optimal position to maximally produce force.
Here is a simple drill you can do to practice effective bracing:
- Start by wrapping the hands around the waist with the thumbs on the low back and fingers on the side and front of the abdomen.
- From here gently apply pressure with hands then begin the first B. If inhaling through the abdomen with the diaphragm we should feel some expansion 360 degrees around the trunk.
- Apply the second B and feel the tension of the tissues increase in density. You should NOT feel your waist get smaller like on the beach when someone yells smile and is holding a camera. Push out, don’t suck in.
- This can also be done in partners with a stretch band. Place the band around the partner’s trunk and pull the band taught. Here the athlete practices the 2B technique. They will receive kinaesthetic feedback from the band confirming if they are doing this correctly or not.
KIt is important to note that for optimal effect, both parts of the 2B system must be performed and in the proper order. If the synchronization is performed in reverse order and the athlete creates tension first with the brace then attempts the breath, they will be limited in just how much air they are able to take in. This will not only result in less efficiency in the squat, but it will also be more likely to irritate the spine over time and possible injury could occur.
What To Do & What NOT To Do When Breathing During The Squat
If you follow the 2B synchronization pattern, it will increase IAP first, then increase trunk stabilization once the tension is created. This keeps the spine in its natural position throughout the lift.
When the spine is not loaded for a powerlifting squat, the spine is a flexible rod that allows us to move freely. However, after utilizing the ‘breathe’ and ‘brace’ technique, the spine turns into a fixed rod. As a result, the limbs around the spine can maximally exert force.
It’s important to understand that even when the spine turns into a fixed rod after bracing, it will still have some normal curvature. Take a look at the spine’s normal curvature:
The goal while squatting is for this normal curvature to remain unchanged while you’re executing the squat.
How do we achieve this? By ‘breathing’ and ‘bracing’, and then keeping our hips underneath us and our ribcage pull downward.
The ‘ribs down’ cue allows us to brace even harder after taking our breath, and it also prevents excessive extension with the spine (arching our back).
You may have seen people squatting by sticking out their buttocks like a bikini competitor back pose and with their chest popping up and outward like a bird. These positions will loosen our brace, and likely cause the spine to move from its normal position under load. It will create energy leaks because the ability to create super-stiffness is inhibited by the inability to fully expand the cylinder or trunk of the core.
When the spine moves under load by ineffective breathing and bracing, certain conditions such as disc bulges, endplate fractures or even laxity within the joint can arise from over-arching during the squat. Joint laxity or hypermobility at the one segment (too much movement) decreases the stability of the spine, lowering IAP, and making you weaker when the need to be strongest is the highest for that activity.
How Do I Breathe During the Walk Out?
Having an ideal breath during the setup and walk out will create more spinal stability, control, minimize micro-movements of the spine and make weights “feel” lighter.
Once the hands, shoulders, elbows, feet eyes are all set you should follow the same 2B breathing technique before lift-off. Breathe into the abdomen, brace by creating tension, and then the athlete stands up intentionally.
Once in control, takes two to three steps back then lets some air out. Once everything is settled and the oscillation of the bar has seized, the 2B system is employed again. Breath in, brace for impact.
Should The Bar Move During The Breath?
No. For your own safety, the answer is always no.
When you see the bar traveling up and down during a pre squat breath, it’s an indication that a chest breath is occurring. Avoid the chest breath.
This is an example of a ‘chest breath’ because you can see the chest expand and the bar move up on the shoulders before starting the descent.
In 2015, I had the privilege of learning from the most successful powerlifting coach of all time, Boris Sheiko.
One interesting takeaway from coach Sheiko is that North American powerlifters generally do not employ proper breathing techniques, the effect of which is when inhaling mostly into the lungs, the chest and thoracic spine move.
Why is this not efficient? Tension!
Tension is created by muscular contraction from layering on the grip, shoulders, lats, and hips. It is important to remember once the bar is set after the walkout, and tension is almost at maximum, a chest breath while moving the bar loosens some of that tension, causing micro-movements of the spine.
Should You Hold Your Breath While Squatting?
If you hold your breath while squatting this is called the valsalva maneauver.
This technique happens to everyone when we cough, sneeze, vomit or have a bowel movement. While squatting, the same technique can be implemented, which causes the ‘breathe and brace’ technique to be amplified.
