Is where it all begins.
You breathe about twenty thousand times a day.
By the time you’re seventy, that’s about six hundred million breaths!
That’s a lot. Right? Seems important? No wonder breathing is the foundation of meditation and mindfulness practices, and it’s no wonder that practices like yoga and pilates make people feel better generally speaking, they get people to focus on breathing. It is something, many of us tend to ignore.
If you’ve never seen Karate Kid Two (I feel sorry for you!), then you’ve missed out on one of life’s greatest lessons:
“When you feel life out of focus. Always return to the basic of life…Breathing. No Breathe. No Life.”
~ Mr Miyagi
After a brief moment of tying breathing to a simple hand representation, the karate kid, comes to a shocking realization that he feels better, and more focused.
That’s not all it does. Breathing has recently been identified as a significant contributor to pain and movement dysfunction.
If you’re in an extension based postural strain, practicing breathing in a flexion based position, can significantly help improve that postural strain by reinforcing a more desirable postural position. As you’ll see the alternative to this could be breathing in the sphinx position if you have a flexion based posture (posterior pelvic tilt). Being capable of executing a deep breath during a movement, particularly bodyweight, implies ownership of that movement. Strain and breath holding means a movement is beyond challenging, and you’re likely not receiving an optimal training effect.
Don’t get me wrong, when you move into using any heavy loads, the rules change, but for developmental patterns without load, you really shouldn’t be straining, no matter your age. Breathing is also a great way to account for repetitions of movement.
Though somewhat voluntary, breathing tends to live in our unconscious autonomic nervous system too. Yes, you have some voluntary control over it, but if you try to hold your breath, your body will eventually override your voluntary position. You can train yourself to resist breathing for longer, but your body will always eventually give in, because you’ll experience brain damage after about five to seven minutes without oxygen. That’s also how people drown. Breathing is absolutely critical for health and training, and because we do it automatically a dozen times a minute or more, we tend to overlook it.
Just like I overlooked the technique in Karate Kid, and how it actually represented what we should be doing.
If I asked you to take a deep breath right now, nine out of ten of you, would take a very large inhale, taking in as much air as you thought you could, followed by a very short exhalation. You wouldn’t expel all the air from your lung. The left over air that you can still forcefully exhale is called your expiratory reserve volume. Even if you forcefully exhaled this air, you’ll always have a residual volume of air in the lungs. Meaning you can’t get rid of all the air in your lungs, but you can maximize your uptake and intake by training to clear as much of the expiratory reserve volume as you can through complete exhalation training.
In other words, you contracted your diaphragm downward, a large flat shaped muscle that almost divides your ribcage from your stomach. At the same time some muscles between your ribs pull the ribs up slightly to change the pressure in your lungs. Then air rushes in and you get oxygen and other gas exchange by diffusion.
To exhale all you’d really need to do is relax and allow the lungs to contract against the air pressure but this would be incomplete. Many muscles of the abdominal region, as well as some of the muscles within the ribs are responsible for forceful exhalation, as any good singer knows. You can increase the stability and strength of your core by training the full exhale.
The muscles of forceful exhalation also increase abdominal pressure and create for weight training, what is the equivalent of an invisible weight belt, providing a great deal of muscular support for the spine. Therefore, you make your core stronger, then down the road you’ll be able to lift more weight, faster, and for longer.
If you train with the incomplete breathing pattern, you won’t maximize the process and because it’s something we tend to forget, we should train it. By not practicing the exhalation during breathing training, we are effectively over training one muscular group and undertraining another. You’re also not maximizing your lung capacity, which impacts cardiorespiratory fitness significantly.
The technique from the Karate Kid actually (seriously I didn’t even notice this until I went back to watch it) focuses on making sure your inhale and your exhale are an equal duration.
For the next three breathing drills, if it takes you four seconds to inhale, it should take you four seconds to exhale. It’s very important that you be mindful of this and count the duration of both, if only silently with one mississippi, two mississippi, three mississippi and well you get the idea. Try to match your exhalation to your inhalation and you’ll do significantly better than most when it comes to breathing.
