Athletic coaches and exercise guides will often remind exercisers to breathe during certain portions of a movement, as doing so not only makes the exercise easier, but also helps in preventing the occurrence of certain types of injuries.
During the deadlift in particular, breathing at the correct time will aid in properly bracing the core and otherwise avoiding a loss of consciousness due to steep drops in blood pressure - a very real danger at the higher levels of training intensity.
To put it short, the lifter is meant to breathe before lifting the barbell from the ground, and then exhaling at the top of the repetition where the knees and hips are near their terminal extension point.
Breathing while performing heavy resistance exercises both ensures that sufficient oxygen is supplied to the muscles, as well as allows certain biomechanics to be executed in a far more efficient manner as the diaphragm (now filled with air) acts as a hardened cushion from which various abdominal structures can flex against.
During the deadlift, the core is meant to be tightly contracted so as to avoid injuries like hernias or torn back muscles due to an unstable or misaligned abdomen - all of which may be prevented by bracing the stabilizing muscles of the core.
Breathing prior to performing the ascending portion of a deadlift repetition ensures that these core muscles stabilize the spinal column and keep intra-abdominal pressure at the ideal level, reducing risk of injury and improving maximal strength output due to a reinforced kinetic chain.
The valsalva maneuver is the clinical term for an individual inhaling and attempting to exhale without actually expiring any air, thereby increasing intra-abdominal pressure and improving the contractive force of the core musculature.
The valsalva maneuver is generally held for as long as it takes to reach the end of a lift’s range of motion, with this point during the deadlift being around the apex of the movement where the barbell has been raised as high as it can go.
Properly performing the valsalva maneuver results in a great decrease in pressure placed on the spinal column, a reduction in the risk of hernia development and a greater rigidity of the thorax - resulting in more weight being lifted due to muscular cohesion.
Though we’ve covered when to inhale during a set of deadlift repetitions, we have yet to explain the ideal time to exhale, as well as how to go about breathing correctly for maximum strength between repetitions.
As a general rule - unless performing a certain type of deadlift variation, it is best to hold your breath (maintain intra-abdominal pressure via the valsalva maneuver) throughout the middle of a deadlift’s range of motion, only breathing at the start and end of this arc.
Prior to pulling the barbell from the ground, the lifter should inhale deeply and brace their core as they do so - pushing the chest out and maintaining a neutral lower back angle so as to take the greatest advantage of this maneuver.
Once the exerciser has reached the end of the deadlift’s range of motion, they may exhale - either as they guide the barbell back to the floor, or all at once once they reach the top.
It should be noted that, even as they exhale, the core should nonetheless remain braced and stable, and that exhaling too quickly while the knees are locked at full extension has the potential to cause unconsciousness due to sudden blood pressure drops.
It should come as no surprise that lifters will see far better performance from breathing between each repetition of deadlifts in a set - something that many novice lifters will often forget as they hold their breath needlessly until the set is complete.
Though traditional deadlift repetitions end once the lifter has raised the barbell to maximum elevation, more advanced strength training techniques can often call for deadlift variations that stretch out the downward portion of the movement.
If performing these variations, it is better to also stretch out your exhale throughout this controlled descent of the barbell - reducing the risk of your core muscles suddenly giving out and ensuring that no sudden loss of consciousness can occur.
Okay - you’ve got your breathing down properly, now how do you maintain this breathing while also following the other form cues of the deadlift?
Inhaling prior to the deadlift is meant to be performed after the exerciser has stabilized their stance, meaning that the hands are firmly gripping the barbell and the pelvis is thrust backwards, pushing the chest outwards and up.
Ideally, this initial inhalation will come right before the exerciser pulls the barbell from the ground, maximizing the first output of force within the repetition.
From the initial pull to the apex of the repetition, the exerciser is advised to maintain intra-abdominal pressure by holding their breath - however, certain filters may find it to be more natural to exhale slowly while doing so.
While there is little evidence that doing this is safer or otherwise advantageous in any way, so long as intra-abdominal pressure is maintained, there is little wrong with exhaling slowly as you go through the deadlift range of motion.
Finally, lifters must take care to control their spine angle when exhaling at the top of the deadlift repetition, as the sudden release of diaphragm pressure can result in buckling when under particularly heavy amounts of weight.
Though breathing properly is quite important during the deadlift, it is only a relatively small component of the various mechanics that a lifter must pay attention to during a deadlift set.
Nonetheless, breathing properly and mastering the valsalva maneuver will provide a more stable torso, reduced incidence of injury and a noticeable boost in strength.
1. Ikeda ER, Borg A, Brown D, Malouf J, Showers KM, Li S. The valsalva maneuver revisited: the influence of voluntary breathing on isometric muscle strength. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Jan;23(1):127-32. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31818eb256. PMID: 19050647; PMCID: PMC2883611.
2. Kocjan, J., Adamek, M., Gzik-Zroska, B., Czyzewski, D., Rydel, M. (2017). Network of Breathing. Multifunctional Role of The Diaphragm: A Review. Advanced Respir Med. 85(4): 224-232.