Breathing isn’t one of those things we normally think about. Being the morons that we are – according to the general public, at least – bodybuilders generally prefer to devote our limited brain power towards things which seem more pertinent, such as calculating food intake or figuring out which tank top will make our guns look the biggest (okay, maybe that one’s just me).
Actions like breathing, blood flow, and the like are functions of the autonomic nervous system, which places them under the category of “Cool Stuff My Body Does When I’m Not Looking.” I know, I know… that sounds very scientific, but try not to get too lost in the industry jargon.
The take home message is that breathing isn’t generally a topic on the forefront of most minds… unless you suddenly stop, in which case you probably start thinking about it a lot. It’s kinda’ like that chick you keep on the back burner and only call when you’re really desperate – not really a concern until it seems like a life or death situation, is she? Wait… I think we’re talking about me again.
Moving on, if you guessed that this is the part where I tell you how important breathing is, you’re right. Yes, yes, very good, Cap’n Obvious. You probably also know that breathing is pretty essential for life, so I guess I should just skip that part, too, huh? But, fear not, my ever so deductive friend. I am not going to discuss “cleansing breaths” or anything. I shall leave that to Yoga teachers and Lamaze coaches. Instead, this writing will be concerned with something called Power Breathing. Yeah, that sounds a lot more manly, doesn’t it? We’ll be discussing breathing methods that’ll get you strong, stable, and build some abs you can use to grate cheese. (If you’re lactose intolerant, you can grate something else. Carrots, probably. I think people grate carrots.)
Power Breathing: What It Be
The phrase is used in various circles to describe how to structure breathing patterns to enhance the performance of a specific task. While the task will generally vary greatly with the group, it seems that the terminology doesn’t. A few keystrokes on virtually any internet search engine will reveal that singers use their methods of power breathing to enhance projection, range, and even depth of voice. Similarly, alternative medicine gurus recommend their brand of power breathing to promote relaxation and an overall sense of well being.
While these goals and usages of different types of power breathing are certainly worthy of note, they are decidedly not reasons which would influence the people of T-Nation to incorporate such a practice into their overall training methodology. I make mention of these uses only because “power breathing” is a fairly generic term. As such, it’s one that can be applied to different methods (depending on the group), and it’s necessary to realize that not all “power breathing” is the same. Brief acknowledgement of such use also serves as a way to clarify that while power breathing can and does have relevance in innumerable circumstances, we’ll focus exclusively on its applications to weight training and physique enhancement.
With regard to our purposes, power breathing is essentially a method of breathing through resistance, sometimes punctuated by brief periods of breath-holding (known as the Valsalva maneuver). Often prescribed by Russian strength coaches and other mad scientists, the goal of power breathing has generally always been to allow for increased power output during a lift. This occurs by way of improved stability resulting from the intra-abdominal pressure created when the technique is applied.
For the duration of a power breath, nearly all lower trunk muscles contract with significant force as oxygen leaves your body. The tightening begins internally, with the transversus abdominus and diaphragm contracting dynamically as you “push” the air out. Externally, your rectus abdominus and spinal erectors simply contract isometrically. Keep in mind you’re applying resistance, so the breathing itself is actually quite a workout for those internal muscles. This is actually one of the primary uses of power breathing and I’ll discuss it later in greater detail.
Overall, the practice will strengthen all of the muscles used for trunk stabilization. This is true to such an extent that world renowned sport biochemist Vladimir Zatsiorsky has said that he considers power breathing to be the best “core” exercise. We’ll give ol’ Vlad the benefit of the doubt and assume he meant “core specific,” which is why he mentions breathing over squats and deads in terms of effectiveness.
So, How’s It Done?
With all that basic, introductory information out of the way, it’s time to discuss the proper execution of a power breath. You can actually do this at your computer right now to get a feel for it. Here is how it’s done: Stand up. Now sit down. Good, now stand up again. Touch your nose. Put one hand on your head. Okay, okay, none of that is related to power breathing, it’s just more evidence that if I ever took over the world I’d make everyone dance the Macerana for my own sick amusement.
Here is the real way to do it. In either a standing or sitting position, take a deep breath into your abdomen. Place your tongue along the ridge in your mouth just behind your teeth. Next, flex your abs and your glutes, and contract your rectal sphincter; then exhale forcefully through the ‘blockage’ created by your tongue and teeth; you should hear a noise that sounds like, “hsssst.” You should feel a contraction internally, and if your deep abdominal muscles are relatively untrained, it won’t be long before a burning sensation sets in. Continue to exhale until all of the air is expelled.
You’ve just completed one power breath!
Be sure to inhale into your belly, not your throat – a good way to spot yourself on this is to practice in front of a mirror. If when you inhale your shoulders rise, you’re breathing into your chest and throat. When you exhale, the air will travel back the same way; unfortunately, forcefully exhaling in that manner may actually cause your head to explode. Seriously; I saw it in a movie once.
Who Can Benefit?
