Many of you have heard your coach reminding you to control your breathing. Your breath can greatly affect the success of a lift, especially in those lifts where core stabilization is essential. Athletes at rest breath at a rate of 12-15 breaths per minute. At 15 breaths per minute, that translates into 900 breaths per hour and 20,000 per day! In combination with good structure and muscular development, breathing is our most important source of power. The form, rhythm, and timing of a breath affects every movement we make. Yet, most people test poorly for proper breathing. The most common faults are chest breathing, exhaling at the point of effort, and breathing that is uncoordinated with movement. In an article presented on Mike Burgener’s Olympic Weightlifting site, Mike’s Gym, author Bill Johnson explains that breathing is a three-part process:
Step1: Inhale into the lower third of your lungs
This is the area most richly endowed with oxygen receptors. The easiest way to learn, is to push the diaphragm down by sticking out your belly, the relaxed “belly breathing” taught in yoga for at least 3000 years. As you improve, you learn to push the diaphragm down while holding the transversus in, so as to increase intra-abdominal pressure to stabilize the core. Start by learning belly breathing and work from there.
Step 2: Fill the middle third of your lungs by expanding the ribcage sideways.
You should be able to place your fingers on a person’s outer ribs, under the arms, and feel the ribcage widen by at least two inches.
Step 3: Fill the top of the lungs by raising the chest.
For many people, chest breathing is all they ever do. They never properly oxygenate their tissues nor activate their Inner Unit, yet wonder why they fatigue easily, and cannot make powerful movements.
Coordinating Breathing with Effort
This fault we see is exhalation at the point of effort. This practice arose primarily because academics, whose biggest exertion was probably tying their shoes, told insurance companies that holding the breath during effort increases intra-abdominal pressure, raises blood pressure and puts the heart and arteries at risk. So, for insurance purposes, many gym clients are taught to exhale as they make an effort.
It is true that retained breath on effort raises intra-abdominal pressure. That’s exactly how the body is programmed. Intra-abdominal pressure stabilizes the core. That’s why you inhale sharply as an evolutionary reflex when faced with a sudden threat. As part of our ancient fight-flight system, the body is programmed to inhale to stabilize the core, to make the body as strong as possible for fighting or fleeing.
“Small Hole” Exhalation
You can maintain your strength during exhalation by learning to exhale with the “small hole” technique. The easiest method is to push half the breath out suddenly through pursed lips, a technique taught to asthma patients to increase oxygen absorption. The sudden push momentarily increases intra-lung pressure, which also pushes down the diaphragm and further strengthens the core. There is also a genetically programmed reflex retraction of the upper abdominal wall. More difficult, but far superior, is to learn to narrow the throat, for small-hole exhalation, the way of controlling the breath taught in advanced martial arts.
To benefit most from small-hole exhalation, you have to coordinate the sudden push of breath exactly with the instant of greatest effort in a movement, or the point of impact in a kick or punch. Good examples are the “Ki-eee” shout in martial arts, and the closed-mouth grunt of boxers at the moment they strike. Try the grunt yourself now, with your core tight, and feel your abdomen retract further to increase stabilization. Timing is critical, however, and we see many poorly trained athletes who make the forced exhalation before the point of impact. They immediately lose 10-20% of their power.
Who knew breathing could be so complicated???