I have the privilege of working with hundreds of clients each year, each of them with a different athletic background. Most of them lack one fundamental skill; the ability to adapt their breathing technique to a specific movement or skill. This is a deep subject so to simplify things for this article I am going to address breathing for a few strength based movements; the deadlift, the military press, and the handstand. The relationship between these two lifts and the handstand will be made clear towards the end of this article.
The trick lies in knowing when to breath and when to hold it. Most people breath by using their diaphragm to draw in air. Doing this causes an expansion in the abdomen rather than the chest. The only way this can happen is if the abdominal wall is relaxed. With any type of load on your body, this is a problem. Add movement to the mix and you are asking for trouble. There is a different way to breathe though – by lifting and expanding your rib cage.
So how do you breath while under load? Stand up and practice the following: stand in an upright position with your spine neutral, head and chest upright. Brace your abdominal wall hard enough so that you can give yourself a strong punch to the gut. If you can’t hear a loud ‘thud’, you didn’t hit yourself hard enough. (This exercise in self-abuse is to make sure that the abdominal muscles are fully engaged). Now that your middle is braced take a short but full breath. This should fill any extra space in your torso but should not cause your belly to move. Think of compressing air into a metal tank.
The common method of bracing is incorrect. The usual method; taking a deep breath and then compressing the abs, like trying to squeeze a balloon already filled with air, will not generate as much pressure, or stability.
Lets think about this in the context of a deadlift. There are two main reasons a deadlift will fail. The first reason is grip failure. Your grip strength is too weak and you are unable to hold onto the bar. The second reason is mid-line stability. Your hips are strong enough but your back loses its neutral position because of a failure to support your mid-line. It is possible that your spinal erectors are simply not strong enough. However, people often breath while they are moving the weight. This movement of the abdomen, no matter how small, will automatically make you less stable when moving a load.
So when should you breathe? For any lift we recommend breathing at the moment of least load, or greatest stability. For the deadlift this would ideally be at the bottom of the lift when the weight is on the ground. With lighter loads and higher volume you may also breathe at the top of the movement, when your hips are fully locked out. Be certain that while you move – either up or down – you are holding your breath and fully pressurized.
How should you breathe while performing a military press? The military press is similar to the deadlift in that you are starting from the bottom of the lift, and just like the deadlift you should take a firm breath and pressurize at the bottom. All subsequent breaths should be at the top of the movement, with the bar locked out overhead. This will stop you from pausing, and partially relaxing, at the bottom of each rep. Staying very tight as you finish one rep and start the next will make each repetition a bit easier. Most importantly, breathing only at the top stops you from breathing while the bar is moving and arching your back as you press. It is especially important with the military press that you never relax your mid-line. Always maintain pressure through your abdomen, especially when re-breathing.
While the bar is overhead, maintain a tight midline and re-breath before the next rep.
Lets finish by talking about the handstand. I am not talking only about freestanding handstand. This breathing technique is relevant to any of the wall handstands, and even the hollow tuck holds. For these types of isometric holds, it is very, very difficult to hold your breath. On the other hand because there is no position of least load you aren’t given opportunities to re-breath. This is where the skill of chest breathing comes handy. One of the best ways to develop chest breathing is to do the following. Lie on your back in either a hollow tuck or an extended hollow tuck. Your midline should be engaged hard enough to – again – take a punch. Practice taking small controlled breaths through your nose, only allowing the upper half of your ribcage to move. Think of only filling the top 20% of your lungs. Is this satisfying? No, but you will live. Once you have a good handle on this, add some load. Ask a partner to apply pressure to your midline by placing both hands on your belly and applying strong, steady pressure.
Your partner will be able to feel the smallest movement in your abdomen. Have your partner inform you when they feel you breathing through your diaphragm. If you are trying this solo, a kettlebell works well. Assume a hollow hold and place the kettlebell on your belly. As you hold your position keep an eye on the kettlebell. Is it moving? Your goal is to keep your belly – and the weight – completely still as you breath.
Make sure your partner pushes with hard and even pressure, don’t make it too easy.
Find a heavy weight to set on your stomach. Make sure it doesn’t move up and down while breathing.
Why is this style of breathing important? This method applies to many different situations. You will be able to develop gymnastic type strength by maintaining stability while holding isometric positions for long periods. You will improve your muscle mass and conditioning by being able to replenish oxygen and maintain spinal stability while performing higher volume loaded movements. You will also be better at classic conditioning movements such as thrusters, burpees, and pull-ups. Is this type of breathing as satisfying as taking a deep breath? No. Not at all, but its a hell of a lot better than holding your breath, and much safer than belly breathing.
We will continue our discussion about breathing over the next few weeks in videos and articles. Take the time to focus on how you breathe while exercising. This plays a much bigger role in the quality of your movement than you may realize.
Zack Finer has been a Strength and Conditioning coach since 2008. He was a founding member of Israel’s first CrossFit gym, and is a co-owner of moveSKILL.com. Recently Zack has shifted his focus to gymnastic strength training under the tutelage of Ido Portal in an effort to better understand human movement development.