Breathing During The Deadlift

by Melissa Reed
As in any lift, breathing is a key to the success and safety of the deadlift.  During the deadlift, the lifter’s spine must remain in a neutral position in order to prevent injury and maximize power on the barbell.  In order to brace the spine during a lift, the athlete must create balance between the anterior and posterior core.  In other words, the athlete must “find the middle.”  Bracing the spine starts with the ability to effectively breathe during the lift.
There are many mechanisms at work to support the spine while lifting.  The key mechanism is intra-abdominal pressure.  This is increased pressure within the abdomen, which helps to stabilize the spine, keeping it in the ideal neutral position during the lift.  In order to increase the intra-abdominal pressure, the lifter should inhale deep, filling the stomach with air.  The lifter should build pressure by trying to exhale without letting air escape.  This is known as The Valsalva Maneuver.  Once a lift is complete, the lifter should inhale and perform another Valsalva prior to the next repetition if the weight is heavy. If the weight is very light, an athlete can tighten their core without a large air intake, but will still hold their breath reflexively during the pull phase.
For this reason, many lifters wear a weightlifting belt to assist with the development of intra-abdominal pressure.  When a lifter wears a belt (properly), the abs can be pushed into the belt, helping to stabilize the spine and core.
Picture an athlete about to deadlift a reasonably heavy weight.  While they are preparing for the deadlift, they should take a breath; then they perform Valsalva as they lift the weight.
Some athletes exhale as they pass the sticking point of the lift.  This often results in the athlete making a bit of noise. A drawback is that if the lifter exhales too fast, they may lose some of the spinal and core stability, which the Valsalva Manoeuver gave them.
Another variation is for the lifter to hold their breath until the repetition is completed.  The advantage of this method is that the lifter sustains intra-abdominal pressure throughout the lift.  The disadvantage is that is the lift is slow, or the athlete may feel like they are lightheaded and running out of air.
The last variation is allowing air to escape slowly through clenched teeth after passing the “sticking point” in the lift.  This provides balance between the two methods.
Mastering the Valsalva Manoeuver is critical for lifting safely and effectively.  It provides the most spinal stability and safety, and will also improve performance in other lifts, such as squats, Olympic lifts, etc.