Breathing…Easier Said Than Done!

35 comments written by Al Coleman

Breathing is a strange phenomenon.

On one hand it is an autonomic function and on the other it is the one autonomic function that we can consciously manipulate. It is to the latter side of the coin that I wish to address in this short post. I wish to emphasize here that these represent my own insights on the subject based on my subjective experience.

Most forms of activity that involve the lifting of weights involve some sort of intentionally patterned breathing scheme. We are taught to do this in order to provide a mechanical assistance in the movement of said load.

 The objective of scheming one’s breathing is to act as a way to reserve resources and make moving the load easier. While not overtly what most would consider to be a form of breath holding, the truth is any conscious decision to breath in a particular manner will involve some degree (or at least will lead to eventually) the Valsalva maneuver.

The Valsalva maneuver is an important instinctual mechanism that has helped many a human out of a sticky situation or two.

I don’t wish to speak negatively of it, other than to emphasize that if one wishes to efficiently and directly strengthen muscle tissue, than it should be avoided at all cost.  Remember that the point of the Valsalva mechanism is to unload specific structures to distribute stress globally. The moment this mechanism is enacted in any manner, you momentarily, but significantly give the intended musculature a respite.

There is only one correct way to breathe during safe and efficient strength training. I know that is a bold statement, but it is in my opinion, a correct one.

I mentioned earlier that for the most part breathing is autonomic.

If we wish to strengthen muscle then we must leave it that way or to express it differently, we must get out of its way. Any attempt to turn breathing into a technique of some sort is merely dressing up the Valsalva maneuver in different packaging.

So how does one breathe correctly during strength training (obviously I consider Renaissance Exercise to represent proper strength training)?

Simple, go slacked jaw and forget about it. 

The slacked jaw part may seem silly, but don’t write it off as it is what allows one to breathe correctly. 

 Jaw tension is usually the first link in the chain that leads to the Valsalva maneuver.

This is easier said than done.

When introducing this concept to a subject for the first time, an instructor will literally be shocked with how many interpretations of ‘correct breathing’ there can be.  Surprisingly, this is one of the biggest difficulties that most instructors face with a new subject (and even some long term ones).

To overcome any initial difficulties a subject may have, the instructor will sometimes mimic a sort of rapid ‘pant’ to have the subject go to the other extreme.

It has been my experience that while this instructional technique has certain applications (as when teaching ‘squeeze technique’), in general it is a mistake that will lead to other problems down the road.

What should be taught and emphasized isn’t how to breathe, but how NOT to hold the breath.

This is much easier to teach and much less of a hindrance to the learning process. If the subject is taught how to maintain focus on the rate of speed/movement and continually coaxed to keep the jaw loose (not puckered or pursed), then correct breathing will happen on its own.

It really is this simple.

This much simplified approach has a few distinct advantages over the common ‘purposeful hyperventilation’ approach that is taught by most ‘slow training’ HIT instructors.

In a few days I will follow up this post with the problems associated with ‘purposefully hyperventilating’ past the beginners stage.

Until then, I hope this gives everyone something to mull over.

Leave us your comments below and we will personally reply!

{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Scott Springston January 12, 2011 at 7:31 pm

Interesting stuff.!! I can’t wait to try relaxing my jaw and just letting my jaw hang and let the breathing happen as it may vrs the sort of make sure I take in enough air method that I think I might use now? I know by sets end with slow reps I am huffing and puffing like a train engine but honestly I don’t know for sure if that’s coming naturally or if I’m unconsciously making it happen because I read it some where as the way to breath?


avatar Paul Marsland January 13, 2011 at 1:11 am

I prefer to put my tongue behind my lower teeth as this helps keep the face relaxed and avoids (to some degree grimacing) it also aids in the correct manner for breathing, another tip is to use your breaths as your own metronome, ie ten breaths up and ten breaths down, down correctly and with some practice its an effective form of keeping you honest on all but the final rep/s when your breathing will be in excess of ten breaths but at that point everything is taking care of itself…

An observation if I may the other days whilst training I was on the leg press, I started my set and opposite me were two guys using an incline rear delt machine, in the time it took me to one rep, the other guy had finished his set it looked like he was a bird trying to take off, in the time it took me to complete 5 reps to failure they both done a set each!!!


avatar Al Coleman January 13, 2011 at 2:10 am


Always good to have you here.

