Breath holding is not always dysfunctional

Posted by Hans Lindgren DC on 31 March 2021 | 0 Comments

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There is a lot of information available regarding the importance of a good breathing pattern and its effect during training. As we know, the diaphragm has a dual function where it is not only our major breathing muscle, but also has an important role in stabilizing the spine via an increased Intra-abdominal pressure cause by its contraction.

The diaphragm can perform the breathing and stabilizing functions independently from each other, but also simultaneously.

I have previously introduced the concept of the diaphragm control switch where different breathing and stabilization needs are meet by the diaphragm’s activity.


 At level 1, respiration most important and this is where we spent most of our daily activities-it is a crucial first step for our patients and athletes when practicing proper breathing. Once a good breathing pattern has been established core stabilization is available required.

During the training of patients and athletes we introduce the stages of dual function, where the diaphragm performs its breathing function at a lower position to allow for stabilization of the spine whilst still performing its respiratory function. These activities are illustrated in the 2-9 sections below - while the numbers increase the stabilising function becomes more important and respiration will be reduced. The heavier the resistance the more stabilising function is required, and therefore respiration will be reduced.

 Dial new

Here is the same diagram with the different diaphragm positions illustrated.

 Dial Timeline2 smaller

And to illustrate the concept even better we can stretch the diagram out to a linear illustration.

There are a lot of comments out there regarding stabilisation and breathing, and one common comment is that if you cannot breathe in a position you don’t ‘own’ that position. People also get taught that breath-holding is a dysfunctional stabilization pattern.

I would strongly disagree with that last statement and turn it around completely to say that breath holding is the ultimate stabilisation strategy. Maximum stabilisation is achieved when the diaphragm is fully contracted; thereby increasing the Intra-abdominal pressure as high as it can go. Breathing out in this position - even just a little bit - is going to decrease the stability.

Let’s look at big lifters – they all have the same breathing pattern when lifting. A big breath in and hold the breath or if breathing out, doing it against pursed lips to regulate the pressure in the abdominal cavity. Belts, being more rigid than the abdominal muscles, are used to breathe and push against to create maximum pressure.

If we look at some of these strongest people in the world, we can see that breath holding is helping them achieve maximum stability.

 maximum stabilisation strategy for trivial tasks is dysfunctional. Training should be aimed at increasing the ability to both breathe and stabilise simultaneously whilst performing exercises and other activities, but at the top end of loading there will always be a place for breath holding.

To maximise the stabilising effect when lifting very heavy loads, a full breath out prior to breathing in will align the diaphragm better for the full contraction. Breathing in fully and then adding a postural contraction of the diaphragm at the bottom position will increase stability. Only after that is achieved should the abdominal muscles be contracted, since a too early contraction of the abdominal wall will prevent a full contraction by the diaphragm. In the same way a belt being too tight will reduce stability.

The breathing strategy should be modified depending upon the loading.  When performing multiple repetitions with a heavy weight the stabilisation sequence listed above should be reset between each repetition.

Breathe out fully -big breath in-brace and go again!

Next time you see lifting athletes take a huge breath in you know what they are after, and I bet the cheeks will be rounded from holding the breath until the lift is completed.

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