Have you ever noticed that you occasionally hold your breath when you bench press?
Plus, this may even help you to bench more effectively.
But, should you really be holding your breath?
Is holding your breath dangerous?
Or is this a legitimate bench press breathing technique?
Let’s find out.
You can hold your breath during bench press, although there are a few ways to do this. Firstly, you can hold your breath throughout the entire set. This helps to create intra-abdominal pressure, while ensuring that your torso and shoulders stay tight throughout. However, this will lead to a buildup of carbon dioxide, which can pose a risk of passing out. Therefore, you can also reset your breath every few reps. Then again, you can also inhale and exhale with every rep. These are all viable methods of breathing during bench press.
Should You Hold Your Breath Throughout an Entire Bench Press Set?
As with most things lifting-related there is no single straight answer.
Basically, there are obviously certain protocols you should adhere to when bench pressing, but how our individual body’s react will differ from person-to-person.
So, in effect, you have to find what works for you.
That being said, there is absolutely nothing wrong with holding your breath when you bench press.
In fact, this is generally how most powerlifters choose to bench.
Basically, by inhaling deeply at the start of your set you’re able to stabilize your spine, while bracing your core.
This simple action will also push your ribs up your body, thus allowing the chest to rise higher.
Essentially, this actually decreases the range of motion.
And when it comes to benching for a few reps, i.e. training for strength, you will typically want to reduce the range of motion, as this makes the lift more mechanically advantageous.
This is also why you should retract your shoulder blades, thus forcing your chest higher towards the bar.
Now, the fact that your core is braced and your spine is stabilized makes the lift far more efficient.
You want to keep your body tight throughout the entire set, where possible.
So, by breathing during bench press you’ll end up actually allowing your body to relax.
This also means that you’ll need to literally reset your core and spine with each breath you choose to take.
This “holding your breath” is often referred to as the valsalva manoeuvre, although it is more often used during heavy squats.
However, it can be used for a variety of lifts.
In fact, many powerlifters take advantage of wearing a belt, not only to support the spine, but also to have something to “aim for” when they lift.
When you inhale deeply your stomach will rise.
Once more, this allows you to keep your core tight and spine stabilized.
Holding Your Breath When You Bench isn’t ALL Good News
However, just to confuse matters, this doesn’t mean that everyone should be holding their breath throughout an entire set of bench press.
Remember, I’ve said that we are all different from each other, and therefore our body’s react differently to training stimulus.
Something else to consider is that when you hold your breath, especially while you’re stressing the muscles with a heavy load, there will be a buildup of carbon dioxide.
And unfortunately, this does increase the risk of you potentially passing out.
I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you how dangerous this is while your bench pressing, or performing any movement for that matter.
So, while holding your breath during bench press is a legitimate tactic, it may not be for everyone.
You Can Reset Your Breath During the Bench Press Set
Okay, so holding your breath throughout an entire set of bench press may not be for everyone.
In fact, if this is something you’ve never tried before, I don’t suggest that you give it a go immediately.
In reality, you also need to train your breathing, in much the same way as your body, to eventually achieve this.
So, there are a couple of other ways to breathe during bench press.
The most obvious of these is likely to be what the vast majority of people do when they bench press.
This involves unracking the bar and inhaling deeply.
Once again, by inhaling at the top you have the opportunity to brace your core and stabilize your spine.
And you’ll want to keep everything tight throughout the rep.
Therefore, in effect, you’re still actually holding your breath during the rep.
You will then either exhale at a potential sticking point or at the top once your arms are fully extended.
The reason I mention the “sticking point” is because some people find that they tend to struggle with the bench press during certain parts of the lift.
As an example, if you struggle at the bottom of the bench press, this points to a potential pec weakness.
Basically, your pecs are most activated at the bottom of the bench press, while you try to push out of the hole.
However, once you get to the midpoint and onwards, it’s all about your triceps.
So, if you’re struggling here, then this points to a potential tricep weakness.
This is also why exhaling at your sticking point can actually help to move you through it.
However, if you feel good throughout the rep then simply exhale at the top.
You Don’t Have to Breath With Every Single Rep
Now, something else you can do is to breathe every few reps.
And this is especially true when you’re performing high reps of bench press.
So, as an example, you may choose to perform a set of 12-15 reps.
Therefore, you inhale at the top, perform a few reps and then exhale, once more once you are pressing the weight back up.
You can then quickly reset yourself, inhale deeply, and carry on performing reps until you feel you need to exhale again.
And obviously you should always be exhaling at the top or at your sticking point.
By following this method, you’ll get some carbon dioxide buildup, but this is obviously released whenever you exhale.
Plus, I would say this is fairly important if you’re performing a set of 12-15 reps, which could take up to 60 seconds to perform.
In other words, it could be extremely difficult and dangerous to hold your breath for a minute, while stressing the body with a heavy load.
