While Deadlifting, Should You Breathe at the Top or the Bottom?
November 15th 2019
The deadlift is known as the king of all exercises. It works the posterior chain which includes your lower back, glutes, and hamstrings like no other exercise.
However, one of the questions that is commonly brought up is whether you should be breathing at the top or at the bottom of the deadlift.
In addition, should you be holding your breath, or should you be exhaling throughout the lift?
The answer to both these questions: It depends.
It depends on your goals, and what are you trying to achieve.
It depends on your current condition.
And it also depends on your comfort level.
Deadlift breathing at the top or bottom?
But in general, if you are trying to lift the heaviest weight you possibly can, you should breathe during the bottom position, and hold your breath while bracing your core throughout the entire lift.
Alternatively, if you are training for endurance, power (plyometrics), or your goal is to shoot for high reps, you should be breathing at the top position and exhaling throughout the set.
This is just a general rule so read on further to see whether breathing at the top or breathing at the bottom is right for you.
With that being said, let’s get into detail why someone would want to breathe at the top of the deadlift.
Benefits and Drawbacks of Breathing at the Top of the Deadlift
As stated earlier, breathing during the top of the deadlift is helpful for those who are using the deadlift to train for endurance or power.
If you are training for endurance or power, you are most likely performing a high amount of repetitions over a short period of time.
What happens when you are performing an endurance-based exercise, or power-based exercise is that the oxygen demands on your body will increase.
The body is run on two different types of systems. The anaerobic system, which does not utilize oxygen, and the aerobic system, which utilizes oxygen.
The anaerobic system is used for short-term, high force activities (think performing a 1 Rep max).
However, this system is limited and can only act for a short duration until the body relies on the aerobic system.
The aerobic system is used for longer-term, high endurance activities, or whenever you exceed your anaerobic capacity.
When you are performing high-repetition deadlifts to train for endurance or power, your body will primarily be using the aerobic system.
As a result, you will need to breathe throughout the exercise in order to maintain your body’s oxygen levels to continue lifting.
Because of this, you want to exhale while lifting the bar and inhale at the top position.
Exhaling expels CO2 from your body, a byproduct formed by the aerobic system which impedes muscle action while inhaling replenishes your oxygen supplies.
Another reason why you would want to exhale while lifting the weight up is that exhaling will contract your abdominals, providing some bracing which protects the spine.
Inhaling at the top also gives you a rhythm which could help you pace how fast you want to perform the reps.
The downsides of breathing at the top are that you will still generate less force than someone who breathes and holds their breath from their bottom, which I will discuss in the next session.
To conclude, the benefits of breathing during the top of the deadlift are:
- Replenishes oxygen supply
- Allows exhaling during the lift, which protects the spine, and expels byproducts of aerobic respiration
- Provides a natural rhythm
- Ideal for those performing high-repetition deadlifts (5+ reps) or plyometrics (speed based)
The drawbacks of breathing during the top are:
- Difficult to train the body to keep breathing throughout the lift
- Won’t be able to generate as much power as breathing at the bottom
Now before we get into the benefits and drawbacks of breathing at the bottom of the deadlift, I would first like to discuss the importance of bracing and keeping the core tight throughout the lift.
Importance of Keeping the Core Tight Throughout the Entire Lift
Breathing does more than just replenish the oxygen supply in your body.
Breathing also tightens up your core, increasing the amount of weight you can lift.
How you might ask?
Let me give you an example.
Let’s say you are tasked to push open a heavy door that you can’t reach.
You are given a wooden stick or a pool noodle. Which one would you choose to open the door?
You are most likely going to pick the wooden stick. But why?
A wooden stick is a hard-rigid structure that allows you to transfer forces efficiently.
In contrast, a pool noodle is flimsy, flexible, and wants to bend the moment you try and use it to push open the heavy door.
Because it is loose and flexible, it transfers forces less efficiently.
The same concept can be applied to your body.
When your core is tight, your body becomes a hard-rigid structure allowing you to maintain a neutral spine while lifting heavy weights.
In contrast, if your core is loose, your back might start hunching, your form is thrown off, and the amount of weight you can lift decreases while your chance of injury increases.
Therefore, you want to maintain a tight core whenever you are lifting heavy weights.
Your core tightens while you are exhaling during a lifting (inhale at the top), and it tightens even more when you breathe and brace from the bottom.
Now that you know the importance of maintaining a tight core for both increasing the amount of weight you can lift, and for protecting your spine, let’s get into when someone would want to breathe at the bottom.
Benefits and Drawbacks of Breathing at the Bottom of the Deadlift
As mentioned earlier while inhaling at the top and exhaling throughout the lift is ideal for those using the deadlift to train endurance or power, for those that are looking to train strength, breathing at the bottom will offer you the most advantage.
This is because breathing at the bottom allows you time to brace your core, making your body into a tight structure, which allows you to pull the most amount of weight efficiently.
With a tighter core, breathing at the bottom will also help protect your spine.
The main drawback of breathing at the bottom is that it takes more time to perform each rep.
This might not be a big deal if you are training for strength, but if you are training for endurance or speed, breathing at the bottom might hold you back.
In addition, breathing at the bottom is a skill that you must focus and work on. To get the most benefits, you can’t simply breathe and hold your breath, you must learn how to breathe by using your diaphragm.
With that being said, the benefits of breathing at the bottom are:
- Able to lift more weights
- Helps protect the spinal cord
- Ideal for those deadlifting with low repetitions (<5)
The drawbacks of breathing at the bottom are:
- Time-consuming, each rep will require you to reset
- Must learn how to breathe using the diaphragm
Now that you know the pros and cons of breathing at the top and breathing at the bottom, here is what an expert has to say on the subject.
Mark Rippetoe, author of the popular fitness book and program, Starting Strength recommends for those who are looking to maximize the amount of weight they can pull, they should breathe at the bottom, brace their core, and hold their breath throughout the entirety of the lift.
To conclude, if you are trying to maximize the amount of weight you can pull during the deadlift, breathe at the bottom, and brace your core.
If you are doing speed-work, endurance-work, or anything that involves a high amount of repetitions, breathe at the top of the deadlift, and exhale while you are lifting the weight up.
If you want to learn more about the importance of bracing your core, and the Valsalva maneuver, check out some of my other articles here, where I dive deep on the issues of dizziness during a squat.