The manner of breathing of which you speak is often recommended to TMJ sufferers and is highly effective for that purpose. For the most part, most of the breathing we do throughout the day SHOULD be done through the nose with the tounge lightly touching the upper palate. This lends itself well to a more efficient use of the diaphragm.

However during this protocol any closed mouth breathing will get in the way because it will cause a disconnect between the rate that the muscularture is fatiguing and the bodies ability to get rid of Co2 fast enough to meet those demands. I will go into this a little deeper in the follow up post to this in a few days.




avatar Travis Weigand January 12, 2011 at 11:58 pm

I admire the continual refinement that is happening here. There is no doubt the client has a lot of things to focus on during a set of Renaissance exercise. As those who have experienced it understand, it is just as mentally demanding as it is physically demanding. For that reason, I feel it is important to understand that Al’s instruction “go slacked jaw and forget about it” was worded very precisely. By reducing the verbiage in the instruction, the instructor effectively curbs the mental load the client will encounter in any given set. And for that matter, ultimately lessens the learning curve associated with this protocol.

To all of those who still think “this is just SuperSlow”, perhaps you aren’t reading Josh, Al, and Gus’s words carefully enough. Refinements such as these are what will define this protocol.


avatar Todd Hargrove January 13, 2011 at 1:29 am


This is an interesting issue. I agree that there may be reason to avoid a valsalva for safety reasons, but I’m not convinced by your argument that it reduces stimulus to the target muscle by providing mechanical assistance. A valsalva will allow you to lift more weight, but not because the action somehow helps mechanically move the weight. A valsalva provides stability for the spine, not mechanical assistance to the prime movers. This assists neurologically – it gives the green light to the CNS that the spine is in a safe position to use maximum muscle power. Put another way, the CNS will be less inclined to allow a maximum effort without first feeling the safety and stability that the valsalva provides. In this event, failure to use the valsalva results in working the target muscles less not more. Perhaps with sufficient practice with moving heavy weights without a valsalva, done on machines that provide good spinal stabilization, this effect would be far less or even non-existent.


avatar Al Coleman January 13, 2011 at 1:59 am


Thanks for stopping by.

While I understand your view point, this is a topic I’ve studied closely. You can never completely avoid spinal bracing, nor do you want to. This is completely different though than sub glottal pressue. Also, the exercises where you would need to perform the val salva manuver to provide maximal stability to the spine are not the exercises that would provide the most direct loading possible. If those movements need to be performed due to lack of equipment, so be it, but it is not optimal for our paradigm.

This is something I feel one can’t completely understand without good equipment and/or exercises that lend themselves to proper force couples. With machines that provide force coupling, the couple will in a sense(not a strict one) take the place of the need for the Valsalva that you speak of. Even so, myself and others can attest that it is indeed possible to brace with the torso structures without the Valsalva being enacted.

In the end, I wouldn’t expect you to be convinced of my argument without the experience of training on machines that provide the ability to couple forces properly. This WILL maximally intensify the direct stress placed upon the target structures abover and beyond what they may achieve through ‘succesive irridation’.




avatar Joshua Trentine January 13, 2011 at 2:45 am

Valsalva will protect you, it will protect you from inroading your muscles too severely.

This exercise methodology allows us to side step that instinctual protection.

We are attempting to remove ALL instinctual behaviors as they serve to preserve… to protect. When we can disable these fail safes we can create a more disruptive exercise stimuli.

