Breathing seems simple enough. You just inhale, exhale, and repeat as necessary, right?

Well, we're all born knowing how to breathe, but somewhere throughout our lives, respiration habits travel down the path of inefficiency.

And while you may not pay it any mind, if you control this essential act, you can control everything.

"Hey, Who Are You Calling a Mouth Breather?"

From first breath onward, all of us have unknowingly modeled our breathing after three distinct styles.

Some of us have become "low breathers" who breathe with our diaphragm and abdominal muscles, thus allowing our abdomen to extend outward, while others developed into "middle breathers" where the lower ribs expand forward and to the sides. And then there are the "high breathers" who take short, rapid, and shallow breaths.

All three methods of breathing are very inefficient and have a direct effect on the body both mentally and physically.

But by developing stronger and more efficient respiration skills, you can improve every aspect of your life including more energy, quicker reaction times, stronger lifts, increased endurance, mental clarity, and the reduction of both physical and mental stress.

Anatomy of a Breath

Respiratory System

Developing the muscles responsible for respiration is as important as any other muscle group. In fact, they are the most important, for without them we couldn't perform at all.

While most think of the diaphragm as being the major muscle responsible for breathing during exercise and physical stress, there are many other muscles responsible for getting the air in and out.

(I think it's good to know this anatomy stuff, but if you want to skip it, it's fine by me. Just zip ahead to the next section.)

Muscles Used for Ventilation

Upon inspiration, the external intercostals raise the lower ribs up and out, increasing the lateral and anteroposterior dimensions of the thorax. The scalene muscles and sternomastoids also become involved, serving to raise and push out the upper ribs and the sternum.

During active expiration, the most important muscles are those of the abdominal wall. The rectus abdominus, internal and external obliques, and the transversus abdominus all help to drive intra-abdominal pressure up when they contract, thus, pushing up the diaphragm, raising pleural pressure, which raises alveolar pressure, which in turn drives air out.

The internal intercostals assist with active expiration by pulling the ribs down and in, decreasing thoracic volume.

The diaphragm is directly attached to the abdominal wall at three distinct origins: the sternal part arises by two fleshy slips from the back of the xiphoid process ; the costal part from the inner surfaces of the cartilages and adjacent portions of the lower six ribs on either side, interdigitating with the transversus abdominis ; and the lumbar part from the aponeurotic arches, named the lumbocostal arches, and from the lumbar vertebrae by two pillars or crura.(1)

The Lost Art of the Vacuum

Bodybuilders of old were conscious of their midsections and worked diligently to perfect the v-shaped tapered look most of us strive for. Countless hours were spent strengthening and learning how to control the inner depths of their abdominal walls. One of my all time favorites, Frank Zane, was the master.

This technique not only had a positive result from a physique standpoint, but it developed the muscles responsible for respiration to their fullest.

Learning how to properly perform a vacuum is the first step down the pathway to better respiration.

  1. Begin by lying face up with your knees bent and your feet on the floor.
  2. Engage your inner abdominal wall by drawing in as if you wanted to touch it to your spine.
  3. Once engaged, start to slowly breath in through your nose and fill your lungs as completely as possible.
  4. Once you have reached your fullest breath, hold it for a five count and slowly breath out through your mouth without releasing your abdominal wall.
  5. Relax, and without engaging your abdominal wall, take another deep breath, holding it for a five count before slowly breathing out, thus reinforcing the progression towards a greater lung capacity.
  6. Repeat this cycle for a total of twenty breaths for as many sets as you want. The more you do, the better the results. Steadily increase your hold count to improve respiratory efficiency.
  7. The next step would be to progress to a four-point stance on your hands and knees, followed next by kneeling.
Frank Zane Vacuum Pose

Engage, Breathe, Execute

Once you feel that you've made progress and sucked all you can out of your vacuums, it's time to apply this method to exercise.

1. Visualize any compound lift, and upon approaching the bar, take three slow, deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth.

2. Grasp the bar, engage your abdominal wall, and fill your lungs with air.

3. Execute the lift, breathing out with force and keeping the tension on your abdominal wall.

4. As you decelerate the weight, repeat your deep breath in and execute the lift again, objectively trying to keep your abdominal wall engaged throughout the number of reps chosen and breaths taken.

Upon completion of the exercise, take another three deep breaths applying the five-to-ten-second hold pattern, thus allowing for further oxygen saturation into the bloodstream, as well as improving lung capacity.

Not only does this supply the necessary oxygen to your body, but at the same time it helps to control your heart rate. By increasing your intake of oxygen and engaging your core musculature, you'll soon see the positive benefits as your strength and rep ranges go up.

Secondarily, you'll also experience a better-developed abdomen and an overall tightening of the midsection, resulting in a flatter, firmer stomach. Respiration will be more efficient and your body will function at a higher level.

From Balloon Animals to a Real Animal

When was the last time you tried to blow up a balloon? These cheap and easy to find toys are highly beneficial tools for developing superior lung volume and respiratory strength.

Applying the same techniques described for vacuums, engage your abdominal wall, take a deep breath in through your nose filling your lungs to their fullest, and breathe out with control, force-filling the balloon with air. Never allow your abdominal wall to release until you've fully exhaled. Continue these steps until you completely inflate the balloon.

Balloons come in all sizes and wall thicknesses allowing training progressions to be simple and inexpensive. The over ambitious can work their way up to the hot water bottle this is truly a feat of respiratory strength!

Balloon blowing directly after a rigorous exercise can further development and improve heart rate control.

Continued Study: Blow Here

Having focused on breathing for years, I've found several convenient places to practice respiration exercises.

The first is in your vehicle. Most of us spend countless hours driving to and from destinations, making for the perfect time to sit upright, engage your abdominal wall, and breathe deep, full breaths. Placing a note on your dash that simply says, "Breathe!" is a helpful reminder.

Next is before bed, as this can promote relaxation and can aid with getting to and staying asleep, as well as recovery from intense workouts.

And just like it can put you to sleep faster than 73 sheep, upon waking up, this can help jumpstart your morning by providing stimulation, circulation, and oxygen-enriched blood.

The last and most important place is during competition. Having stated in the beginning that controlling your breath will help you to control everything is certainly a fact. During times of intense competition, our bodies release adrenaline and endorphins, which can be controlled more efficiently when we're maximizing our intake of air and controlling the rate at which we do so.

A Word of Caution

Be aware that when you first start respiratory training it can cause light-headedness and dizziness. If you experience any of these reactions, rest until the symptoms subside and continue your progress. Never execute any strength exercise when feeling this way.

Breathing is essential for life. It can improve performance, make us think clearer, and can be a healing tool. When striving for a better quality of life, train your lungs!