The Athlete's Toolbox: The Lost Art of Breathing

Kyle Flynn

Millersville, Maryland, United States

Strength and Conditioning, Kinesiology


The Athlete's Toolbox: The Lost Art of Breathing - Fitness, diaphragmatic breathing, physiological stress, conditioning, energy systems, discipline, The Athlete's Toolbox


Successful athletes are a rare breed. They posses an uncommon work ethic, an ever-growing set of physical skills, and a wide knowledge base regarding their craft. Do not be fooled however, athletic development does not begin and end on the playing field. It is my assertion that athletic prowess is the underlying key to longevity. It is a pursuit of unending mastery that should never be abandoned.



In the first article of this series, The Athlete's Toolbox: An Unbeatable Mind, I discussed an athlete’s mindset. The mental state an athlete must refine and integrate into their every decision. An unbeatable mind will not only open up a path to success for you, it will also guide you back during those dark days in defeat.


Today, I want to open a discussion into the lost art of breathing. It is a component of the truly elite performers that is criminally ignored by the masses. Many of us search for advantages on the peripheral, that small micro change that can bump our performance and fitness to the next level. What we fail to see is the big elephant in the room staring us in the face. Just as the skill of locomotion doesn’t end with a baby’s first step, breathing is not simply a matter of inhalation and exhalation.


The Mechanics of Breathing

Before we can hope to improve your breathing, we must understand how the process should work. During inhalation, your diaphragm does most of the work. The diaphragm is a muscle that attaches in a dome shape to your rib cage and abdominal wall. When you breathe in, the domed diaphragm flattens out, expanding your rib cage and pushing your abdominal wall out due to the increase in pressure from your organs dropping/compressing.


Conversely, resting exhalation is largely an involuntary process, but the portion we care about is “forced” exhalation—the type of breathing you should use during sport and exercise. This is accomplished through the rectus and transverse abdominals as well as the obliques contracting and forcing the wind back out of your airways.


There is a laundry list of psychological and physiological benefits of properly done deep breathing. Today, I’ll keep it to those most related to performance enhancement. First, deep breathing helps you to de-stress and boosts your cardiovascular endurance through a similar mechanism (yes, my fellow fitness pros, I know that is boiled down to the n-th degree but it suffices for this article).



Proper breathing activates your Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), which is the portion of the autonomic nervous system responsible for rest and digestion. Shallow breathing activates your sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which is the system responsible for your “flight or fight” response. Without getting too deep on these nervous systems, suffice it to say that stimulation of the PNS promotes recovery and energy conservation, while stimulation of the SNS promotes additional stress and, as we know, stress is counterproductive to your health and wellness, to say the least.


Proper breathing is also critical during stretching and weight training. While lifting weights, deep breathing with subsequent core engagement activates the Valsalva Maneuver. The Valsalva Maneuver is a forceful exhalation against a close airway. Think about clenching your stomach as if you were about to get punched and you’ll get the idea. The Valsalva Maneuver is extremely useful while lifting weights as it greatly increases pressure and stability around your organs and spine, which, in turn, makes your lifts easier—win-win! The Valsalva maneuver is well known around coaching circles although it is archaically cued by most with a simple “stay tight” but that is a separate article in and of itself.


The lesser-known benefit of deep breathing comes into play while stretching. Proper breathing while stretching effectively increases your venous return—the amount of blood that is pumped back to your heart. An increased venous return has many benefits but most notably to performance it aids in the disposal of metabolic waste that arises from exercise.




Now, let’s test your breathing

Take five breaths in and out and note the following characteristics:


  • Did your chest expand or your abs inflate?
  • How long did you inhale for? Exhale? Were those times comparable?
  • Did you really have to concentrate during your breathing sequence or was it very natural?


Odds are only your chest/lungs expanded during the breath, you had a relatively large inhale (5-10 count) and a very quick exhale where almost all of the air was out in a matter of moments. This is called shallow breathing and is seen in about 90% of the population, especially during bouts of exercise. Shallow breathing uses the chest muscles (scalenes, SCM, and pectorals) to inflate the chest and then uses the elastic recoil of the muscles to dispel air from your lungs.



So, how and what do we need to do to improve?


There are three breathing techniques you should master. I’ve thrown in a fourth for any of you deep divers (pun intended).


Technique One: Breath Awareness (Level: Requirement for Everyone)

I introduced this to you a second ago, but the first step in fixing your breathing is to simply become aware of it. Set aside as little as one minute a day to focus on nothing else but deep, symmetrical breathing. Inhale through the nose, inflate the abdominals, and slowly exhale through the nose matching your inhale tempo. Simple? Sure. But it really does make a difference. To take it a step further, try to maintain perfect posture while you breathe. I roll my shoulders and gently shrug them up and down to keep the tension out of them in my daily practice.


Technique Two: Box Breathing (Level: Ninja Apprentice)

I learned this technique via Mark Devine. This technique is great for meditative purposes and also aids in lung capacity development. For box breathing, you inhale, hold your breath full, exhale completely, and hold your breath empty. You do each of these for the same number of seconds. Assuming that you already graduated from the first technique, I would perform this for 5-10 counts at each “station” and repeat for 10-20 full breathing cycles. As always, start easy and work your way up.


Technique Three: Breathing Ladder (Level: Rich Froning)

For all my competitive exercisers out there, performing breathing ladders is a great way to learn how to breathe mid-workout. Breathing ladders are structured work-to-rest intervals where the rest period is timed by your breaths. Ladders can be structured in two common ways. When first working with breathing ladders you should progress exercise repetitions with an equal number of breaths. For example, I would do five kettlebell swings and then rest while I take five deep breaths. I would then pick up the kettlebell and perform six swings, put down the kettlebell and take six deep breaths—so on and so forth. The key to remember with breathing ladders is that the deeper you breathe, the more rest time you get. This will in turn teach you to take deeper breaths the next time you are tired in a workout.


Once you get the hang of breathing ladders with equal reps-to-breath, you should progress to a standardized breath count, wherein your reps increase but your breaths between each set do not. Start with around five breaths per set and see how high you can climb the ladder of reps before your breath gives out. Rich Froning is known for timing his rest intervals with his breath count. It is the reason (among many) that he can sustain such consistent and blistering workout times while making it look so effortless. Practice this technique and you will be on your way, too.


Technique Four: Apnea Training (Level: David Blaine)

David Blaine famously held his breath for 17 minutes and 4 seconds on television a few years back. He employed this apnea technique to complete the feat. Think back to the “box breathing” technique where in each component of the breathing process had equal time. With apnea training, you inhale x1, hold x4, and exhale x2. For example, a 2 second inhale would require an 8 second hold and a 4 second exhale. Repeat the breathing scheme for 5-7 minutes when first starting out.


As a disclaimer, this technique can be dangerous if practiced improperly due to the oxygen constraints. Start at the 1/4/2 scheme and progress 1 second at a time.


Don't Make It Complicated

Do not overcomplicate the topic of breathing. A successful athlete will master the basics of breathing by including daily mindfulness work each day. Given time, the basics will develop into a useful skill within workouts. You don’t need to learn to hold your breath for 10 minutes to become an efficient breather, nor will these techniques make you into an ultra-marathoner in a matter of months. However, it will make that little difference at that end of workouts where instead of fizzing out you’re pushing even harder towards the finish line. That is the hallmark of a successful breather, competent athlete, and it makes one proud coach.


Continue by reading:

See more about: , , , , ,
Breaking Muscle Newsletter

Breaking Muscle Newsletter

Get updates and special offers delivered directly to your inbox.