The second thing a great deal of you would do upon a deep breath, is what’s called ‘Apical Breathing.’ Otherwise known as chest breathing. As I asked you to take a large breath, if you looked in the mirror, you’d no doubt see, that your chest rises and falls significantly pulling your shoulders towards your ears. The first image is at rest.
The second image is called Apical Chest Breathing. This is exaggerated, but relevant, a lot of people initiate their breathing from the chest and shoulders.
Go ahead. Find a mirror and test it out. If you’re not deliberately trying to avoid it, you’ll most likely do it, because most of us are chronically stressed in modern society and want to breath with our ancillary muscles, rather than the primary breathing muscles located at the bottom of the ribcage.
Do you get tension headaches from the back of your head? Carry a lot of tension in your neck? Feel like you need a neck massage almost every day? Chances are very good that you’re a chronic chest breather and you’re operating repeatedly from a very sympathetic nervous system state (the side of your nervous system that is fight or flight response — AKA stressed out!).
Good news is that this section of the book is for you! Chest breathing has it’s time and place. Under periods of duress, like strenuous exercise and fight or flight situations, chest breathing serves a vital function. It helps get more air into your lungs to assist with waste removal so that you are more adequately prepared on a biological level for high levels of exertion.
The problem with this style of breathing, lies with being in a fight or flight stress response, almost all day, every day. Many of us today are, which further stimulates a stressful response, so it’s a self-fulfilling cycle. Having stressful demands at work, at home, with family, can all lead to breathing like this, which further supports a distressful life. Exercise in that stressful state, can enhance the problem too. Exercise by itself is still a short-term stressor, but what we often call a positive stressor. AKA Eustress. Positive stressors lead to more positive adaptation.
However, when you’re in a constantly distressed (negative stress from work, life, family, relationships, etc…) the body has an increasingly difficult time discerning positive stressors from negative stressors and can treat a positive stressor like exercise, more like a distressor. This can alter the positive effects your body should feel from developing an exercise habit. Exercise should be a method of stress relief, and in this situation it often can’t be, until you get your breathing back in check.
Most people know they are stressed, but they don’t necessarily know what to do about reducing their distress levels, but breathing is a great place to start. Getting adequate sleep, meditation, and other me-time moments are other places to explore beyond the scope of this book. If you start laying too much stress on top of other stress you might end up with problems. Maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but eventually.
It’s split into a yin and yang to provide balance to the system so that you’re not overly stimulated when you want to be calm or relaxed, and that you’re not too relaxed when you need to be stimulated into your fight-or-flight response.
One side is called the sympathetic nervous system. This is the fight-or-flight response. In response to heavy lifting, or a need to sprint away from danger, this system stimulates hormones and nervous system signalling to prepare you for such a task.
The other side, or the parasympathetic nervous system is more commonly associated with relaxation. If you need to be calm when in a high pressure situation like taking a test, this system is going to be stimulated.
Often the sympathetic system is referred to as the accelerator, and the parasympathetic system is referred to as the brake. That’s a very simplistic representation however, if you want more details on stress as it relates to life, check out the book: ‘Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers’ by Robert Sapolsky.
The better strategy, is to learn how to do diaphragmatic breathing when you can, or stomach breathing. It’s obviously not as simple as this, but without getting into the many potential breathing problems people could experience, I wanted to tackle the basics that seem to help the majority of people I work with, without getting into the nitty gritty scientific details.
Namely practicing more diaphragmatic, belly breathing, instead of the deep chest breathing you’re likely to find when people are really stressed out. Belly breathing has a calming effect and is very therapeutic. It stimulates the parasympathetic part of the nervous system more, but especially the exhalation component of deep breathing.
When breathing, you should initiate from the diaphragm, which, is below your chest and is responsible for roughly 40% of your breathing capacity — so pretty important! To do that, the stomach should rise first, and it might help to think about breathing down into your pelvis or belly button.
The third thing you may overlook, is breathing solely through your mouth. Even if you don’t see to chest breath a lot, and your breath length seems similar, you could be overlooking another stress response, breathing through your mouth only.
