Get Better Performance on Heavy Lifts With the Valsalva Maneuver

Get Better Performance on Heavy Lifts With the Valsalva Maneuver

If you’ve spent any time in a weight room, you’ve probably noticed a fair amount of heavy breathing and red-faced grunting from the regulars. Is some of this a little exaggerated? Overdone for dramatic effect? Maybe. But there is a legitimate breathing technique called the Valsalva maneuver that, when done correctly, serves a purpose beyond garnering the attention of other gym-goers.

“The Valsalva maneuver is a breath-holding technique that weightlifters use to boost the rigidity of their cores during heavy lifts,” says Trevor Thieme, Openfit’s director of fitness and nutrition content. “A stiffer core better supports the spine and improves total-body stability and power, allowing you to lift heavier loads without greatly increasing your risk of injury.”

In a medical setting, the Valsalva maneuver may also be used by a doctor to assess certain heart conditions.

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How Do You Do The Valsalva Maneuver?

To use the Valsalva maneuver while lifting weights, do the following:

  • Before attempting your rep, take a deep breath and hold it forcefully, keeping your glottis (the area toward the back of your throat) closed. “You want to see your belly expand, not your chest,” Thieme says. “If your chest swells, exhale and start again.”
  • Holding your breath, perform the lift.
  • Once you’ve finished, release your breath.


Who Should Use The Valsalva Maneuver?

woman pressing barbell overhead | valsalva maneuver

The Valsalva maneuver is most useful to people who are lifting very heavy loads, like a one-rep max or sets of three to five reps. “If you’re banging out six or more reps per set, don’t bother with it,” says Thieme.

If you have high blood pressure or a heart condition, it’s best to avoid the Valsalva maneuver, as some research shows that forceful breath-holding might affect those issues negatively. The same goes for pregnant people, as the Valsalva maneuver can decrease oxygen supply and put excess pressure on the pelvic floor. And, of course, if you ever feel dizzy or lightheaded while performing the Valsalva maneuver, stop using it immediately.


Risks of the Valsalva Maneuver

Again, pregnancy, high blood pressure, heart issues, or a family history of heart conditions should all preclude you from using the Valsalva maneuver, as forcefully holding your breath might potentially have adverse effects on your cardiovascular system and pelvic floor. However, even if you don’t have any of these conditions, you might want to try an alternate breathing technique anyway.

“Forced exhalation is an equally effective breathing technique that’s easier on the cardiovascular system,” Thieme explains. Forced exhalation starts with the same deep belly breath as the Valsalva maneuver, but rather than holding your breath, exhale it forcefully through your teeth as you push through the sticking point of the lift, such as driving back up from the bottom of a squat, Thieme says. “Doing so provides all of the benefits of the Valsalva maneuver without the cardiovascular drawbacks.”

Jenessa Connor


Jenessa Connor has written for Men’s Journal, Shape, Runner’s World, Oxygen and other health and fitness publications. When it comes to exercise, she’s a bit of a dabbler, but she always comes back to running, CrossFit and yoga. Follow her on Twitter.