However, while keeping holding our breath can increase intra-abdominal pressure, not surprisingly, blood pressure also rises dramatically. Therefore, if an athlete suffers from hypertension they should address lifestyle factors first before considering this technique.
How Do You Breathe During Reps?
Let’s answer this question in three different ways.
General fitness guidelines
General fitness guidelines suggest timing one breath per rep.
Typically it is recommended to inhale during the lengthening of a muscle or during the eccentric phase and to exhale during the shortening or concentric contraction phase. This practice is recommended in the most popular personal training courses in North America that I have taken. It is also rare to find any recommendations for breath during an isometric activity such as plank variations, anti-rotation holds and heavy walks such as farmer carries.
Guidelines based on exercise selection and effort
The DTS Fitness Education Level One program uses a 3B system.
The first and second B are the same: the first B stands for breath where the athlete would inhale into the diaphragm and the second B is to increase tension by bracing into the abdomen and trunk tissues. The third B represents breathing behind the brace. Here the athlete will continue bracing however letting air in and out while keeping tension. This can be applied for repetition based exercise with lower stress on the body such as bodyweight squats, hip hinges, row variations, step variations, planks and different carries.
The key is to tune the tension of the brace to the activity. A single arm supported dumbbell row for 15 repetitions will be a lower muscular brace demand than a 3 repetition maximum back squat thus the brace can be tuned down for the specific activity. The 3B technique is phenomenal for exercises that do not require maximal or near maximal effort on the body.
Guideline for powerlifting squatting
The 2B breathing technique should be used for the powerlifting squat and tuned for that activity.
This means the amount of tension created should reflect the total weight being lifted with a higher emphasis on weights 60% and over of an athlete’s one rep maximum.
So if you’re going for a 1 rep max, then maximal air and maximal tension should be used. Yet how do we adjust for sets of two-ten?
We simply tune the breath to the rep range.
We do this by taking in less air as the rep range moves further away from one. The same technique goes for the amount of brace we use. By using less air and tension we then try to hold the breath in accordance with our abilities. Some would benefit from holding their air the entire rep and even two or three reps in a row.
This is very difficult and not for everyone so if the athlete gets lightheaded or dizzy they should reset each rep or use the forceful exhalation method (more on this below).
When performing multiple reps it is important that tension is maintained at the top of each rep. This is achieved by the athlete exhaling a small amount of air then replacing it by “sipping” a top up to retain brace. Remember that synchronization of breath then brace is important to maximally fill the cylinder we call our “core”.
Breathing differs in comparison to other muscle contractions in the body. Breathing can happen as an involuntary or voluntary act. Choosing how to breath during activity allows us to practice it. Deliberate practice is what makes practice effective.
Why Do I Feel Dizzy When Squatting?
From time to time a person will feel lightheaded or experience dizziness while holding their breath. To counter this, the lifter can use what is known as “forceful exhalation”. Forceful exhalation is releasing some, but not all of the air during the squat.
The best example of this is letting the air out of a car tire.
Large amounts of pressure build-up in the tire and when expelled at a forced rate creates the sound “psss”. Not all air is lost thus tension and IAP are maintained. This is also utilized in power sports such as combat sports, weightlifting, tennis, football, rugby, etc. Whenever an athlete must exert high levels of force while maintaining tension it comes out as a “psss” or “grunt”.
You can hear this technique being implemented below:
One important consideration is that lightheadedness and dizziness can become an issue and must be dealt with effectively due to the nature of powerlifting. Holding your breath resulting in loss of balance is a risk and with maximal weight on someone’s back, this is not the time to add risk. In other words, the juice is no longer worth the squeeze.
Proper breathing techniques during the powerlifting squat require a systematic 2B approach. This creates optimal spinal alignment, super-stiffness, and high levels of intra-abdominal pressure.
Holding your breath throughout the entire rep or using some forceful exhalation will allow you to achieve optimal breathing technique during the squat. Deliberately practicing this technique with consistent tuning, layers on proper technique and leads to autoregulation eventually becomes a habit in session.
Having a systematic approach to proper breath mechanics during the squat can keep you safe and more efficient as a lifter.
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About The Author
Chris Fudge, BPhEd, B.R.S.S., C.S.C.S.
Chris has over 20,000 hours of high-level coaching experience. He has worked with powerlifters, award-winning fitness models, and professional athletes. He has been awarded Personal Trainer of The Year across Canada and is a nationally ranked powerlifter.