This degree of inroad is impossible without application of Renaissance Exercise techniques.


avatar Scott Springston January 13, 2011 at 5:12 pm

Considering what you just said would it not be a good idea to try and thwart the valsalva maneuver if we are not using a machine like a Hutchinson machine that can hold us into a position that safely protects the body parts that the valsava maneuver is designed to protect? A Nautilus for instance?


avatar Scott Springston January 14, 2011 at 6:48 pm

We are attempting to remove ALL instinctual behaviors as they serve to preserve… to protect. When we can disable these fail safes we can create a more disruptive exercise stimuli.

This degree of inroad is impossible without application of Renaissance Exercise techniques.

I’m wondering if removing “all” instinctual behaviors that serve to protect our body is a chance worth taking in order to gain a little more inroad into out muscles? Once Renaissance training was learned what higher percentage of inroad could one expect during a set of curls as compared to before Renaissance training was learned? I ask this because I’m not convinced that lack of inroad to the muscles to be a major problem with gaining size and strength? If I want to I can get my muscles so sore I can’t walk but usually that doesn’t help in the end with gaining size. I just have to wait longer to recover.


avatar Todd Hargrove January 13, 2011 at 3:03 am


Thanks for the response. I think the purpose of the closed glottis is also spinal stability – the closed glottis increases IAP which provides stability. Further, the valsalva appears to be relevant to almost all max contractions, not just one related to the spine, e.g. make a tight fist and the valsalva will help make it tighter. That being said, I am sure that the necessity for a valsalva to get a max contraction decreases with the proper equipment and skill in inhibiting it. Personally I try to breathe as you recommend, and find that this doesn’t prevent me in any way from getting an adequate stimulus, particularly on good equipment.


avatar Al Coleman January 13, 2011 at 1:59 pm

Hey Todd,

I checked out your blog. Good stuff! I personally have been influenced by Alexander Technique, but have always been interested in checking out Feldenkrias.

You’re correct, it is a skill that can be learned. Furthermore, observation has shown me that as a muscle fatigues(on good gear) it is almost impossible to Valsalva AND keep the movement uniformily smooth. This smoothness is in a sense the basis for out whole protocol. As the rate of fatigue increases and IF the subject is truly FOCUSED on smoothing out the movement, Valsalva will get in the way. Liken it to an all out wind sprint up a hill with a loaded backpack on your back.

I hope this makes it a little clearer.




avatar Todd Hargrove January 13, 2011 at 5:32 pm


I see your point about the valsalva and smoothness.

Glad you like the blog. I find some interesting parallels between hit style exercise and feldenkrais. In HIT, you try to remove the skill demands as much as possible so that you can focus all your effort on targeting the muscles and placing them under stress. In feldenkrais, you do almost the exact opposite – you remove the need to use strength or effort as much as possible, so that you can focus all your attention on learning to move efficiently.

This is where “functional training” can go wrong in my opinion – it tries to train skill and strength at the same time, and neither gets done optimally. Of course if you are training for a sport or activity, there will come a time when strength and skill need to put together, but there are advantages to training them separately.


avatar Al Coleman January 15, 2011 at 1:41 am

“This is where “functional training” can go wrong in my opinion – it tries to train skill and strength at the same time, and neither gets done optimally.”

VERY good point Todd. I read the sitting posture article on your site. Good stuff.



avatar Paul Marsland January 13, 2011 at 3:23 pm

Its a pleasure to be here Al, i should have stated that my mouth is open using the method i previously mentioned


avatar Erik January 13, 2011 at 4:45 pm

Thank you for your post and following comments. They have meade more clear what nI have read on th BBS book. tomorrow is my first workout on this tecnique and I will try to be as focused as possible to follow your advise.




avatar Paul Marsland January 13, 2011 at 5:31 pm

If i may i would love to see and discuss the fear instinct that is evoked with this type of training and how one and trainers alike overcome.it….


avatar John Tatore January 13, 2011 at 8:05 pm

I agree … because this is when client lose focus and let instincts run the show


avatar Erik January 13, 2011 at 8:22 pm

HI Paul

As far as I understood the fear instinct they talk about in the book is kind of a figurative language. where they try to explain the effect of a slow motion- high intensity training in the metabolism of the cells.
What they say there; again, as far as I understood, is that the reaction of your body post workout is very similar to the reaction of your body after a high danger situation.

