Proper Breathing During Exercise:How to Avoid Valsalva
What is Valsalva?
Proper breathing during weight training is not intuitive. Most of us inappropriately hold or force our breath, particularly as intensity increases during an exercise. Unfortunately, breath-holding obviates our ability to produce high intensity muscular contractions and it can actually be dangerous. Breath-holding during exercise increases blood pressure rapidly and this can lead to fainting, painful Exercise-Induced Headaches (EIH), or even stroke.
The fancy term for breath-holding is Valsalva. Taking its name from 17th Century Italian anatomist, Anton Maria Valsalva, the Valsalva Maneuver, or simply, Valsalva, occurs when we attempt to forcibly exhale while keeping the airway closed.
To concisely experience Valsalva, try the following:
Stand up. Curl your fingers, and link your hands together in front of your chest. Take a deep breath and try to pull your hands apart as hard as you can without letting go. Pull hard. While pulling, notice how the muscles in your chest and abdomen tighten up. Notice also that your throat (glottis) closes up. Try it again and pull really hard. The harder you pull, the more tightly your throat closes and the more likely you are to grunt or strain as you bear down.
Purpose and Function
The purpose of Valsalva is to increase air pressure in the thorax and lungs to help with physical exertion or to help force things out of the body. The Valsalva mechanism is coordinated by many muscles neurologically programmed to contract simultaneously.
The abdominal muscles tighten up, squeezing the intestines and organs in the abdominal cavity so that they press upward against the diaphragm. The diaphragm bulges upward, compressing the chest cavity as chest muscles tighten to bring the rib cage down, compressing the chest
cavity even more. Concurrently, the larynx closes tightly around the upper airway to keep the air in the lungs from escaping. The more the abdominal muscles squeeze, the greater the air pressure becomes in the lungs, the tighter the larynx closes, thus magnifying Valsalva (figure1.1).
This air pressure helps stabilize the diaphragm so that the abdominal muscles can help squeeze things out of the body (defecation, urination, and childbirth). In activities requiring physical effort, the increased lung pressure created by Valsalva helps us to exert.
However, the performance of Valsalva is merely the common, instinctive reaction to the aforementioned activities. Despite its anthropological ubiquity, Valsalva is not necessarily good practice for either physical exertion or evacuation. Ken Hutchins, the creator and founder of Superslow®, indicates that elderly people are often found dead of a stroke in the bathroom because of increased blood pressure from Valsalva from straining on the commode.
When it comes to physical exertion, the dangers of
Valsalva are no less concerning.
An Olympic weight-lifter holds his breath as he strains to lift a weight. The air pressure he builds in his lungs keeps his chest and shoulders firm and rigid, giving greater support to his arms. He may also violently expel his breath vocally, at peak effort.
However, while Valsalva might assist such a momentary maximum lift, it also increases the risk of the associated concerns of rapidly spiked blood pressure. This risk increases to very dangerous limits when the duration of the exertion increases. Simply put, Valsalva has no place in your exercise program when your objective is muscular inroad.
Avoiding Valsalva During Proper Exercise
Hutchins: “When an exercise movement becomes difficult, our natural instinct is to back off or hold and then jab or heave at the movement arm of the machine (called Offing-and-Oning). This is often synced to breathing and Valsalva (called Valsalva Sync). Naturally we simultaneously Valsalva and heave at the resistance for a brief distance and time. Then we simultaneously ventilate and hold, or back off from the resistance. After a few huffs and puffs, we simul- taneously Valsalva and heave at the resistance again.” We call this, the Valsalva Sync/Push-Hard Association. This must be avoided during your workouts.
“We want a continuous contraction force combined with continuous and relaxed ventilation.” This keeps our effort on the resistance and allows meaningful loading of the muscle.
“The bottom line in exercise is efficient mechanical loading of the muscle. All direct benefits of exercise—known, suspected, and unsuspected—follow from this fundamental principle.”
Valsalva actually prevents continuous and efficient loading of the intended musculature. It reduces your strength to fulfill the primary objective of exercise and it can contribute to Exercise Induced Headache.
Dos & Don’ts of Breathing During Exercise
* DON’T grimace, strain, grunt, groan, moan or speak during exercise.
* DON’T blow air by pursing the lips and puffing out the cheeks, or hiss air through a grimaced mouth, or burst- out air after holding your breath.
* DON’T apply a scheme to your breathing.
* DO breathe freely with your mouth. Keep your face relaxed, your jaw loose, your mouth open, your lips un- pursed, and your teeth parted (un-clenched).
* DO breathe faster as you near muscle failure to help break the “Valsalva Sync/Push Hard Association”. Breathe faster but do not move faster. Your breathing rate should be independent of your movement speed. Breathing is a counterpart to effort: The higher your effort, the more you should breathe. According to Dr. M. Doug McGuff, author of the book Body by Science, “…this type of breathing blows off CO2 (carbon dioxide) and keeps your blood pH normal longer. It also allows your muscles to function for a longer duration and therefore inroad more deeply.”
The first few times you breathe this way, you may become slightly dizzy or light-headed. This is not harmful and you will eventually become accustomed to it. It is far preferable to be a little light-headed than to experience the deleterious effects of Valsalva.
Don’t be discouraged by the initial difficulties in breathing this way. Some people feel self-conscious at first— it can sound like a Lamaze class or like a panting dog. But you will be in complete privacy at The Strength Room, working-out under direct supervision.
It may take as many as 10 workouts to really understand how to avoid Valsalva but with patience and understanding, you will come to appreciate the technique of continuous breathing and its benefits.
Make a habit of being aware of your breathing in other arenas of life where stress or tension (physical or otherwise) occurs. And seek to summon all of your attention and enthusiasm to each and every workout so that you can enjoy all the benefits of a stronger, healthier body.
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The demonstration exercise earlier in this article is an effective way to illustrate the nature of Valsalva because it calls for the use of physical effort to engage the Valsalva mechanism. Try the exercise again, only this time apply the tenets of proper breathing during exercise and see how the effect in your body is different.
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Explanation of Valsalva Mechanism and diagram from William D. Perry’s (Esq.) book, Understanding and Controlling Stuttering, A comprehensive new approach based on the Valsalva Hypothesis, 2nd edition, 2000
Quotes by Ken Hutchins from his book, SuperSlow The Ultimate Exercise Protocol, Third Edition, 2007. Quote from Doug McGuff from his Ultimate-Exercise Lecture DVD, 2002.
ã Copyright-The Strength Room-2007