Now you know what power breathing is and how it’s done. All we have left to cover is who power breathing benefits and how to incorporate it into your training regimen.
There are a multitude of reasons to incorporate power breathing into your training, but we’ll just focus on some of the more impressive ones.
1) Imbalanced? Fix it!
Abdominal imbalances occur quite frequently in bodybuilding, much more often than would be expected. The most common of these imbalances results from years of improper training and usually shows up in people who used to be overweight. Sadly, many misinformed overweight people mistakenly believe that by doing hundreds of crunches and sit-ups, or by using ab do-dads with fancy “resistance bands,” they’ll lose the gut. Obviously, we know this will never work out the way these people want it to, as spot reduction is impossible without a bit of surgical aid. One unfortunate side effect is that (in many people) such training will – over time – create an imbalance between the rectus abdominus and transversus abdominus.
Without getting too far into an anatomy lesson, we’ll just give a basic (very, very basic) overview of how this happens. The visible muscle of the abdomen, the rectus abdominus (RA), lies just superficial to the internal muscles of the abdominal cavity. The most important of these is the transversus abdominus (TA), to which the rectus is partially attached to and supported by. So over the years, all those crunches and the like (which target only the RA) will have a cumulative hypertrophic effect. The RA will grow bigger, stronger, and heavier, while the TA remains relatively unchanged. The result is that, eventually, the RA will be so overdeveloped that the TA simply cannot support the weight of its superficial counterpart – a sort of sagging is the final consequence.
The majority of individuals who experience this phenomenon never notice; however, those that finally get their training and nutrition in order certainly will. Once these trainees lose a considerable amount of fat, they find that no matter how lean they get, they still have a distended belly. That’s right, folks: a GH gut without the GH; pregnant with a six pack. Normally, these people would have one of two choices: circus freak or professional bodybuilder… well, that’s actually one choice. However, in this situation, power breathing earns its stripes and can be of great use.
As mentioned earlier, power breathing places great emphasis on the TA and other inner abdominal muscles, but not much on the RA. Applied properly, power breathing can be used to strengthen the transverse abdominal wall, correcting the imbalance by allowing the formerly weak TA to hold up that hypertrophied rectus. Neat, eh? Now you’ll finally be able to leave the circus! No one will ever call you “Cletus the pregnant dog boy” again!
2) Slice n’ Dice
Keeping on the topic of using power breathing purely for the purposes of achieving physique goals, we come to our next use. As stated previously, the act of performing a power breath causes the transversus abdominus to contract dynamically while the rectus contracts isometrically or statically. For vain guys like us, this works out perfectly. You see, regardless of whether you suffer from the aforementioned ab imbalance, having a strong TA will improve the over all appearance of your precious six pack, as it will help you achieve a more muscular midsection.
That aside, the important thing here is the static contraction of the RA. You may not think of this as “work” for the very visible rectus, but in actuality the reverse is true. While the RA will certainly receive little to no hypertrophy-inducing stimulus from power breathing, it will be exposed to a substantial amount of time in a flexed state. Why does this matter? Well, because it’ll help you get so ripped you’ll have to scotch tape your skin on, that’s why.
Maximally, statically (isometrically) contracting a muscle will improve its neurogenic muscle tone through two pathways. First, by sensitizing the alpha and gamma motor neurons communicating with that muscle; and second, by improving the intensity at which that muscle will be able to contract isometrically. Resultantly, contractions of this type have been shown time and again to greatly improve vascularity, density, separation, and overall appearance in muscles which are highly exposed to them. While static holds have a host of benefits, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this one: assuming you’re already lean, isometric training is second to none for bringing out the cuts!
This is exactly the reason practically every pro bodybuilder incorporates intense posing into his contest prep regimen – the constant tension being applied isometrically helps immensely with getting into stage-worthy shape. Not that I often put much stock in training tips from the pros, but if there is one thing these guys DO know about, it’s flexing in the mirror!
Having said that, a few sessions of power breathing each week can help build some purty lookin’ abs, so all you narcissists out there should be happy. I’m not getting down on you – a little narcissism never hurt anyone. Uh, except that Narcissus guy… but other than that it never hurt anyone.
In addition to all that jazz, though, power breathing can greatly increase strength, which brings us to…
3) Stability as Strength
As previously alluded to, the main – and most traditional – use of power breathing is for increased strength. It’s been long known that power breathing can be used as one method of increasing poundages in lifts which require stabilization from the core. Off the top of my head I can think of two: the squat and the deadlift. Heard of ’em?
It’s already been mentioned several times over, but it should be reiterated that frequent power breathing will increase the strength of just about all core muscles. These muscle work to stabilize the trunk during our favorite lifts and also serve as protection for the spine. Since you’ll be able to handle greater loads for longer periods of time, there will be a concurrent increase in the amount of weight that can be used in various exercises requiring a great deal of trunk stabilization.