When you practice breathing, it is better to do so, by breathing in the nose, and out the mouth, or in the nose and out of nose. Breathing through your nose increases the nitric oxide concentration in your blood. Nitric oxide is a vasodilator, meaning it dilates the blood vessels, making them more open and receptive to blood flow. This helps improve gas exchange within your cells.
The first breathing drill I have for you relies on the simple feedback of touch. Lay on your back with your knees bent, straight, on a bench or against a wall. Various positions can offer slight changes in patterning and introduce new nervous system feedback mechanisms, so don’t be afraid to mix things up if you want. It’s easier to mix things up after you understand the underlying principles though. Then you just need to place one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach. The whole point of the exercise is to get the hand on your stomach higher than the hand on your chest. In fact, true mastery of this position could mean taking a huge breath through the stomach without the chest rising at all.
The hands offer something external for you to focus on, which typically yields a better awareness of the movement, than if you tried to execute this movement without the pressure of a light touch. If I want someone to become more aware of a certain muscle being used, all you need to do, is tap, lightly press against that muscle, or provide some other form of touch simulation, and the nervous system responds automatically. It’s a great feedback training tool. Remember you should be breathing through your nose and out through your mouth, or only through the nose. Nose only breathing constricts the airway a little bit and can make these exercises slightly more challenging.
This second image is the the finish position. You should notice that the hand on my chest hasn’t moved at all, while the hand on my belly is now higher than the hand on my chest. This is essentially belly breathing. Remember slow deep breaths, count how long it takes you to inhale, and try to match that on exhale, exhaling fully. It’s ok if you feel a little light headed after only a minute or two, that means you’re getting a lot of oxygen into the system and is perfectly normal.
How long should your practice breathing? I generally encourage a minimum of sixty seconds, which at a fairly typical deep breathing pace of five seconds to inhale, five seconds to exhale, and is about six repetitions. However, you can take this as far as five minutes, depending on tolerance. It’s actually a great cool-down drill, when you stretch it out that long. Post-workout, you can use five minutes of any of the following breathing exercises, to great effect. When using it in the warm up, it can really help activate the muscles of the deep trunk and torso, encourage blood flow, and typically I recommend six to twelve repetitions, which is roughly one to two minutes in total duration.
When can you use it? I shoot to use it as a mindfulness tool, regularly throughout the day if you can, it’s the foundation of meditation after all. You can use this breathing strategy throughout the day and it will have a calming effect. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing and it can be even more therapeutic. If you find that you have an exceptionally difficult time breathing like this, more repetition and practice throughout the day will certainly help. If it’s too easy you’ll need a more difficult strategy, like one you’ll find below.
Squats on the other hand, are likely to make you a little sore the next day. With breathing you’re looking to improve your nervous system response and learn to use breathing in a supportive fashion. Breathing tends to be, one of the first indications that someone is either training too much, or not enough. It also provides a very good clue as to how well someone has recovered from their previous exercise bout.
If you find yourself doing a lot of fast chest breathing before your next workout and you are normally good about belly breathing at rest that could be an early indicator that you take it a little easier that day. Keep an eye out for deviations from your ‘normal’ pattern for training clues.
Use it for a short duration prior to starting your warm up and for longer durations after you train. Then sporadically throughout the day, if you can get to a floor — even if you can’t, these drills can be progressed to a seated position or nearly any other position. Use the mirror assessment from above as a basic diagnostic tool of how well you’re doing. As you watch your natural breathing pattern in the mirror, are you breathing through your chest and shoulders naturally? If you are, then you’re probably stressed, so using a technique like deep breathing at even the most basic level will probably help you relax. Many of my clients have often found going through an initial period of reorienting their breathing patterns, only to catch themselves weeks or months later, resorting back to familiar breathing patterns. Breathing is always applicable, no matter how much you’ve trained, or how well you train. This is a very easy way for you to monitor your stress levels, without any equipment.
To add a challenge this can be level 2 if you use a light load and even potentially a level 4 exercise if you add a heavier load, beyond what my level 3 recommendation is. To make this exercise just a tiny bit more difficult and to give yourself even more feedback via touch we can add load to the breathing pattern. I typically only recommend progressing any exercise after the first drill is executed almost perfectly, and you no longer experience any light-headedness. If level one becomes too easy, then you just might be ready for this.