Please tell me if I am wrong, all comments, posts and blogs are helping me understand better this.


avatar Erik January 13, 2011 at 7:14 pm

I have a question, that I have not fully undestood. I was just invited to a soccer team with my office friends, we will not be training, just playing a game during the week for fun. Is it ok to do both activities (super slow training and soccer)?? if yes, how many days should I rest before training again at the gym??


avatar Joshua Trentine January 14, 2011 at 1:36 am

In season athletes are best served to train 1x/week.

If we have an athlete that competes on Saturday morning, we advise him to strength train on Monday.

Rested and ready by Saturday’s competition.


avatar Erik January 14, 2011 at 9:42 pm

Thanks Joshua

An in your opinion as an expert, if I will not be performing any other activity once a week is ok, or better 2 times a week.
Today was my first workout, I focused a lot in my breathing and trying to go as slow as possible, I am feeling the fatigh after half an hour, I really feel I did a hard work on the gym
Seated row- 9 reps in 1:45 min
Bench press- 7 reps in 1:56 min
Pull down – 7 reps in 2:07 min
Overhead press 6 reps in1:25
Leg press 20 reps in 3:57 I think I need more weight and go more slowly
Please give me your feedback… as I am new on this



avatar Joshua Trentine January 15, 2011 at 11:14 pm

There are far too many variables involved to make a prescription.

Your exercise performance and degree of inroad, your machines, your nutrition, rest, hormonal state, overall life stress, age, work capacity, experience, the amount of load you’re using, the amount of load you are using relative to where you started, ability to execute thorough inroad technique, rotation of exercises, evaluations of preceding workouts, your frequency and volume leading up to the workout given.

Over training is not an event, it’s accumulative.

There is no way I can look at the information given and make the best evaluation.

Now, all of that being said, it’s the advanced subject that gets more from less, not the newbie or even intermediate.

It can even be appropriate for the frequency to vary from week to week, depending on program design.

At our studio we rotate the workouts A&B or A,B,C or A,B,C,D and we have more clients that train 2x/week than 1x/week.


avatar ad ligtvoet January 14, 2011 at 10:35 am

Hi everyone,
After reading the posts on this site I came to the following conclusions and questions..
With this method of training I try to expose the muscles to the most intensity possible by keeping the tension constant on the trained muscle.To do so I must seek to eliminate as much momentum as possible which will dictate the rep tempo . This tempo can be different according to the equipment used (faster negative to eleminate rest).and I should try to keep the tempo uniform during every rep which will up the intensity when fatigue sets in.This fatigue and thus the reduction in rep tempo despite greater effort till the point that I’m contracting my muscles as hard as possible and starting the deep inroad technique should not occure before 60 seconds to make sure that the most amount of fibres are activated and stimulated.I should breath freely and will do this unintended very fast at the point of fatigue. Without restricting this I make sure that tension will be kept on the muscles and that there won’t be health problems because of val salva.
All this will make sure that the intensity is kept as high as possible and as save as possible .
Increase in resitance(progression) should only occure when I can go to muscular failure within a given timespan and the exercise is performed as desribed above.
The rigth equipment is neccesary to do it perfectly ,so what to do when I don’t have this equipment? I must make sure that the tension will be kept on the muscle and this is not possible with free weights or conventional equipment .So what would be the right tempo then? The adviced 10/5 seconds in the superslow protocol didn,t feel correct to me.I feel that 7-8 seconds on the positive gives me better constant tension. Should I also make the set duration longer or shorter for compensation of lost of tension due to different resistance arms? If so is do you think that one set is still enough?
I think that the real problem is exercising correct when there where increasements in resistance .That is very often the moment when form will lose up and we think that everything went well which leads to another increase way to early.Any opinions?
Just very recently I purchased a few nautilus 2st machines And I have a question about the legpress .
I haven’t work out on it but just tried a few reps with different weight and settings. Am I correct that there is an decent increase in resistance the closer I push the footplate to its end position? I start with seat position 10 which means that my knees are very close to my chest.If this I’m correct that will mean that there will be more resistance in my strongest position compared to an seat position where are start with de knees bent at 90 degrees.Any opinion on rep speed on the nautilis 2st?
Hopefully I can get some constructive answers .


avatar Joshua Trentine January 18, 2011 at 4:56 am

Hi ad,

I have no experience on the 2st leg press.

