Optimized Breathing for More Gains?
You've done it since birth. If you didn't instinctively know how, you'd be dead. Yes, you breathe constantly, but are you doing it optimally? Are you doing it in a way that'll help you as a lifter who does more than sit, stand, and lie down? Probably not.
If you've hit a plateau, or you're just feeling beat up after training, it may not be the workouts or even your nutrition that need to be improved. It may be your recovery. And better breathing can actually help.
Think about it. You've heard all the standard recovery advice before: monitor your loads, be careful with volume, prioritize protein, and up the carbs around training to support your performance. But the one thing that's missing is also the thing you're doing constantly, tens of thousands of times a day.
Believe it or not, there's more to it than just inhaling and exhaling. You can significantly improve your breathing with just three techniques. These will improve your performance under the bar, and more importantly, your recovery between workouts.
Breathing is like any other movement pattern. When you look at it as a motor skill, you start to see how it can be improved with corrective and activation-based strategies, the same way you'd improve a squat or deadlift.
But it's a challenge. Why? Because most people actually breathe wrong. The average person takes over 20,000 dysfunctional breaths per day. And many times, verbal instruction is ineffective, which means there's a need for more tactile cues to create a mind-muscle connection to help them start to improve breathing mechanics.
The most effective corrective exercise for breathing is called "crocodile breath," as originated by Gray Cook. Using the ground as a tactile cue from the face down position, this strategy is a game-changer that'll help you "feel" what it is to properly expand the belly through 360-degrees. This is ideal because it helps you keep secondary respiratory muscles out of the process.
How To Do It
The focus needs to be on the quality of movement rather than the quantity or intensity. Breathe perfectly and it'll eventually become habitual.
- Start in a prone (lying on your stomach) position on the floor.
- Bring your fists together and rest your forehead passively on your hands.
- Keep your legs straight and your toes pointed down.
- Relax the body into this central position.
Your hand and head position will feel a bit unnatural at first. The rationale behind propping the head on the fists is twofold. First, the head and neck need to remain in a neutral position (with the head straight, NOT turned to either side) to clearly open up the airway. Secondly, with the hands and arms elevated, the secondary respiratory muscles – mainly the muscles of the neck and the upper trap – are placed into a more relaxed position away from stretch and tension.
You're using positions to make it as easy as possible to execute proper breathing. Once you're positioned correctly, your focus will be placed on the execution and the quality of the breaths in order to allow motor learning and skill transference to occur.
Tempo of Breath
- Inhale 4-6 seconds
- Hold 2-4 seconds
- Exhale 4-6 seconds
While the tempo is important, your focus needs to be first placed on the expansion of the belly and the movement pattern itself. Since the belly is in direct contact with the floor, it's the perfect setup for breathing INTO the floor, expanding through the diaphragm (the respiratory muscle at the bottom of the ribcage).
We're also wanting 360-degree expansion, meaning that not only are we breathing into the belly against the floor, but expanding our breath through the sides of the torso along with the lower back. To get a feel for it, have a partner touch your sides and also use a block or ball on the lower back to push up against during each breath.
Once the expansion pattern is mastered, the focus will shift to the tempo of the breath itself. While the above tempo prescriptions of (4-6/2-4/4-6) aren't set in stone, make sure exhalation is longer than inhalation to optimize gaseous exchange and slow the process to avoid compensations.
Also, make sure to pause and hold the breath for a split second at the top to experience the feeling of that 360-degree expansion. That's the goal.
When To Use It
This technique is most prominently used in the early stages of breathing re-patterning for athletes who struggle with disassociating compensatory chest breathing from deep-belly breathing. Think of this drill as a corrective exercise. Once you've made notable progress, it can be discontinued. The skill is then maintained during daily activities and training.
Since diaphragmatic breathing is a motor skill, you have to practice it in order to relearn it and continually repeat it. Start with 1-3 minutes of crocodile breathing per day, preferably as the first component of a dynamic warm-up sequence. This will help you start chipping away at old habits and ingraining new ones.
In my time working in San Diego with some of the Special Forces, I learned as much from these amazing human beings as they learned from my coaching. There's one method in particular that revolutionized my coaching – tactical breathing. And because of it, my athletes have been able to train at high relative intensities while increasing the total volume of work.
How To Do It
First, dysfunctional breathing patterns need to be addressed and improved. Think of it as goblet squatting before back squatting. Once you master the skill of belly breathing, move on from there. From supine, to kneeling, to standing, make sure you're maintaining the ability to breathe properly, which will eventually become habitual. Once you've got that down, implement the tactical breath.
During a workout is NOT the best time to start using tactical breathing. Rather, practice this skill in a more non-threatening environment first. My favorite position to start athletes with is sitting cross-legged on the floor.
- Sit on the floor with legs crossed and your spine supported by the wall.
- Place your hands in your lap.
- Close your eyes and relax into this position.
- Inhale with a 4-count, using your belly, chest, and shoulders in that order.
- Hold for a 4-count at the top of the breath in full expansion.
- Exhale with a 4-count out through the mouth.
- Pause at the bottom of the breath for a few seconds between breaths.
Continue practicing this tactical breathing to make it automatic, and progress into kneeling and standing. After you've got it down, add it to your training sessions. The last thing you need between heavy work sets of deadlifts is hyperventilation. You've been warned; master this skill before using it in workouts.
Tempo of Breath
- Inhale 4 seconds
- Hold 4 seconds
- Exhale 4 seconds
You'll also hear this technique called "box breathing." There's a rhythm of 4-second durations at each portion of the breath. While this tempo is successful in helping people during physically, emotionally, and mentally challenging situations, when it comes to training, I teach lifters to use a quicker pause (hold) at the bottom of the rep.