I’m using a kettlebell here, because I find it to be more comfortable than a dumbbell, but you could use a dumbbell if that’s all you have, or even a can of soup or a carton of water. It’s important to place the bulk of the load low on the stomach, ideally on the waistline (men, mind your junk), or at least somewhere between the waistline and the belly button. Again you don’t necessarily have to bend your knees like I am here, you could do this with your legs in other positions too. I like the kettlebell, because it can give you a little more feedback, as we apply load to the breath, we can observe where the handle goes.
As you can see upon exhale the handle is actually pointing downward towards my chest. This is a good indication, because it indicates that I’m getting more activation from some of my deeper core musculature other than just the diaphragm to assist with breathing, lower in my abdominals. The further down the raising of the belly happens, the greater indication you have that you are doing it well. If the handle was pointing up towards the ceiling at the top position, this would indicate that I’m still breathing high up on the belly and probably using more assistance from the rib cage than desired.
This is a good concept to consider leading into the next exercise, where we’ll discuss trying to ‘breath through your pelvis,’ which I know sounds strange at the moment. Trust me, when you get it, you’ll get it, and you’ll be far more aware of your breathing patterns going forward. Meaning you’ll be better capable to observe and adjust in life situations.
The next movement is just prone breathing (remember prone means facedown), but it is often referred to as crocodile breathing, because that sounds cooler. Crocodile breathing adds an element of progression because gravity acts upon the weight of your body. You now have to breathe through the weight of your torso, and not just fight gravity by itself. That weight is generally more than a light kettlebell (8-12 kg/15-25 lbs) but not as much as a heavier kettlebell (24-32 kg/50-70 lbs).
This adds an interesting element and may be difficult to observe in these photos. I like to rest the forehead on the back of the hands. I have to breath into the floor, driving my belly button out. Again you get a great kinesthetic (sense of touch) feedback loop from contact with the floor that is very useful. You’ll easily be able to feel if you are expanding your chest into the floor instead of your stomach.
What I want you to look for in the finish position, is how my hips rock back during this movement, and my spine flattened out. This is breathing through your pelvis. I’m getting a greater overall contribution from my respiratory muscles by teaching my diaphragm to take more space, and descend into my stomach.
It might be hard to see here, but I’ve effectively taken a lot of the natural inward curve out of my low back. Perhaps only by an inch or two. Can you notice the subtle change? More than likely you’ll be better able to see it considerably more, while observing a training partner, or feel it considerably more when trying to execute this on your own.
This drill is particularly fantastic for people with a heavy anterior tilt to the pelvis or a rather extreme curve in their low back.
A final note about breathing. I encourage belly breathing practice because most people in my experience struggle with it, particularly stressed out professionals putting in a lot of hours on the job. Belly breathing is very therapeutic, but it also stimulates a lot of deep musculature in a way, that many other exercises won’t. This can provide you with additional stability during your workout, if you use a breathing drill in your warm up. It has been my experience that using a breathing drill can often lead to a little greater tolerance for load. It’s only slight, but useful. It often leads to better quality of movement, and primes the system neurologically for fluid movement. I highly recommend that you do 1-2 minutes during warmups, particularly if you have high levels of stress.
- Count your inhale and exhale, they should be the same duration. It OK to forcefully exhale as much air as you can.
- Practice breathing through your stomach, down as far as your pelvis.
- Be mindful of your chest expansion. While a little chest expansion does sometimes occur, it should at least be very low in the chest.
- Breath in through the nose to improve blood flow.
- If you get lightheaded, this is generally normal, you’re getting a lot more oxygen exchange than normal (oxygen can make you feel high). Let your breathing rate return to a normal pace and it will often quickly subside. If it doesn’t, seek a medical professional.
Assuming you now have parasympathetic or relaxed deep belly breathing down. It’s time to understand another key component to breathing. What I call breathing around your brace, or what I’ve heard others refer to as breathing behind the shield. For spinal health, it might be very important to learn to breathe independently of bracing. The abdominal brace is the best way to protect the spine during movement, particularly heavy movement.
