As part of our Biohacking Masterclass Series, we will explore a number of different techniques and practices to improve your daily performance. This series will range from obvious subjects like exercise and nutrition to fringe subjects like breathing techniques and sleep hygiene. Consult your physician before implementing any of these topics. We are not your physician. Note: This post may contain affiliate links to the products we use.
There’s a misconception in the lifting community. Those new to lifting are often falling victim to this misconception at the expense of long-term training health. Specifically, we’re talking about what athletes can do to maintain spinal health during a resistance training session. The scope of this article is further broken down into 1) the place for weightlifting belts and 2) how you should breathe during a resistance training exercise.
When you walk into a gym, it’s not surprising that people are frequently confused. If you’re new to lifting, you might hear a different recommendation from every “gym bro” you talk to. When you’re hopping under the bar for a heavy back squat, is that belt the only thing keeping your spine from leaving your back? And who is breathing the right way: the red-faced powerlifter who looks two reps away from an aneurism or the zen-like geriatric doing tai chi with dumbbells? We’ve gotten rid of the ambiguity so you don’t have to guess.
During resistance training that involves the back (i.e. squats, deadlifts, etc), one concept can prevent the majority of lifting-related spinal injuries: creating greater intra-abdominal pressure. Put simply, creating intra-abdominal pressure means compressing your guts into a tight ‘ball of fluid’ that supports your spine.
How can you consciously create this intra-abdominal pressure?
One method requires nothing more than your breath. Known as the Valsalva maneuver, this technique (and its variations) are extremely simple once you grasp the underlying principle. In the original Valsalva maneuver, the lifter inhales and closes the glottis (the trap door that prevents air from entering/leaving the lungs), and the muscles in the rib cage and abdomen contract. When rigid, the liquid-like abdomen and air-filled upper torso are compressed, resulting in a high-pressure ‘ball’. It is important to note that the mouth is not what prevents air from escaping the respiratory system. If you aren’t sure whether you’re doing it correctly, open your mouth while compressing the abdomen. In the Valsalva maneuver, air should still not escape. 
There is some concern that the original Valsalva maneuver can transiently increase blood pressure. In order to avoid this change in blood pressure, a lifter can focus on compressing the diaphragm and abdominal muscles without closing off the lungs. This variation creates the same pressure in the abdomen without pressurizing the chest compartment. We use this variation in most of our training. If you are fresh to lifting, we would likely recommend this alternative as well.
If you’re struggling to grasp the idea, think of a time when you had to push or pull something heavy outside of the weightroom. Odds are, if you’re trying to lift a heavy couch, your body will subconsciously perform one of these maneuvers. When you next step into the gym, practice creating more intra-abdominal pressure with your variation-of-choice as you build into your sets.
Once you have the breathing down, weightlifting belts can be used to supplement intra-abdominal pressure. Contrary to popular belief, these belts are not meant to brace the spine but instead create more compression around the abdomen. Training exclusively with weightlifting belts can inhibit adaptations in your body’s abdominal muscles. Over time, this deficit may increase the likelihood of injury. If you elect to use a belt anywhere in your training session, we recommend restricting it to the most intensive sets. Beltless sets earlier in the exercise can offer a training stimulus while ensuring longevity throughout your training.
- Hackett et al. The Valsalva maneuver: Its effect on intra-abdominal pressure and safety issues during resistance exercise. J of Strength and Cond Res. 27:2338-2345.