You want to make sure that an optimal amount of exchange happens in the lungs and cardio-respiratory system. While the 4-second pause has some merit for grading back of the sympathetic response, mechanically speaking, the active tissues during lifts need more perfusion of oxygen and exchange happening locally. We need more breaths in during our rest periods to expedite recovery.
Reduce the 4-second hold at the bottom of the breath to around 1-second and you can increase the amount of breaths you can get in a given rest period. For example, using traditional box breathing, one cycle takes 16-seconds. By reducing the bottom hold to 1-second, a breath will now take 13-seconds. That doesn't seem like a ton, but it's those last few breaths that'll spark recovery when you need it most.
When To Use It
Tactical breathing was developed out of necessity. I first started formally studying the tactical breath under the teachings of former Navy SEAL, Mark Divine.
There's nothing routine about a firefight, no matter how much experience you have in the field. Our human nature is to heighten our senses with a sympathetic response that elevates heart rate, increases blood pressure, dilates the pupils, and prepares the body to fight for survival.
While this is a primitive response, it's less than ideal for fine and gross motor skills needed to execute tasks perfectly. Imagine if every time Chris Kyle saw a threat walk into his sniper scope he got the sympathetic shakes. That wouldn't exactly be ideal to carrying out his mission. The same can be said (of course to a far lesser extent) to training performance.
While training "on the nerve" can sometimes create physical and neurological advantages under the bar, more often than not, learning how to harness the potential of the sympathetic system by grading it back is better. Not every workout is treated the same as a competition, especially as volume, relative intensity, and cumulative capacities are challenged throughout the course of a training session.
Simply put, tactical breathing can optimize the recovery window inside rest periods. How? By allowing for a more full and complete mechanical and systemic recovery. The quicker you can recover, the more efficient your training becomes. And the more efficient training becomes, the less energy you waste and the more can be streamlined into the training itself.
You shouldn't need to sit around huffing and puffing for 5 minutes after every tough set of squats. Use tactical breathing to steady your CNS, optimize your intra-set recovery and repeatedly train at your highest levels.
Optimizing your training is all about monitoring your loads and recovering between sessions. But most lifters only focus on the training, forgetting about the all-important process of recovery in order to actually regenerate from the stress of the workout itself.
So how do we recover faster to train harder and more frequently? Sure, nutrition, hydration, and stress all play a role, but what about the time it takes us to shift from a sympathetic based CNS response in training to a parasympathetic based response that allows the recovery process to start doing its work?
That intermediary period between your last set and the time where your CNS comes down off the sympathetic bender it's been on in the gym needs to be minimized. One of the most effective methods to do that is by using recovery breathing as the last "exercise" of the day before you leave the gym.
How To Do It
Recovery breathing is about the position and setup. The passive positioning of the arms and legs help with centralized drainage of lymphatic fluid. The spine remains in a relatively neutral position to reduce the threat-response to the body. You basically get your body as comfortable as possible for the goal of reversing the CNS response from training.
- Try to find a quiet area of the gym away from music or noise.
- Lay on your back with your head resting on the ground.
- Elevate your legs to above heart level with knees slightly bent.
- Elevate your arms overhead.
- Close your eyes and relax the body.
From this position, you should be able to relax every single muscle in your body to allow a fully passive response to take place. From here, focus on only one single movement: your breath.
Tempo of Breath
- Inhale 3-4 seconds
- Hold 2-3 seconds
- Exhale 6-8 seconds
The main focus with the tempo of the breath is about slowly inhaling and exhaling under control. Since most athletes and lifters have trouble slowing down, especially while in the presence of iron, using specific tempos can be very useful when adopting this strategy.
Inhale for 3-4 seconds fully, hold for a few seconds at the top of the breath, and then try to extend the exhalation to around 8 seconds. You want this tempo to be slow and controlled, but also habitual to the point of being passive. The last thing you want to do during recovery breathing is to stress about exact numbers of the breath counts, so you have an excuse to chill and zone out a bit on this one.
How long do you lay there? Till you turn off the sympathetic switch before leaving the gym. And since that's the whole purpose of it, try techniques like positive mental imagery to get the most out of these few minutes. Set a timer for your prescribed duration in order to avoid checking the clock, and just enjoy a few minutes on the floor in celebration of the ball-busting work you just did.
When To Use It
If you find yourself jacked up for hours after training followed by a huge crash, this strategy is going to be a game-changer. You'll be able to recover faster and relax better on a day to day basis, which is priceless.
What happens to people, especially those who train in the mornings, is that they spark a sympathetic response in their training and never come back down from it. They stay heightened all day until their system finally fails and they crash hard. While this can be limiting to recovery, it can also be a huge barrier for strength, muscle, and performance. (Not to mention your enjoyment of life.)
In a matter of 3-5 minutes after training, you can free yourself of more stress. It's what will keep your body from punching the gas pedal on your CNS, and wiring you up for hours after your workout has ended.
It'll be weird at first lying on the ground with your eyes closed while others pound away at the iron. But when you turn around in record time with higher energy and more strength under the bar, you'll realize that those 3 awkward minutes were worth it.
I picked up this strategy from legendary strength and conditioning coach Buddy Morris years ago, who has championed this technique throughout the NFL and other high performance sports. If it's good enough for pro athletes who make a living based on their athletic performance, it's probably good enough for you.
How do you know it's working?
You should feel calm after you're done with a round of this. If you're struggling to get a positive response, revert back to crocodile breathing and refine your skills. And if that doesn't work, use your training buddy as your personal psychologist and work out your issues that way.