From the position in level 1 and level 2 breathing, take your hands and place them on either side of your six pack muscles, on the obliques, like so:
<Image to Come>
Make sure your spine is in as neutral a position you can muster, your low back should be ever so slightly off the ground here and attempt to tighten all the muscles of your trunk/core/abdomen simultaneously. You’re not drawing the belly in, or pushing the belly out, you’re looking to maintain your trunk position in neutral. Then attempt to stiffen all of the muscles where your fingers sit to indicate that you’ve set your brace. For many people this will initially feel like you are holding your breath. That’s fine.
The trick with Level 4 is now attempting to maintain the stiffness you feel at your fingertips, and breathe around that stiffness. Your belly won’t rise as much due to the restriction of the superficial (closer to your skin) muscles that are now contracted but this method will give you a more accurate idea behind how you want to maintain an abdominal brace, while breathing. Too many people hold their breath while bracing, raising their blood pressure and possibly affecting the ability of oxygen to reach certain tissues, particularly in the brain. In other words, holding your breath will probably at least make you feel light headed while exercising. Use the Level 4 approach to practice breathing while exercising to minimize any dizziness, nausea or other potential problems associated with holding your breath against a brace for too long.
I’m constantly reminding clients to breath while we train for this reason, and often resort to this drill between sets as a way to help them reset their breathing patterns.
The Lewit – Level 5
Beyond just breathing, or breathing around your brace, you should understand what forceful breathing can accomplish relative to exercise. This exercise is named after Czech neurologist Dr. Karel Lewit, as a reactive and more aggressive approach to breath training as it applies to the deep core muscles, particularly the internal obliques. The internal obliques are a notoriously difficult muscle group to activate via exercise, but this exercise appears to be one of the most effective for that purpose based on research from Stuart McGill. [ref]Badiuk BW, Andersen JT, Mcgill SM. Exercises to activate the deeper abdominal wall muscles: the Lewit: a preliminary study. J Strength Cond Res. 2014;28(3):856-60.[/ref]
According to McGill it’s the best exercise available for mimicking the muscular effects of vomiting, without having to spill your lunch. Though still a breathing low-threshold exercise in the grand scheme of things, the 3 seconds or so where you have a forceful exhalation will seem rather intense. That same intensity is often the one we’re looking for during exercise, as forceful exhalation raises intra abdominal pressure, and thus strength and power of movement.
This makes it a very useful exercise in the development of timing and creating the right amount of exhalation tension. You start in a similar position but with the legs in the air.
<Image to Come>
Roll your hips back and forth a little bit and check your low back position. There should be a small gap between your low back and the floor, you’re just moving your hips to help you get in a comfortable position.
<Images to Come>
Once there, you’re going to take that deep belly breath you’ve been taking, starting with the three second inhale. The difference between this and the exercises above is that after your exhale a little bit of air for a couple of seconds, you’re going to forcefully exhale as much air how your stomach as you can. I like the forceful exhalation to last a couple of seconds. It has a bit of a vacuuming effect, but you should feel some very deep muscles in your core turn on hard.
For each set, take about ten deep breaths with this method, rocking your hips between repetitions to reset your position and repeat one to three times before training or as part of a recovery day.
Breathing During Exercise
Breathing can get complicated when you dive into the subject. During aerobic exercise I encourage belly breathing but with a tolerance for the chest following as the intensity gets higher. After all, if you use your belly and your chest, you can get more total air in. A great aerobic challenge that I learned from a local colleague is to challenge yourself to do low to moderate aerobic exercise, only breathing through your nose. For the average person I think walking at a quick pace or biking at at moderate pace is the appropriate environment to accept this challenge. It’s actually quite difficult, and might really help you decompress.
Focusing on deeper breathing during aerobic exercise can also effectively lower your heart rate five to ten beats per minute in a matter of seconds. If you own a heart rate monitor, try it yourself.
