If you have trouble getting a good core brace during the overhead (military) press, you’re not alone. And also, you may find it difficult to breathe in general during higher rep pressing. The same general problem will probably also occur during the front squat. I have written a step by step training plan to help you learn how to breathe during front squats and the same principles apply for the overhead press. Having the elbows up and a bar in the clean position makes it difficult to get a deep breath. If you can learn to use diaphragmatic breathing and follow the other guidelines in the article, you should be well on your way to solving this problem.
Diaphragmatic breathing is the same thing as “belly” breathing but I avoid that term since it is actually a misnomer because it makes people think the proper way to breathe is to puff out their belly when, in fact, the breath should be felt to extend around the entire torso.
Overhead Press Breathing
However, I am writing this post take some of that “breathing” burden off of you. The first thing to recognize is that just generally breathing during higher rep overhead pressing isn’t really the big problem, although it is harder to breathe in this position and trainees do find themselves fighting for air a bit and it’s worse for some than for others. The real problem occurs when you try to take a deep breath into the “belly” and then bear down and brace the core (and the engage the glutes). Hard to take a deep breath, right? Plus, the act of doing this destabilizes you so you find yourself standing there with a heavy bar racked and ready to press and you’re trying to take this nice deep breath, which causes you to rock a little back and forth, and now you’re trying to re-stabilize, and then again with the breathing…and before you can even press the weight you’re getting exhausted. The breathing tends to be centered in the chest which is restricted by the position. The problem with becoming unstable occurs because certain accessory breathing muscles are trying to help and these muscles cause your upper body and neck to extend while you’re trying to get a breath. Then as they relax, you rock forward again. Since the goal is to get a stable torso, it’s a bit ironic.
Have you figured out the problem, yet? If you are bound and determined to follow the rule of a big giant breath before bracing, you are putting the cart before the horse. The overhead press puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the back. With heavier lifts, it can be hard to stop yourself from leaning back, which is a way to put your body into an easier pressing position but results in placing your lower back in jeopardy. A proper core brace helps stabilize your torso and protect your spine. It is definitely important during heavy overhead pressing. However, you do NOT need to take a big almighty breath in order to get a good brace. While you’re standing there trying to take futile breaths so that you can get a good brace, all the while getting tired because you have a big bar to deal with, you could have already have braced yourself and pressed the bar.
So, the answer is to just take a moderate diaphragmatic breath (usually termed belly breathing) to the extent that the position allows you without feeling the restriction in the chest. Then bear down with your abdominal while tensing them and simultaneously engaging your glutes. If you’ve been struggling with the deep breath thing and getting a wonky brace as a result, you’re probably going to feel much more comfortable once you stop worrying about that. Remember that a deep breath can augment an abdominal brace by increasing the intra-abdominal pressure but this is not required. It is more important to get the brace than to augment the brace, especially if this results in an uncomfortable and wonky lift.
Before you rack the bar for a heavy breath, take a moment to oxygenate by taking deep breaths so that you’re good and stoked for the lift to come. If you’re really dedicated, you will practice this with lighter weights so that you can learn to quickly get an effective brace even between the reps of a higher rep pressing session. If you need some more instruction and cues for the military press, check out How to Do the Military Press (Standing Overhead Barbell Press).
I want it to be clear that all of this is meant to help you fix the feeling of restricted breathing during the overhead press (and front squat) which should, eventually, help you perform better at both these exercises. In no way am I suggesting that if you do not take these steps you are at risk for injury, nor am I suggesting that these breathing interventions are “corrective” or have anything to do with corrective exercise. You CAN press without doing this, and you can do so well, but this is a detriment for some and if you feel it gets in the way, this should help you iron it out and so improve performance.