When it comes to athletic performance breathing plays many different roles. These include O2 exchange, activating parasympathetic or sympathetic nervous systems, helping brace against load or exertion, and recovery from training and competition. In the last couple of years a lot of scientific and clinical research has been done to see what effect breathing can have on an athlete’s performance.

   Turns out breathing is pretty important. With that being said, I have seen a lot of great coaches have trouble teaching athletes how to diaphragmatically, or “belly”, breathe. As a result, I built a method incorporating information from people like Kelly Starrett, Pat Davidson, and others that I have used with athletes who struggled to learn how to valsalva and I have included it below. I will not claim to be a breathing “expert” no more than I am a “living” expert, but to be honest I have done both since I was born (thankfully pretty well).

    It is astounding how the way we breathe affects many parts of our body and performance. Every time we breathe, the air that is brought into our lungs exchanges oxygen for carbon dioxide. If this did not happen we would die, which affects our performance. We all understand that basic function so I will be skipping over that.

    The way we breathe can cause our body to become more sympathetic, which is great when you are getting ready to train, run away from bears, fight a bully, and stuff like that. Breathing can also cause our body to become parasympathetic as well which is just as important. But this is important after you finish training, or during a stressful meeting, or even during a competition when the pressure is on and you begin to feel the stress mounting. Learning how to switch between the two is part of the reason great athletes are able to rise to the occasion and perform better during the last 2 minutes of a competition. I will write something up on this in the near future, but today I want to talk about breathing with regard to lifting heavy things.

    Does breathing effect heavy lifting when you hold your breath each rep? Yes, and you should hold it for each rep. But where? Right now I want you to pretend you're about to take a heavy squat. Now take a deep breath as if you're about to stand it up out of the rack. What happened? Did your chest come up? If that's the case then you're limiting your strength by not practicing the skill of engaging the valsalva maneuver.

    When you engage the valsalva maneuver you create a far more rigid torso, and increase your capacity to lift weight with ease. But how is it done? First you must learn how to take deep breaths into your abdomen. This is called diaphragmatic breathing. Below are the steps you need to follow to learn this skill.

Diaphragmatic Breathing

  1. To begin this drill lie on your back with your feet on a chair or couch, so that your hips and knees are at 90 degrees.

  2. Place one hand on your belly button and one on your chest. Relax and begin to breathe.

    1. What you need to notice is how you are breathing. Which part of your body is expanding and shrinking as you breath?

  3. Now close your mouth and put your tongue to the roof of your mouth.

  4. Breathe deeply through your nose.

    1. Notice again where your body expands and shrinks, did it change?

  5. Continue to take deep breaths into your stomach for 10 long, slow breaths.

    1. With each breath pay attention to your stomach rising, your spine sinking, and your rib cage expanding. (This may take time to get good at).

  6. After you feel you have really gained the ability to diaphragmatically breathe, try lying on the ground with your legs completely straight.

    1. This small change will likely make it much more difficult to breath.

Perfecting The Valsalva Maneuver

    Once you feel you understand how to diaphragmatically breathe, you need to start learning how to engage valsalva. The fastest way to understand what valsalva feels like is to practice while lying down (the same position as the breathing we practiced before). This is because when lying in this position your posture and tight muscles won't limit your ability to breathe into your abdomen.


  1. Complete all of the steps that you would follow for good diaphragmatic breathing.

  2. Every time you finish inhaling your spine should be flat.

  1. This is when you squeeze your stomach tight. This is what creates all the stability that the valsalva maneuver provides.

  1. If you have done this right you will feel a little pressure in your head.

  2. This is what you should do when under load.


The majority of athletes struggle with poor posture, more specifically poor pelvic placement. When the front of your pelvis is lower than the back of your pelvis you’re in what is called an anterior pelvic tilt. This affects the ability of your psoas, hip flexors, some of the muscles in the back like the erectors and multifidi, and transverse abdominis to function properly. All of the muscles need to be functioning properly to allow you to breathe as efficiently as you can. However, bad posture will shut the muscles off and force you to use other muscles much more intensely than they should be. Using muscles for purposes that they are not naturally intended for will begin to cause issues within those muscles. So as we move into the more difficult valsalva drills, do your best to keep good posture.

  1. Stand with your feet in your squat position and head looking forward, not up or down.

  2. Follow all of the steps for diaphragmatic breathing

    1. The only difference being do not lie down.

  3. Every time you finish inhaling your spine should be flat.

  1. This is when you squeeze your stomach tight. This is what creates all the stability that the valsalva maneuver provides.

  1. If you have done this right you will feel a little pressure in your head.

  2. Do not hold this for very long, just remember what it is like to feel your torso fill with air and get completely rigid. This is what you should do when under load.


    To make breathing even harder all we need to do is change positions again. This time into a position that weightlifters, crossfitters, and even the casual gym goer ends up in very often. The deep squat.

  1. Assume the top of your squat position.

  2. Squat down while actively keeping your chest up.

    1. You may feel the muscles in your back tighten.  

  3. Begin to do your diaphragmatic breathing in this position.

    1. No need to place your hands on your chest or stomach

    2. This time as you breathe you will be able to monitor where the breath goes by feeling your stomach on your legs.

  4. Every time you complete an inhale, lock down your stomach.

    1. While holding your breath stand up, then control yourself back to the bottom of the squat. Exhale and repeat.

Valsalva Under Load

    Finally, the hardest way to breath is under significant load. We use this with our athletes from time to time. These are often called front rack holds. They need to be done carefully because of the likelihood of passing out. So doing them over jerk blocks instead of out of a half rack is smart.

    The exercise is performed with somewhere between 105-110% of your best jerk, or front squat.

  1. Place the barbell in the front rack position.

  2. Assume your pre front squat, or pre jerk position.

    1. The two should be very similar.

  3. Close your mouth and breath through your nose.

    1. Hold each breath in your stomach tightly for 5 seconds.

  4. You will know if you are breathing improperly if the bar will begin to move up and down.

    1. If the bar rises and falls as you are breathing then you are breathing into your chest, not your stomach.

    2. Refocus on keeping your shoulders and the bar stationary as you breath.

  5. Continue for a total of 3-5 breaths with a hold of 5 seconds.

    Breathing is a critical aspect of your performance that you may be missing. Adding these drills to ensure that you are breathing properly and utilizing the valsalva maneuver effectively will add weight to the bar and PRs on the platform. Remember, no time to waste.


If you are interested in utilizing breathing as a piece to improve your spinal mobility and see an increase in performance, then click here to check out The Iron Spine!