For exertion with weight training movements, the easy road to take is to quickly inhale during the lower phase and exhaling forcefully on the way up.Try taking a quick breath in through your nose right now with your hand on your stomach, notice what happens. Now exhale sharply through your nose with your hand still on your belly, again notice what happens. Breathing is a very effective control mechanism for the trunk of the body when used properly.
Once you’re training with an appreciable load, you will quickly realize that this strategy doesn’t adequately prepare you, and the valsalva maneuver may come into play. The valsalva maneuver, is another technique used to increase intra abdominal pressure, and is a little like breath holding, but not quite.
A great way to imagine it, is to think about what you’d instinctively do, if someone tried to punch you in the gut. If you are near someone, ask them to actually do it even (not hard). You will tense up momentarily and exert force outward into your belly, to brace for the action. Much the same way you did by taking quick breaths in or out of your nose. Bracing is key to lifting heavy stuff, it’s like your natural weight lifting belt that protects your spine. This increase in pressure increases the stability of your spine with active muscle restraints, also conveniently lowering the chance of injury. Using the valsalva maneuver during a lift requires an inhale at the least strenuous portion of the lift, followed by an attempt to brace for a punch, but without actually exhaling. Then during the exertion phase of the lift, you let a little air out forcefully through a closed airway.
If you think back to your quick inhale/exhale drill, you probably noticed that you have a harder contraction exhaling versus inhaling.
Ever been in a karate or other martial arts dojo and listened to them hiss or ‘eih!?’ That is a deliberate sound taught to increase abdominal pressure and as a result, that increased abdominal pressure can transfer more force through the torso. Resulting in a more explosive kick, or in our case a more powerful squat or hip hinge. The same principles can be used for weightlifting, though if you’re not comfortable, you don’t need to be particularly audible. Another reason to make it so audible is for timing reasons, but you probably don’t need as much of that, if you’re not trying to hit a moving target with your squat, like many female tennis players do these days.
So in the case of the squat:
- Take a breath in at the top.
- Hold forcefully with a closed airway, while you lower the weight to your bottom position.
- Forcefully let a little air out on the way back up (increasing pressure through the harder part of the lift)
- DO NOT let all the air out of your lungs until you get back to the top into a more relaxed position, and even then, I probably wouldn’t let it all out.
People make the mistake in this technique of letting too much air out, lowering abdominal pressure and reducing the active restraints supporting the spine. Bad idea.
Some coaches will argue that breathing needs to be specific to the exercise. I’m inclined to agree with them some of the time, but for forceful exertion, I think the above strategy still works best as a general rule. There are exceptions to that rule, but they can wait for a more technical book.
One thing inhaling naturally does is arch our backs slightly, especially the upper back, thoracic spine area. This creates extension through the t-spine, which can be a beneficial position to be in on exercises like rows, or chin ups; Especially if you have a heavy forward head position naturally or a heavy posterior pelvic tilt. It can also be a useful strategy for several mobility drills and stretches. Some coaches recommend that you inhale on rows and on chin ups during exertion (pulling yourself to the bar or pulling the weight to you with a row), but inhaling lowers that pressure we were talking about, and that pressure increases strength.
To me this means, that these specific breathing choices are great for lower threshold movements, but not great options for high threshold movements. If you can only do three chin ups, that’s pretty high exertion, so you’re probably better off going with the valsalva maneuver approach. If you can bang off fifteen or more, then a lower level of breathing exertion would be required.
If you need really specific breathing advice beyond this, then a coach or therapist might still be the ideal route.
Ideally you get yourself to a place where you can apply all of the above levels of breathing to the following positions. For demonstration purposes I did most of these breathing drills from the position of on your back, knees bent. You can however apply them to a variety of other positions:
- On your back feet up (Half Deadbug Position)
- On your back, grabbing your feet with your hands (baby position)
- On your back, hands and feet up (Full Deadbug)
- From all crawling positions
- From all plank positions
- From all bridging positions
- From all kneeling positions
And onward. Pretty much every position in this book is an opportunity for you to practice deep belly breathing, and then belly breathing around your brace. You haven’t really mastered a movement until you can breath around the brace you need to set for any given movement.