Power breathing increases not only the strength of the core muscles, but also allows you to increase overall strength by making use of intra-abdominal pressure (IAP). By creating and lifting under increased IAP, we can greatly amplify both stability and strength. This phenomenon occurs by way of reflex action taking place due to the excitation of various receptors in the abdominal and thoracic cavities. This in turn sends signals to your brain to increase muscular tension throughout your body. All of this ultimately culminates in you lifting more weight and feeling pretty spiffy about it. This is a good argument for using power breathing and the Valsalva maneuver during a lift, although that topic has been hotly debated. Overall, though, it should be pretty obvious that incorporating power breathing into your training should yield some strength gains.
So, in short, who can benefit from power breathing? If ya got abs, you can.
I just want to offer the caveat that performing power breathing or the Valsalva manuever may not be the best idea for people who practice certain types of martial arts, particularly those that involve a lot of grappling. In a recent interview with T-Mag, Coach Scott Sonnon said the following:
“I have no doubts that ‘power breathing’ allows people to put on more pounds to their lifts. However, try Valsalva in Judo or Jiu-jitsu and you’re more easily choked unconscious; try it in wrestling or Sambo and you lose kinesthetic sensitivity and reactive strength; try it in boxing or NHB/MMA and it’ll slow punch speed as well as increase your susceptibility to knock-out; try it in baseball, basketball, or football and you’ll decrease your swinging, shooting, and throwing accuracy.”
The extent of my martial arts experience is pretty much limited to whuppin’ some serious ass on my Xbox, and while I know how impressive that is, I’d have to say that I am not really qualified to speak much about martial arts. That being the case, you’d probably want to take Coach Sonnons’ advice.
Making it Happen
One of the greatest things about power breathing is its utter simplicity. Once you have it, you have it. Because you need no equipment and the exercise is pretty unobtrusive, you can do these nearly anywhere at any time; at your desk, at the gym, or while you’re stuck in traffic. Now you’ll never have an excuse to be unproductive again.
However, many people prefer to take a much more structured approach. That being the case, I’ve included a few programs below. These sessions should be done on off days, or following workouts where you performed squats and/or deadlifts. As a general rule, don’t do a full power breathing session the day before one of these movements; your core will be too fatigued for you to perform properly. That being said, here are some programs to help get you strong, stable, and shredded.
Frequency: Three times per week
Rest: 30-60 seconds between sets
This is pretty self-explanatory. If you’re just beginning power breathing, perform three sessions each week, with each session consisting of 5 sets of 5 breaths, each lasting 5 seconds. You should be exhaling fairly forcefully, but not at full intensity. You’ll probably still have some wind left, but terminate each breath at the 5 second mark.
Frequency: Twice per week
Rest: 60-90 seconds between sets
Basically, the same as above, except that each session will be 5 sets of 10 breaths. You should be exhaling with enough force to last until around 7 seconds towards the beginning of the session and as you progress, you’ll probably start to “fail” at around 5 seconds.
Frequency: Once per week
Rest: As needed
This program is very difficult and is best suited for the purposes of getting those shredded abs we discussed earlier. You’re to perform 10 sets of 5 reps, but the duration is as short as possible. Essentially, you should expel the air with as much force as possible, which will cause both the TA and RA to contract maximally. Keep in mind this is an advanced program and should only be undertaken when you’ve really mastered the form. If you’re still relatively new to power breathing, you may wind up breathing into and out of your throat rather than your belly as you begin to tire. This could be potentially dangerous, so you must be certain to maintain perfect technique the entire time.
After you’ve done all of the above routines a few times, you may feel that you have outgrown them and want something more challenging. Rather than simply increasing the volume and or frequency with which you perform any of the programs, it’s much more effective in terms of strength gains to increase the difficulty. Essentially, you must add resistance.
Although you can probably find a host of gadgets which will add resistance to your breathing, it’s much cheaper and more practical to just use something that’s abundant and effective: water. To make use of this complicated bit of training equipment, you may have to visit your local hardware store.
Remember when you were a kid, and your parents never let you blow bubbles in your chocolate milk? Well get ready to taste sweet revenge! Get yourself a piece of piping, rubber hose, or the like, and simply immerse it in a bucket of water or even your bathtub. This technique is exactly the same, except that you’re breathing through a hose rather than through your teeth. Generally speaking, the longer and thinner the pipe or hose you’re using, the harder it will be to blow.*
*Author’s note: I am quite aware of the opportunity for some pretty terrible humor here, but the editors have placed a limit on the amount of completely predictable and unfunny jokes I may use per article. I used up the last of them with that chocolate milk thing. That is all.
If you’re not satisfied with the rate at which your numbers are (or aren’t) going up, or the general look of your midsection, add some power breathing into your training and you’ll be pleased with the results. Give the above a try, even if you’re skeptical – especially if you’re skeptical. At the very least, it’ll take your mind off trying to pick out a tank top to wear, ya’ bloody narcissist.
1. Leonard, Charles. 1998. The Neuroscience of Human Movement. Mosby, Inc. St. Louis.
2. Tortora, Gerard J., and Sandra Reynolds Grabowski. Principles of Anatomy and Physiology. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2000.