I cannot comment on the ideal expression on your machines, I only know what works best on our tools. The best I can tell you is to use your internal biofeedback- muscular sensation, oxygen debt, and perceived inroad to guide you.

I cannot answer whether multiple sets are required w/out knowing anything about you or your program. See my response above re: Exercise Rx.

I’m sorry that I could not be of much help in this instance.


avatar ad ligtvoet January 14, 2011 at 10:50 am

Oops ,I typed to fast and made mistakes.


avatar Dave January 14, 2011 at 7:11 pm

Hi Paul, Dave from Pa. here. For me fear sometimes comes in when I know what is going to happen to me as a result from training. If im doing only 3 exercises such as weighted chin or pulldowns,weighted dips,and leg press with heavy weights(for me) I may dread the start knowing how hard it is going to be. But the end when im feeling like im going to die due to my heart rate and my body shaking. This is what I sometimes think about before and thats when I feel fear,not all the time. Maybe a bit of apprehension. Sometimes I like it.


avatar Erik January 14, 2011 at 9:46 pm

I almost forget, all excercises were done on Nutilus equipment


avatar Paul Marsland January 14, 2011 at 10:10 pm

Erik, i was refering to the feeling of fear people exprience upon reaching failure and especially when using slow reps and a high level of intensity, at that point or even before they terminate the set usually saying “i can’t do it”…..its at this point one has to have the discpline to grind out the next rep or two thereby overcoming their natural instincts


avatar Brad January 16, 2011 at 6:30 am

“i can’t do it”…when a client says this it is a great teaching tool to remind the client why we are here…THOROUGH INROAD…a term denoting the fundamental of exercise…this…when accepted and understood by the client will help them to overcome any fear or intstincts


avatar Al Coleman January 16, 2011 at 9:43 pm

Exactly Brad! This is very important. Instintual override occurs when the nervous system registers a conflict between intended objectives and reality. Align the two and insticts can be conciously by passed.


avatar John Tatore January 16, 2011 at 10:19 pm

A future article on fear and how it relates to the client breaking down on the focus of thorough inroad would be a great one to have done. As great as all this information is … and believe it is … we still need to get the clients to perform the exercise correctly … and for many of them this is a challenge.


avatar Joshua Trentine January 18, 2011 at 3:03 am

i think Brad hits the nail on the head with his post above.

Ken’s article about the real vs the assumed objective about sums it up imo.


avatar Scott Springston January 21, 2011 at 3:28 pm

Last night I did my slow reps workout and I was down a reps or more on just about every set. There are several possible answers to this one being that even though I felt fine at workout time the 2 days before and the day of the workout I was working extra hard at work and that contributed to it.

The second possible reason was that this workout I was possibly putting more effort into the squeeze part of each rep and trying to use better breathing technique so that by sets end the muscles were worked harder the previous reps and so I failed earlier?? Maybe it’s a mixture of both, I don’t know?

I’m guessing that as you get better at concentrating and focusing on the muscle during each set the early reps will get harder the better you get at it. It makes for figuring out if you are progressing quite difficult, especially when one is not supposed to think in terms of just lifting more weight or doing more reps.My muscles got a good workout. I was breathing pretty hard each set but was I making any headway? Can’t tell yet.


avatar Tiffanie March 24, 2011 at 8:49 pm

Hey Al,

I actually trained today and had these very issues with breathing.

Even though I’m aware of this breathing technique b/c I’m familiar with the super slow protocol for exercise, I still have issues with breathing when I train on my own.

I’ll definitely have to try the loose jaw tip, and let it flow.

Good article. Thanks.


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