What the Hell is a 'Valsalva Maneuver'?

Today’s question is: “should you ever hold your breath while sparring”. Many instructors would tell you that holding your breath is a big no-no, and generally I agree with them. What I want to talk about today, however, is a possible exception to this rule.

Doctors (and powerlifters) refer to something called a ‘Valsalva maneuver’. In this maneuver you attempt to breath out forcibly while keeping your mouth and nose closed. Internally it feels like you are bearing down on your lower abdomen.

Why on earth would you want to push your breath like this? The reason doctors sometimes get their patients to do it is that if a doctor listens to your chest with a stethoscope while you are doing the Valsalva maneuver he or she might be able to diagnose certain heart conditions.

More relevant to grappling, powerlifters use the Valsalva when they are lifting maximal weight (their one or two rep maximum). Use of the Valsalva at the most difficult part of a squat or deadlift helps stabilize the shoulders and trunk and makes the lifter a little stronger. Powerlifters make sure to release their breath after they have passed the sticking point of their lifts, because if you hold a Valsalva for any length of time while lifting you can easily pass out!

What does this have to do with grappling? I believe that the Valsalva maneuver is a legitimate way to occasionally generate a little extra power in an emergency, so long as you recognize its limitations.

If you have ever absolutely, positively needed to generate maximum power you may already have used the Valsalva. Some people might use it when they are bridging out of the mount of a heavy opponent, escaping an armbar, or lifting an opponent to finish a takedown. Often times an audible grunt at the peak of effort is a sign that someone is using the Valsalva maneuver (although they may not be aware of it).

Regardless of the ‘grappling emergency’ it is not a good idea to use the Valsalva for more than one or two seconds (at the most). An inappropriate use of this technique might be to finish an armlock on an opponent who is defending well. Typically an armlock attempt might take 5 to 10 seconds to succeed, and that is way too long to hold your breath. If you don’t succeed you’ll end up very tired (or unconscious). It is also not a good idea to use this maneuver too often – like I said earlier, powerlifters use this for their maximum lifts, not for repeated submaximal lifts in training.

I’m not saying that you should adopt this type of breathing consciously, but if you are going to use this technique on purpose then keep the following precautions in mind:

  • Use it in emergencies, not as a staple technique
  • Don’t hold your breath for more than a second or so
  • Be sure to resume regular breathing immediately after your maximum effort, whether your attempt succeeded or not

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