Breathing…Easier Said Than Done! (Part 2)

15 comments written by Al Coleman

As a follow up to my previous post regarding breathing during exercise, I’d like to delve a little further into the idea of why it may be more important to learn how to simply avoid the Val Salva Maneuver than it is to teach someone how to “breathe correctly”.

These thoughts are germane only to the high intensity exercise that we here at Renaissance Exercise prescribe and practice and do not apply to the various forms of strength sports that involve the lifting of weights.

Early in a subject’s and/or instructor’s experience with slow speed/ high intensity exercise, they may be taught to “over breathe” in a fashion similar to the sound of a panting dog.

The theory behind this strange practice is that if one goes to the other extreme, the tendency to hold the breath will be overridden. If this is done with the jaw relaxed and the mouth wide open, then this “dog panting” technique can momentarily serve its purpose well.

Even so, my preference over the past few years has been to get away from teaching this crutch. My experience has shown me that this manner of breathing is really just another form of patterned breathing that can lead to long term issues that become difficult to fix down the road.

Amongst the most obvious of problems that can arise from purposefully panting right from the get go, is that it dries out one’s air passage ways quite significantly. Besides the annoyance of feeling a dry mouth, the subject will feel the need to swallow.

At the moment the subject swallows, they are no longer smoothly contracting the target muscles. Some swallowing is permissible, but on the whole it should be minimized. This may sound nit-picky, but it has important implications that I will address in a follow up post. 

Furthermore, this panting style breathing is in and of itself exhausting. Being guilty of once encouraging this form of breathing, I can attest to the number of subjects who would complain of so much light headedness and dizziness that they would have to terminate the exercise for reasons unrelated to muscular failure. As you can surmise, this is never good.

It is also my belief that consciously hyperventilating sends one into a state of panic that is near impossible to retract from in the middle of an exercise. Working to failure requires a calm excitation and one must be careful not to cross the line into Panictown.

We must understand that respiration in the context of high intensity exercise is one of the body’s governors, and that one of the main reasons to avoid the Val Salva maneuver is so that our body can get rid of enough Co2 to help neutralize the metabolic milieu.

This isn’t a process that we should try to accentuate or control as it will happen if you don’t inhibit it.  Inhibiting it is in essence what the Val Salva maneuver does to this process.

Attempting to avoid the Val Salva maneuver by purposefully hyperventilating throughout an exercise is akin to “pushing the cart before the horse”.

Breathing just may be the most valuable feedback tool that we have to determine what is happening at the muscular level. It serves as a mirror of muscular activity. It is my opinion that consistent and rapid panting only serves to make that mirror murky.

In my next post, I’d like to dive into how breathing and our level of oxygen debt could quite possibly be the best subjective measure we have for determining the effects of a particular protocol’s ability to load muscle tissue.

As always, let us know your thoughts by posting in the comments section below. We’d love to hear your feedback!

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Scott Springston January 26, 2011 at 7:49 pm

One of the first things Joshua said that really interested me was the idea that ones breathing reflected how hard one had taken a set. That seems to make good sense to me. One of the several questions I have on this Valsalva thing is what difference might there be in effort or whatever you want to call it when the valsalva comes into effect when lifting compared to when you breath a certain way to thwart what it does? I’m not sure I’m explaining my self well here but what I’m trying to understand how much better a set would be with and with out it? What percentage of improvement is there when you breath properly to negate the valsalva manuever.


avatar Al Coleman January 27, 2011 at 12:00 pm


The thing I’d like folks to understand is that the Valsalva maneuver in any form hurts this protocol. While it is common for us to perceive a correlation between Valsalva and effort, this perception is off. Please don’t misunderstand me. If your objective is to lift a real heavy object in the most mechanically cost efficient way possible, then the Valsalva maneuver is necessary. If you desire to strengthen certain muscle/joint actions, then it is counter productive. It is important to understand that the maneuver is a primal instinct that is necessary for survival in certain conditions. We don’t really “decide” to do it. Strengthening muscle on the other hand is an activity that is the product of our intellects. It is a relatively recent development in the interest of mankind. We are consciously choosing to do something that is counter to our evolutionary programming. Therefore we must override as many of our protective instincts as possible. This doesn’t mean that strengthening doesn’t occur with the Valsalva maneuver. Of course it does!! However, in that situation strengthening takes place in spite of the maneuver. If we wish to everything possible to maximize the stimulus, then we should do everything we can to avoid it.

