The Valsalva Maneuver: The Game Changer for Advanced Resistance Training


In the world of resistance training and strength exercises, the typical in-and-out breathing pattern we adopt for most daily activities may not always serve the purpose. Certain exercises, especially those that load the vertebral column or stress the lower back, call for a more refined approach to optimize performance. This is where the Valsalva maneuver comes into play.

Understanding the Valsalva Maneuver

Named after the 17th-century Italian anatomist Antonio Maria Valsalva, the Valsalva maneuver is a specific breathing technique primarily used in resistance training. It involves closing the glottis (the narrowest part of the larynx) to prevent air from escaping the lungs while contracting the muscles of the abdomen and rib cage. This creates a scenario where an individual tries to exhale against a closed throat.

The technique results in the contraction of the diaphragm and deep muscles of the torso, generating intra-abdominal pressure against the fluid ball within. This internal support helps maintain the vertebral column's integrity, reducing the strain on other muscles, such as the low back muscles during a back squat exercise. Consequently, the client can better maintain correct posture and body alignment, leading to more effective workouts.

Implementing the Valsalva Maneuver in Training

There are two main breathing options when incorporating the Valsalva maneuver into your resistance training regime:

  • Option 1: Inhale during the eccentric phase until just before starting the concentric phase. Hold the breath through the sticking point, then exhale.

Verbal directions: "Take a breath in during the easiest part of the exercise; hold your breath until the hardest part of the exercise is completed, and then exhale."

  • Option 2: Inhale before beginning a repetition; hold the breath through the sticking point of the concentric phase, then exhale.

Verbal directions: "Take a breath in before starting a repetition; hold your breath until the hardest part of the exercise is completed, and then exhale."

For instance, in option 1, a client performing a heavy back squat can inhale as they descend to the bottom position, hold the breath through the sticking point of the upward movement (performing the Valsalva maneuver), and then exhale during the rest of the concentric phase back up to the starting position.

The Need for Caution with the Valsalva Maneuver

Though the Valsalva maneuver can provide significant benefits in resistance training, it comes with potential risks. The technique increases chest pressure, which can complicate venous return and momentarily spike blood pressure. This rise can cause dizziness, rapid-onset fatigue, blood vessel rupture, disorientation, and even blackouts.

Given these risks, personal trainers should refrain from advising clients with any known or suspected cardiovascular, metabolic, or respiratory conditions to use the Valsalva maneuver during resistance exercises. Also, while it is crucial to support the vertebral column internally during strength tests, it's recommended not to extend breath-holding beyond a moment (1 to 2 seconds), even for resistance-trained and technique-experienced clients.

In conclusion, the Valsalva maneuver is a useful tool in resistance training, especially for advanced clients. However, it should be used judiciously and under the guidance of a knowledgeable personal trainer who is aware of its potential risks and benefits. Like all things in fitness, the key is to balance benefits with safety to create a healthy, sustainable training regimen.

Among the myriad topics discussed during the September IFBB Nordic Academy Personal Trainer Course, the Valsalva maneuver is one subject. This course, renowned for its comprehensive content, caters to the most contemporary advancements and best practices in fitness training. The IFBB Nordic Academy continues to stay ahead of the curve, equipping fitness professionals with the skills and knowledge to provide top-tier services to their clients.