That being said, even though these are all legitimate breathing techniques during bench press, once again I repeat, you have to find what works best for you.
Breathing & Holding Your Breath Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some frequently asked questions about “holding your breath”, including other compound exercises.
Is it Better to Hold Your Breath on Inhale or Exhale?
You can actually hold your breath on either inhale or exhale.
However, once you exhale you have less air in your lungs, therefore you also have less oxygen in your lungs.
This makes it more difficult to hold your breath, so it is not something I would recommend when lifting heavy weights.
Realistically, holding your breath on the exhale is a method used by elite trainees, e.g. world class athletes, navy seals, etc.
Obviously, these types of people can be faced with extreme circumstances and therefore it is important to know how to breathe (and when to hold their breath) in these situations.
Furthermore, holding your breath during bench press and other weightlifting activities incorporates the valsalva manoeuvre, which requires you to push your stomach out.
And the stomach inflates and gets pushed out when we inhale.
So, if you’re going to hold your breath when lifting weights, and you’re not a world class athlete or training for highly stressful situations, then always hold your breath when you inhale.
Is it Bad to Hold Your Breath When Squatting?
As I’ve mentioned, the valsalva manoeuvre is most commonly associated with heavy squats.
And this is a legitimate powerlifting technique.
That being said, once more as I have alluded to, there are certain downsides to holding your breath when you squat.
This increases intra-abdominal pressure, which in turn increases blood pressure, while also increasing carbon dioxide build up.
Plus, I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels their heart racing whenever they squat.
This can lead to someone passing out, especially if they’re not used to this build up of pressure inside the body.
Obviously no-one wants to faint or pass out when they are lifting weights, however, this can be even worse if your body is supporting the weight, or the weight is directly above you.
So, while “breath holding” is most commonly used during squats and bench press, it can pose certain dangers.
Personally, I feel this is simply a case of getting used to this type of breathing technique, which is best achieved through regular practice.
However, you clearly want to practice in a safe manner.
I would recommend that you initially train the valsalva technique while squatting with an empty bar, and then build your way up from there.
Once you’re used to the technique, and it doesn’t cause you any issues, you can ramp up the weight on the bar.
Eventually you should notice that this leads to improved squat technique and you lifting heavier weights.
Should I Hold My Breath During Deadlifts?
Once more the valsalva breathing technique can be used when you deadlift, although the principles do slightly change.
What you’ll often hear is that you should inhale sharply at the bottom of the deadlift and exhale at the top when you’re standing up straight.
Now, while this is fine if you’re performing a one-rep max, and therefore looking to drop the bar from a height, it isn’t a method I advise if you are deadlifting for reps.
And this includes 2 reps, 3 reps, etc.
You’ll always want to keep your body tight during deadlifts and this is best achieved by taking a sharp intake of breath and then “holding” throughout the entire rep.
If you think about it, as soon as you exhale your body will relax, and you definitely don’t want this to happen while you’re holding an extremely heavy barbell and you still have to lower it to the ground.
A relaxed body while lowering a particularly heavy deadlift is just asking for a back injury.
Therefore, inhale deeply at the bottom of the deadlift and hold your breath throughout the ENTIRE movement.
In fact, one of my 5 tips to instantly improve and strengthen your deadlift involves inhaling deeply and bracing your core.
Once the barbell is safely on the floor you can exhale, possibly take a few breaths, reset yourself, inhale, get your body tight, and hold your breath throughout that entire rep too.
Does Holding Your Breath Make Your Muscles Stronger?
I guess it stands to reason that people may think that holding your breath makes the muscles stronger.
I mean, anyone who regularly uses the valsalva manoeuvre when lifting will see that they are able to lift more efficiently and effectively, which in turn leads to lifting more weight.
But no, holding your breath won’t make the skeletal muscles any stronger.
Sure, this could be viewed as a legitimate way to make the muscles of the heart and diaphragm stronger, but it has no effect on the skeletal muscles you use to lift weights.
Realistically, holding your breath when lifting helps to keep the body tense and the muscles contracted, and it is this that helps you to bench press, squat, or deadlift with more weight.
Plus, over time, as you’re lifting with such good technique, it is this that will make the muscles bigger and stronger.
So, I hope you understand that you can hold your breath during bench press.
This is a legitimate powerlifting technique, which allows you to stabilize your spine, brace your core, and keep your body tight while you bench.
That being said, this does also lead to a buildup of carbon dioxide, which may pose a risk of passing out.
Therefore, it is also perfectly acceptable to hold your breath for a few reps, reset yourself and your breathing, before you pump out a few more reps.
Then again, you can also inhale as you lower the bar, exhale as you press back up, with each and every rep.
All breathing techniques work while bench pressing, you just have to find what works best for you.
If you’re looking to take your bench press, and your muscular development in general, to the next level then take this opportunity to check out the Massthetic Muscle 12-week workout program.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.