I’m going to cover this more in the next post, but Josh is absolutely correct in that O2 debt is a direct reflection of work performed on the muscular level.



avatar Tom January 28, 2011 at 1:34 pm

I recently read your online article “Why not aerobics” and was intrigued by the statement that increases in muscular strength (from a proper strength training program) will correlate to improvements in cardiovascular function. Dr Doug McGuff on the body by science website has spoken about something he terms musculo-metabolic mismatch. This seems to occur when workout frequency is reduced to once every 14 days or less and the trainee will often continue to gain in terms of strength and muscular size but in some cases the lower order (aerobic) benefits gained from the workout seem to decline, in his words evidenced by the trainee becoming more “winded” during each set performed. Mr McGuff states that this is his own opinion and isn’t something he notices in all trainees. He describes how his wife Wendy for example trains once every 10 to 14 days without this affect being present. However, this does seem to undermine somewhat the view stated in your article that improvements in muscular strength will correlate with improvements in cardiovascular function. I would be very interested to know your thoughts on this, as well as any alternative theories you may have for what is being observed..

Tom (UK)


avatar Joshua Trentine February 1, 2011 at 12:37 am

Hi Tom,

I’m working on a blog post to cover this subject.


avatar Travis Weigand January 29, 2011 at 4:42 pm

I have experienced the dry mouth phenomena on numerous occasions. Needless to say it was distracting and thus detrimental to the rest of my workout. And of course, anything that diverts ones attention from the task at hand (however “nit picky” it may seem to be) needs to be addressed.


avatar Joshua Trentine February 1, 2011 at 1:30 am

Breathing with the mouth open can dry out the mucus membranes.

Have a drink of water .


avatar scott springston January 30, 2011 at 2:13 am

So do you think it is possible to completely inactive the valsalva maneuver when working out on the proper machines or even in the best of conditions are we just minimizing it’s effects? I have been trying the slack jawed approach and it is a challenge to say the least. It takes alot of concentration to keep the jaw relaxed especially when the set gets real hard but I guess it’s worth the effort?


avatar Joshua Trentine February 1, 2011 at 12:39 am

No question it’s possible.

check out the videos.

It is MUCH harder to avoid with bad resistance curves.


avatar Paul Marsland January 31, 2011 at 6:55 pm

If i may I’m gonna play devils advocate here……, it has been said that by overly concentrating on keeping a relaxed face etc this, thereby reduces mental and physical arousal levels in relation to outright effort, ie think of scenarios that require a high level of physical effort and none are associated with a relaxed face, there is usually some degree of grimacing or facial expression in relation to how difficult the effort is, so in relation to the type of training being discussed here it could be said, that this could reduce the intensity and overall results..


avatar Joshua Trentine February 1, 2011 at 12:48 am

watch the most elite 100 meter runners.

The face goes completely slack.

If you ever watch Olympic level sprinters, you will notice that even while running very fast, their face and neck are extremely relaxed, even to the point that their cheeks often look as though they are flapping in the wind. This is a concept called differential relaxation. Differential relaxation refers to an athlete’s ability to relax one part of their body (in this case their upper body), while working very hard and exerting extreme effort with another part of the body (the lower body here). Creating this separation can also be instrumental in sprinting.

This is the same thing we teach at Renaissance Exercise.


avatar Paul Marsland February 2, 2011 at 8:35 pm

Excellent reply Josh and come to think of it, that’ s a very apt example, as sprinting is a high intensity all out effort….
I actually googled “Olympic Sprinters” and all the images show sprinters with a relaxed face, one of who springs mind with what one could describe as a very “relaxed” running style was Micheal Johnson…


avatar Joshua Trentine February 3, 2011 at 3:05 am

Yes. Michael Johnson is a great example.

There is a physiological reason why it works this way.

We will discuss this more in future posts.


avatar Jeff February 5, 2011 at 7:20 am

As a former college sprinter and coach myself we were taught that the face and jaw need to be as relaxed as possible so NO energy is wasted. Tense your face and you slow down! From personal experience this is so true. So when I started learning this type of training it made complete sense from the begining. You want to channel all of your focus and energy on the targeted musculature. This helps get to the “Zen-like” state you see Al train at.
I hope this helps!


avatar Jeff Wiese January 31, 2011 at 9:25 pm

Not comparing exercise just a breathing reference.
When running a race like a 2 mile, 3 mile or 5K the breathing starts out as normal or natural (unless it is altered purposely). As the race goes on you breathe correspondingly to your effort, your effort is greater so your breath is faster and deeper. As you near the last part of the race you are trying to move your legs as fast as they can go, often they just won’t no matter how hard you try, but you continue the movement, breathing in and out to stay alive and continue moving, and even though you are making your greatest effort, no Valsava takes place.
Comments please on breathing on a set of a resistance exercise with the above mindset.


avatar Andrew Shortt February 22, 2011 at 1:57 pm

Great stuff Al, I wait with baited breath for the next installment. This is gold for clinic based trainers!



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