Your breathing may not be something you think too much about when bench pressing. After all, your attention is likely on keeping the bar from crashing down on your chest — so grip strength and width, elbow angle and back position all take priority.
Proper breathing technique, though, can improve your stability, enhance your ability to recover from a heavy set and help you perfect your form.
For the bench press, the right time to exhale (breathe out) is when you straighten your elbows to raise the weight over your chest. Called the eccentric phase of the lift, it's when your muscles lengthen. That means you're going to inhale (breathe in) as you lower the weight back down to your chest (the concentric phase).
During a bench press, breathe in as you lower the bar toward your chest and breathe out as you lift the bar back up.
Bench Press Breathing and Form
Exhaling when you press the barbell away from you provides greater stability. When you breathe out, it's easier to engage your core muscles and keep your back pressed toward the bench.
When you're more stable, it's possible to press more weight — thus maximizing your efforts on the bench press.
During an extremely heavy bench press, exhaling during exertion helps keep you safe. First, you may protect your blood vessels from expanding too much and from hernia. Second, the added core engagement during an exhale protects your spine from arching off the bench, which could potentially cause injury.
Barbell Bench Press
- Lie on a flat bench, facing up and gripping the barbell slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Press your feet into the ground and your hips into the bench as you lift the barbell off the rack.
- Slowly lower the barbell to your chest, bending at the elbows.
- Once the barbell reaches chest height and your elbows dip slightly below the bench, press your heels into the ground to raise the barbell back up.
- Return the barbell to starting position, elbows extended but not locked.
Blood Pressure Considerations
Keeping a steady breathing pattern that has you inhale during the shortening, or easier phase of an exercise, and exhaling during the lengthening, or harder phase, has long been recommended as a way to keep blood pressure and heart rate from spiking during resistance training.
However, according to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, this may not be as critical when it comes to the average gym-goer and the bench press. Researchers found no significant negative effects on either heart rate or blood pressure when healthy subjects held their breath bench pressing a moderate resistance.
While it's a good idea to breathe out when you push the weight away from you during the bench press, it won't make or break the exercise for the average person. But bear in mind that for people with hypertension, holding the breath while lifting any weight can cause an abnormal spike in blood pressure that's unsafe.
An Advanced Breathing Technique
Some weightlifters use what's called the valsalva maneuver when bench pressing an extremely heavy weight. This technique involves a forcible exhale done with a closed glottis, the part of the throat around the vocal cords that you can close.
However, it's been shown to raise your blood pressure, and a 2013 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research questioned the safety of regularly using this particular type of exhale during supremely heavy lifts due to the potential dangers.
Research is inconclusive as to whether it's entirely safe, so if you do use it, do so with caution. If you suffer from high blood pressure or experience any dizziness when you forcibly exhale, stop using the valsalva maneuver.