The squat is one of the foundational lower-body strength training exercises that earns a spot in most well-rounded strength training programs.
There are various elements of proper squat form and technique that are debated amongst strength coaches and often unclear to beginners and even more experienced weightlifters.
One of the most common questions surrounding how to perform squats properly is: “How should I breathe during squats?”
In this article, we will discuss why your breathing while squatting technique matters and how to breathe during squats to maximize the safety, effectiveness, and performance of squat workouts.
We will cover the following:
- Does It Matter How I Breathe While Squatting?
- Breathing While Squatting: A How To Guide
- Am I Breathing Correctly When I Squat?
Let’s dive in!
Does It Matter How I Breathe While Squatting?
Before we get into breathing while squatting, you might wonder, “Is breathing technique while squatting important?“
Breathing while squatting may seem like yet another thing to think about when you are already using up the majority of your mental capacity focusing on other key aspects of squat technique and execution.
While it is undeniable that there are quite a number of form cues and execution steps to master when you are learning how to squat properly, how to breathe during squats is also an important skill to accomplish.
So, why does the breathing technique during squats matter?
Ultimately, when you squat with a barbell, heavy dumbbells, or some other external load, the spine and entire trunk are placed under the barbell or weight.
This means that you need to stabilize your spine to protect your back, and the best way to do this is through properly activating your core muscles.
A strong core provides a stable platform or base of support upon which you can safely load up your spine and trunk with the squat weight.
Adequate core strength and stability will ensure that you can maintain a healthy neutral spine under a load without the spine collapsing or the shoulders rounding forward, low back swaying, or some other loss of integrity to proper posture.
Ensuring that you have adequate core strength and stability to support your trunk during any loaded exercise, such as the back squat or front squat, is partially a matter of training and strengthening your core muscles.
However, an often overlooked factor in maximizing functional core stability is your ability to brace your core.
This is where using proper squat breathing technique comes into play.
You can use your breath while squatting to enhance the stability of your entire core and raise your core to stabilize your trunk under the barbell or weights.
When you perform isolated core exercises like crunches and sit-ups, you can increase the strength along the outside of your core, sort of like the walls of a balloon.
However, with certain core exercises that target the deep core muscles, as well as using the proper breathing technique during squats, you can create more pressure inside the “balloon“ of your core to truly provide the necessary stability to protect your back.
Breathing While Squatting: A How To Guide
Now let’s look at how to breathe while squatting.
For most strength training exercises, you should inhale during the concentric or shortening contraction and exhale during the eccentric or lengthening contraction.
However, for heavy squats, particularly with a barbell, this breathing technique may not be advisable.
This is because when you exhale, the stability of the core is reduced, so your ability to support a load and actually brace your core effectively is significantly compromised.
Imagine, for instance, a powerlifter who is performing heavy barbell back squats with upwards of 300 pounds or more.
If he or she exhales completely and lets out all of the air in the lungs, and allows the diaphragm to completely relax on the way up from the squat, the stability of the entire core and trunk would be vastly reduced towards the end range of motion.
This would increase the risk of bending the spine in either a lateral flexion direction if one side of the body were stronger than the other or in a forward flexion or backward extension manner, depending on the muscle imbalances and movement technique of the squatter.
So, if breathing in as you squat down and breathing out as you stand back up from a squat is not the proper squat breathing technique, what is?
Due to the necessity of maximizing trunk stability under a heavy load and the compromised ability to brace the core when you exhale, most strength coaches recommend holding your breath during the entire squat repetition when performing heavy squats—typically anything over 80% of your one-repetition maximum (1RM).
Essentially, you should take a deep breath before you begin to squat and then continue to hold your breath as you squat down. Make sure that you go slightly lower than your thighs parallel to the ground before exploding back up. Then, you would breathe out.
Breathe in and slowly lower yourself back down for your next rep, continuing to hold your breath until you are again back up at the starting position.
Holding your breath during squats will help you brace your core as if bracing your core to get punched in the stomach.
Holding your breath during exercise is known as the Valsalva maneuver.
Again, the purpose of the Valsalva maneuver while squatting is to maximize the stability of your spine and trunk under the load of the barbell.
Remember that this is the recommendation for breathing while squatting when using heavy weights.
If you are doing longer sets with more reps and lighter weights (10 reps or so with no more than 80% of your 1RM), holding your breath while squatting may not be necessary.
Instead, when practicing breathing on squats with lighter weights for hypertrophy or muscle endurance, practice inhaling on the way down and then exhaling on the way up.
No matter which squat breathing technique you use—again, dependent on the relative load that you are lifting—you want to ensure that you are taking deep belly breaths while squatting rather than shallow chest breaths.
Diaphragmatic breathing, or abdominal breathing while squatting, is what will help expand your diaphragm into your core so that you are maximizing the stability of your core to support the integrity of your spinal column.
If you are only taking shallow chest breaths that nearly expand your lungs, you will not be capitalizing on the core-bracing benefits of proper squat breathing technique.
Even if you contract your abdominal muscles and try to brace your core when squatting, if you are not breathing properly and really using your breath to maximize intra-abdominal pressure, you will be compromising the stability of the spine.
Returning to the balloon analogy, even if the walls of the air balloon are nice and strong, if the balloon is not filled all the way up with air, the lack of pressure inside the balloon will allow you to squish and squeeze the balloon and deform the overall shape.
This can happen to the spine when you don’t generate enough intra-abdominal pressure and hold your breath on the ascent of a heavy squat.
The lack of turgidity inside your core can cause excessive force on the vulnerable structures of your spine, including the small ligaments and Intravertebral discs, increasing the risk of injury.
Am I Breathing Correctly When I Squat?
You can test and see if you are breathing properly during the squat exercise.
To do so, place one hand along the side of your torso near the bottom of your ribs and the other hand on your stomach.
Then, take a deep breath in as you would when squatting.
If you are using the proper breathing technique for squats, you should feel that your stomach expands outward as you inhale, increasing the volume of your abdomen. Your lateral ribs along the bottom should also expand.
If you do not feel significant movement or the rising and falling of both of your hands, you may be breathing wrong during squats and only doing a shallow chest breath.
Try placing your hands higher up on your chest under your clavicles and breathe again. If you feel more motion or chest expansion than you did belly expansion, you are not breathing correctly for squats.
Chest breathing will not increase intra-abdominal pressure because it does not adequately cause the diaphragm to stretch down into the abdominal cavity and compress the contents of the abdomen.
Practice trying to breathe deep into your belly while simultaneously bracing your core as if anticipating a punch to the gut. This will help increase intra-abdominal pressure to provide support for your spinal column and trunk when you squat.
If you are inspired to spend more time focusing on your squat workouts, check out our 30-day squat challenge here.