Train Your Breath to Multiply Your Fitness

Just because it’s automatic, doesn’t mean you’re doing it well.

Prepare to get weird. Wherever you find yourself while you’re reading this, stop and notice where you feel your breath. Your nose? Your chest? Your traps? Your belly? Now close your mouth and put your tongue on the roof of your mouth. Focus on breathing in and out through your nose, deep into your lower abdomen. Once you have that down, take a finger and close one nostril while keeping your mouth shut. Ignore the weird looks.

Prepare to get weird. Wherever you find yourself while you’re reading this, stop and notice where you feel your breath. Your nose? Your chest? Your traps? Your belly? Now close your mouth and put your tongue on the roof of your mouth. Focus on breathing in and out through your nose, deep into your lower abdomen. Once you have that down, take a finger and close one nostril while keeping your mouth shut. Ignore the weird looks.

Did you notice how much longer, more powerful, and deep your breathing became? That’s because this progression forces you to breathe diaphragmatically, and very little could be better for your movement, endurance, and mental state.

We tend to take our breathing for granted, and dismiss advice on how to do it better. If you are anxious or stressed, for example, you’ve probably had people tell you about meditation. But if you’re like most people, you never really considered adopting it as a daily habit. “I’m sure it works for some people,” you say, “but I’m not really into that slow-paced stuff. I mean, how important can the breath really be? We do it without even thinking!”

Ours is a fast-paced world, and one side effect is that it is difficult to notice outcomes that are not immediate and overwhelming. We might be convinced of the massive power of intentional breathing if it resulted in the same immediate sensory response as your caffeine-packed pre-workout. If you took a deep breath and suddenly erupted into the Hulk, I’d have your attention.

Unfortunately, the effects of breath work are a little subtler, so the practice goes on being ignored. But make no mistake: mastering your breath will allow you greater power and the ability to thrive far longer. 

Basic Breathing for Your Lifts

The breath matters first and foremost for safety. Many novice lifters will hold their breath while lifting, and become lightheaded. To mitigate this, it is important to learn to breathe with your lifts:

  1. Inhale on the negative, or lowering part of an exercise
  2. Hold the breath during a short isometric pause
  3. Exhale powerfully during the concentric or drive phase

The inhale helps create intra-abdominal pressure that serves as a natural weight belt. You can strengthen this phenomenon using a version of the Valsalva maneuver. This is when you inhale deeply before the rep, then exhale against a closed windpipe as you perform the movement. This creates greater intra-abdominal pressure to protect the spine. You exhale after passing the sticking point.

Breathing Strategies for Grinds and Ballistics

The RKC teaches 2 different methods of breathing: one for the strength-focused “grinds,” and one for the speed- and power-focused “ballistics.” As you become more advanced in your training, the ability to create maximal tension becomes more important for grinds like the deadlift, Turkish get up, squat, and press.

For example, before I press, I want to have my feet driven into the ground and screwed outward to fire my glutes, knees pulled up to activate my quads, core tight enough to take a punch, and shoulders pulled down and back, activating my lats. With all this tension, you’ll be much stronger, yet it is also harder to breathe.

In the RKC, they call this “breathing behind the shield.” It’s far easier to breathe into the diaphragm (belly-breathe) when you’re in a relaxed state, but it is still possible and necessary during efforts requiring muscular tension. Practicing filling up behind the shield and breathing into your groin, while keeping your neck and face relaxed and your tongue under the roof of your mouth. Then trigger the drive phase by synchronizing your press with a forceful tightening of the abs and obliques, and a powerful, steady, hissing exhale. Completely relax and breathe naturally between reps.

Ballistics are power exercises like the kettlebell swing, clean, and snatch. For these, it’s important to time your breathing with the hip flexion (bending at the waist) and hip extension (snapping hips forward). This is referred to as a biomechanical breathing match. As the hips flex, inhale quickly and deeply. As the hips powerfully extend, forcefully drive it all out with an exhale. This should result in a grunt or an abrupt “TSS!” sound. The exhale helps drive more power from the hips, and this pattern of inhalation and exhalation sustains you better than mouth breathing.

Suck Less Wind

Your diaphragm is a muscle. When you inhale correctly, it contracts, allowing your lungs to expand and take in more oxygen. Most of us sit all day, and have transitioned to breathing with our chest and traps, adopting what was designed as an emergency backup system as our normal breathing pattern. When you work out and need more oxygen, this pattern is only exacerbated.

By training your breath, you’ll discover your lung capacity is a lot larger than you thought. When you are fatigued, you will want to open your mouth and gulp air. At a certain point you may have to, but with a trained breathing pattern, that point is far later than you think. Your goal is to keep your mouth closed throughout recovery periods, allowing you to calm yourself and recover quickly by breathing deeply into your belly. Breath mastery allows greater endurance and more calm throughout the storm.

How to Train Your Breath

Start training your breath with breathing ladders, where you do a moderately taxing exercise at a 2:1 rep-to-breath ratio. Obviously, you are breathing while you perform the exercise as well, but we focus on the number of breaths used as rest.

For example, you could do six kettlebell swings followed by three deep belly breaths through the nose. Next, do 10 swings followed by five breaths, then 15 swings followed by seven breaths, and finally 20 swings where you still maintain the biomechanical breathing match.

The goal is to stretch out your rest time by drawing out the breaths. Practice this consistently, and you’ll be amazed at your progress, as well as the higher quality of work you can do over a longer time.

Breathing Benefits Beyond the Workout

Finally, there is the infinitely important role of the breath in promoting recovery and general well-being. After each workout, I tell my athletes: “you are weaker now than you were before the workout. You’ll be stronger because of this workout if and only if you recover well.”

Our bodies are always either catabolic, breaking themselves down for energy as they are during exercise, or anabolic, building themselves up. At the end of a workout, we can send a strong signal to the body that it is time to switch back to building ourselves up by breathing diaphragmatically.

I like to end workouts with a slow stretch, followed by pranayama breathing. I lie on my back with a hand on my chest and the other on my belly. I inhale through the nose for five seconds, and exhale out the mouth for seven seconds. On the inhale, the belly hand should rise first, and on the exhale, it should drop first. You’ll be amazed at how relaxing this is, and how refreshed you’ll feel, no matter how hard your workout was.

Recovery includes nutrition, hydration, relaxation, and most importantly, sleep. As a means of promoting relaxation, I highly recommend meditation to anyone seeking training results. By adding a meditative practice from qigong to a group’s training regimen, Cal-Poly’s strength and conditioning program was able to create a measurably larger training adaptation. In other words, breath work will lead to better gains for all your training goals.

More importantly, meditation promotes mental health and reduces anxiety and stress. Our psychology and physiology are inextricably tied. If we feel anxious, our body is complicit in the anxiety, and the quickest route out is through relaxed posture and deep, diaphragmatic breathing. It is often the hardest thing to do, because it is such a subtle, passive step. Breathing with intention will not immediately alter everything, the way we might hope or expect. However, it is a natural, sustainable, balanced mechanism to retrain your perception and reorient your state. For balance and control, breathing is often the secret to success in training and life.