Breathing Techniques & How The Valsalva Maneuver Can Save Your Back While Helping You Nab Your Next PR
If you are a regular attendee at Reebok CrossFit Nürnberg WOD sessions, you’ll have heard us preaching about inhaling a large volume of air prior to heavy lifts. The method has a scientific term: the valsalva maneuver We talk about the protective aspects for the spine of such a strong column of air. Keeping our spines in a neutral and stable position is absolutely critical to our safety as well as successful progression.
If you’d imagine that your core body was a succulent piece of Weißwurst skewered on a stick (your spine), we would want you focused on crushing that stick during a heavy lift. Focus on squeezing that wurst along its entire length – tighten your core and imagine trying to CRUSH your internal stick.
We hold in the bottom of our wurst by tightening our pelvic floor (this also insures you don’t pee on yourself), and we take a full breath, thereby securing the top of our wurst with our diaphragm. We correct overarching by instructing our athletes to shorten the distance between their xiphoid process (the inferior part of the sternum) and their bellybuttons.
The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA)’s Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning outlines the biomechanics behind the maneuver:
“When the diaphragm and the deep muscles of the torso contract, pressure is generated within the abdominal cavity. Because the abdomen is composed mainly of fluid and normally contains very little gas, it is virtually incompressible. The abdominal fluids and tissue kept under pressure by tensing surrounding muscle (deep abdominal muscles and diaphragm) have been described as a “fluid ball” that aids in supporting the vertebral column during resistance training. Such support may significantly reduce both the forces required by the erector spinae muscles to perform an exercise and the associated compressive forces on the disks.”
The valsalva maneuver will significantly increase the rigidity of your entire torso, making it easier to support heavy loads. Olympic lifters, powerlifters, and CrossFitters use valsalva, and use it regularly.
There are risks involved with the valsalva maneuver, particularly to those with heart conditions – the valsalva maneuver will elevate blood pressure and increase risk of blackout. It could have even contributed to the death of Elvis Presley (certainly never combine valsalva with drugs).
There are modified versions of the valsalva maneuver we also recommend which are free of these risks. Paradox Breathing, sometimes termed “Power Breathing” also recruits diaphragm and abdominal muscles and lends support to the lower spine without requiring such a large build-up of pressure in the chest compartment. Our Kettlebell athletes use paradox breathing on the inhale – as your diaphragm descends, you intensify the tension on your abdominal muscles.
Jeff Martone (one of the first certified senior kettlebell instructors in America) teaches Paradox Breathing. He trains his kettlebellers to inhale (through the nose) 75%-100% of the lung’s capacity prior to loading their muscles, then:
“Rather than exhaling all of your air at once, forcefully exhale a tiny stream of air through your clenched teeth, while pressing your tongue to the roof of your mouth. This will contract the diaphragm and the muscles of the abdominal cavity and increase your intra-abdominal pressure thus increasing the stability of the trunk and the transfer of force through it”
And have you seen athletes use weightlifting belts? Weightlifting belts are actually designed to increase intra-abdominal pressure during resistance training. We feel that our athletes may reasonably choose never to wear lifting belts, as long as they build up the strength of their back muscles and the muscles which generate intra-abdominal pressure gradually and systematically. Many world-class Olympic-style weightlifters never wear belts! The NSCA cites a 1989 study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise (Harman, E.A.) on “Effects of a belt on intra-abdominal pressure during weight lifting”:
“if an athlete performs all of the exercises with a belt, the abdominal muscles that produce intra-abdominal pressure might not get enough training stimulus to develop optimally. It is particularly risky for an individual who has become accustomed to wearing a belt to suddenly perform an exercise without one, because the abdominal musculature might not be capable of generating enough intra-abdominal pressure to significantly reduce erector spinae muscle forces. The resulting excessive compressive forces on the disks could increase the chance of back injury”
We’ve seen the proper, safe application of the valsalva maneuver make a distinct difference between a PR and no PR for many athletes. For lifts with short duration, we feel that the valsalva maneuver is very effective in allowing rapid and maximum application of force.