Valsalva Manuever
Written by Zach Erick

It’s time to establish a new 1-RM back squat. You’ve been squatting multiple times throughout the week, following the month-long squat program and brutal 30X0 tempo, now it’s finally your opportunity to show that all your hard work has made you stronger. So you walk up to the bar and unrack it. Notice how it feels nice and light resting on your traps with your legs and hips fully extended. Then you lower your butt to your heels…If you didn’t take a deep breath all the way into your stomach, creating a rock solid mid-section, that bar that felt nice and light now feels like it has just doubled in weight, sinking your chest and shoulders toward the ground, while rounding your back into a less than desirable position. Now you’re stuck at the bottom of this position, feeling defeated with no other choice than to pop the bar off your back. Now you have to quickly think of excuses to tell your friends watching why you missed that new PR… “I didn’t take my pre-workout”… Classic, that one never fails.

That deep breath I mentioned earlier can make or break every lift performed in the gym. I’m referring to “Valsalva maneuver,” (VM) defined as: a forceful attempt at expiration when the airway is closed at some point… Basically taking a deep breath, pushing your belly down and out – acting as if you were going to powerfully exhale the air, but trapping the air in so that it doesn’t escape through your nose or mouth. How do we do this? Easy, take in a slow deep breath through your mouth, letting air fill your lungs and stomach. Once you cannot breathe in anymore close your mouth and try to exhale without letting any air escape. Go ahead and feel how rigid your belly is while you do this. Now, exhale completely and feel your stomach again. Which would you prefer with hundreds of pounds resting on your shoulders or supported overhead?

When should we use VM? This is a circumstantial question. To answer it broadly, only use the VM when you see heavy weight (80 to 100%) for low reps (1-5x). Basically, the strength portion of the performance, fitness, or competition workouts.  Remember VM is used for moving heavy loads relatively quickly. For example, squats, snatches, deadlifts, cleans, jerks, presses, pulls… NOT wall balls, double-unders, pull-ups, burpees, ring dips, etc….

What exactly are we doing when we practice VM? We’re filling our stomachs full of air creating pressure that supports our spine, almost like a weight belt. Now, with everything in life there is a catch. Although this is a very easy way to maintain proper spinal alignment while lifting, it can be a little overwhelming for some folks. Holding your breath can spike your blood pressure which leads to dizziness, seeing “stars”, and possibly headaches. Expelling a little bit of air as you pressurize and press into the exhalation can remedy this. For example: Back Squat x 1 rep @ 90% 30X0 tempo… Take your breath, hold it and press out for the the 3 second descent, and on the initial rise, then once you feel yourself pass the most difficult portion of the lift, SLOWLY exhale through your teeth or by holding your tongue to the roof of your mouth, making a hissing noise. If you still experience the symptoms I mentioned earlier, and it’s too discomforting, then back off on the amount of force when you pressurize.

Next time you walk up to a barbell try it out. If you like it, great! If it’s too overwhelming for you, continue to practice slowly increasing the pressure of the hold until it becomes more comfortable.

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Stephanie Gaudreau McCormack
Stephanie Gaudreau McCormack
August 18, 2013 9:23 pm

I especially love the VM during tempo front squats 😉