Conscious Breathing Strategies in Strength Training and Recovery

Breathing can brace us for extremes of pressure and it can release us to explode out of the starting gate. Develop good habits to unleash the power of your breath.

It’s shocking to think that we may not have a grasp of the most functions of our body. Something like breathing may seem automatic but a number of factors conspire to create bad habits. Therefore, it’s safe to say that good breathing is important. However, it isn’t just about breathing right. It’s also about understanding how the mechanics of breathing can brace us for exertion like the way we brace our trunk with a deep breath, held properly when we are performing a heavy squat. Breathing creates both flow and pressure and has to be applied correctly for optimal performance, no matter what the activity.

Ted Sloan – Developing Correct Breathing Technique

Proper breathing has become all the rage recently in the fitness world. Schools such as Postural Restoration Institute (PRI) have developed special protocols and arguments for why it is so important to educate your clientele on this often incorrectly performed “natural” activity. I have heard some coaches, books, and articles claim that a common cause of improper breathing technique can be attributed to the ever increasing time spent in seated postures; this, however, is not the case.

The ancient Chinese health practitioners of Qigong have described this same phenomenon in their written texts from thousands of years ago. As we progress from childhood to adulthood, our breathing is altered from deep diaphragmatic breaths through the belly, to upper lung respiration that causes the chest and shoulders to rise, creating stiff musculature in the sternocleidomastoids and upper trapezius among others, instead of using the diaphragm, internal obliques, transverse abdominals, and intercostals.

PRI teaches proper diaphragmatic breathing through a series of carefully designed protocols that reduce respiratory effort, allow for deep inhalation and exhalation, and allow users to access their sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems more easily. This, in turn, allows better recovery, sleep, and relaxation, while enhancing the effects of sympathetic activation, when the fight-or-flight system is required. When discussing the use of PRI protocols, it is important to note that their explanation of how and why these issues occur, is significantly more complex and important to grasp if you are interested in educating others on the subject.

For example, PRI explains that as humans, we carry natural asymmetries, such as our heart inhibiting our inspiration in our upper left thoracic cavity and a liver in our lower right abdominal cavity, which causes unwanted rotational aspects into our breathing patterns and eventually causes semi-permanent changes to occur.

If your goal is simply to learn to breathe properly or teach the basics of proper respiration, a simple book such as Belissa Vranch’s “Breathe” is a great place to begin. It is, however, important to note that changes in how the ribs position themselves above the pelvis, can in some cases negatively affect athletic performance in some aspects and PRI attempts to modify these unwanted changes. Depending on your goals, there are many amazing options to choose from!

Giulio Palau – Respiration for Strength and Stability

Respiration is unique in that it can be a conscious or unconscious process. Many physiological mechanisms are connected or associated with the breath. Therefore, breathing techniques can provide a useful lever on otherwise autonomic processes. This is the basic premise of Wim Hof’s forced breathing practice. Although some of Wim’s claims on the benefits of his program may border on hyperbole, there is evidence to suggest that his techniques are effective at reducing inflammation, suppressing the auto-immune response, and strengthening respiratory muscles.

His breathing exercises are relatively safe and easy to practice. Take 30 deep breaths, breathing in through the nose and exhaling through the mouth. Begin the breaths at a comfortable pace and gradually increase the rate of each breath cycle while inhaling and exhaling fully. After 30 breaths hold on an exhale until you feel yourself gasping for breath.

Breathe in fully and hold for 10-15 seconds. Breathe normally. Recent studies suggest that this forced breathing exercise causes a release of epinephrine, which in turn stimulates an anti-inflammatory response and a dampening of pro-inflammatory hormone responses. Subjects of the experimental group who were intravenously injected with a bacterial endotoxin were able to significantly suppress inflammation and flu-like symptoms compared with the control group.

Although the exact mechanism is not known, it has been suggested that the production of adrenaline (epinephrine) spikes during forced breathing exercises, while cortisol remains relatively low. This could be a useful tool in mitigating chronic stress and inflammation. As a strength coach, forced breathing techniques are valuable because they strengthen the breathing muscles, many of which are important for stabilizing the spine and maintaining torso stiffness during exercise.

Studies have shown that forced breathing exercises performed 3 times per week over 6 weeks in populations suffering from low back pain resulted in improved results in stabilizing the spine, managing pain symptoms, and addressing lordotic posture.

Strengthening the respiratory musculature also allows for higher levels of intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) by increasing the contraction of the exhalation muscles while performing the Valsalva maneuver (exhalation against a closed airway). The skill of IAP is crucial to building maximal strength by stabilizing the torso. Another useful application of diaphragmatic breathing is in populations with shoulder and/or neck pain.

Chest breathing or shallow breathing can overwhelm secondary breathing muscles like the pec minor and upper trapezius resulting in elevation and protraction of the shoulders sometimes referred to as upper crossed syndrome. This posture can result in chronic tightness in the neck and shoulders and an increased cortisol response causing chronic inflammation. Deep diaphragmatic breathing is often useful in releasing tension in the cervical area and building stability in the torso.

Breathing with intention is an indispensable tool for building strength and stability and mitigating stress and inflammation, and may provide a way to consciously affect otherwise unconscious physiological processes. The importance of the breath should not be underestimated in strength training or in its role in health and well-being.

Antonio Squillante – Creating Support and Pressure With Your Breath

Breathing is more than just delivering oxygen and release carbon dioxide. By increasing intrabdominal pressure respiration comes into play as an auxiliary system to support the abdominal musculature as they brace the midsection. It becomes easier to understand the importance of breathing and intrabdominal pressure if we start from a basic example: is it easier to crash an empty, open can of soda or a full, closed one?

A full closed one we would all agree. Well, what creates tension within the can of soda is air, trapped between the walls of the cylinder and the fluid within it. If we do open the can – meaning, we release this “extra” pressure – the liquid itself won’t prevent us from crashing the container with minimal effort. Similar, an abdominal canister that is tightened from the outside in – via the isometric action of the core musculature – and from the inside out – by an increase in intraabdominal pressure via the active, forced inspiration – will always provide a more solid base of support for movements to occur.

Does that mean that we need to learn how to perform the Valsalva maneuver if we want to be able to perform better? By any means, no. It’s all about learning how to brace the core via the active, voluntary diaphragmatic respiration: it’s not about the amount of air we suck into our lungs, it’s rather about the amount of pressure we can generate via the diaphragm pressing against the abdominal cavity. It’s more than just “take a big breath and squat”.

No matter how forcefully we try to inspire, no air goes into our belly to support our core. It’s basic anatomy. The only way of increasing pressure within the abdominal cavity is by expanding the diaphragm so that its fibers can actively “push” from the top down against the abdominal wall. This mechanism is further support by the complementary respiratory muscles, those muscles that support forced inspiration and expiration during intense physical activity. These muscles belong to the core musculature, which again stresses the importance of core training in athletics.

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