Kyle Honcharik, NASM CPT, CES, PES, MMA
I already know what you’re thinking. “I breathe the right way!” If that is your final answer, I urge you to continue reading. You may be missing out on the development of your abdominal muscles, giving yourself back injuries, or slowing fat loss. You may even have a lack of overall comfort during weight training. Sure, you might breathe, but do you breathe in the best way possible to support your body when it is moving under load and stress?
Out of the ten-plus years spent in gyms as a fitness professional (and to make myself stronger), I have noticed an eerie silence beneath the clanking of weights and the usual grunts in the free weight area. There is a resounding problem that spans across this country and makes its way into every single discipline of resistance training: breathing patterns. We can live without food for about three weeks, without water for 3 days (depending on temperature conditions), but how long can a human survive without breathing? The answer is about five to ten minutes, but even then a person may have irreversible brain damage. So, it appears breathing may be more important than most people think. Without it, we would be dead, or at least brain dead.
Anyone who has trained for more than a week knows to hydrate and eat properly for maximum energy output during sustained resistance training. You carry around your plastic water jug with motivational phrases scribbled onto the side. Maybe you are even toying with the right protein to carb ratio to fuel yourself on leg day. In most western training styles, the training mindset generally works from the outside in. What are the right exercises, reps, tempos, pre workouts, and protein supplements? These are all questions most lifters consider when trying to become stronger. However, when was the last time you thought about your breathing patterns, and more importantly, when was the last time you tried to make them better?
Before we talk about how to make your breathing better, we should talk about why it is even important. Your body regulates breathing as part of your autonomic nervous system. Like the name implies, it is largely automated. You probably will not forget to breathe when you go to sleep tonight. Because the nervous system has a handle on breathing function when the body is at rest, breathing also tends to remain automated when the body is in motion. If the body needs more oxygen, it breathes to meet the demand for more oxygen until it can circulate more oxygen throughout the blood stream. Then, your heart rate can slow down, and like magic, you have caught your breath.
The human body can regulate its heart more effectively with better breathing control. The body becomes short of breath when the demand for oxygen does not meet the supply.
Now, let’s talk about how to breathe better. The next time you are feeling your heart rate rocket out of control, try this:
- Stand in front of a mirror (I know you’re already looking at yourself in the mirror)
- Take in a slow, deep breath through your nose
- Fill your lungs up completely
- Notice when you inhale, that you will see your chest rise.
- Exhale slowly through the mouth
- Repeat as much as 6 times before attempting to breathe normally
Lesson learned: You are now better equipped to recover your breathing and heart more quickly and can dedicate more time to lifting heavy things. If you use the lungs to a higher capacity, more oxygen can be extracted from the air, and your heart rate can come down faster.
The way breathing relates to the core and the spine safety is extremely important. The core is the way the body makes itself stable, and is also the way the body transfers kinetic energy to the ground when under load. Your diaphragm, the muscle responsible for deep breathing, is actually considered part of your core. The best way to understand how the core works with your spine is with a model. Put a plastic water bottle in front of you. Even your ridiculous gallon jug with the motivational quotes will do the trick.
- Pick up your water bottle.
- Take the cap off.
- Squeeze the water bottle. Notice how easily it is crushed
- Blow the bottle back up with your mouth
- Put the cap on tightly
- Squeeze it again
- Notice how the bottle will not collapse anymore
This model shows you how air pressure preserves the shape of the water bottle. When a person takes a deep breath, air pressure builds inside the torso. The increased air mass turns the core into a pressure vessel, making it less susceptible to external forces. See where this is going, yet? This type of deep breathing and higher pressure will prevent the spine from undesirably moving under external (weight) forces. Now, the spine is more stable—because you have thought about your breath.
When you inflated the water bottle back to its original shape, notice how the air pressure effects all sides of the bottle equally? You can’t blow up one side of the water bottle. Aerodynamic law says that air pressure applied inside of a vessel will be imposed on all sides equally. In other words, before a heavy lift, take a moment and fill up your lungs. This will allow your spine (especially the lower vertebra) to be in a better position for moving heavy things.
Most people who have paid a little thought to breathing will know to exhale during the lift (concentric) phase and inhale during the negative (eccentric) phase. For beginners that lift limited weight, that may be fine, but more advanced training requires more advanced breathing. Try this:
- Stand up
- Place your hands on your stomach
- Breathe normally
- You will notice you don’t feel your stomach muscles engaged.
- Now, take a deeeeep breath in through your nose.
- Notice the muscle activity in your abdominal area
- Exhale as forcefully as you can through your mouth! Pretend you are blowing out a candle that is 6 feet away from you. You should hear the air leave your body!
- Observe the way your core muscles fire when a proper inhale and exhale takes place.
Lesson learned: Your core activation is determined by how deep you inhale, and how fast you exhale. The exhale should start about a half a second before the concentric phase of a lift. You want your core engaged fully BEFORE there is a change in force, not DURING that change in force. If the core is not able to accept that load, the spine may have to compensate, and bam, you now have a back injury. The exception to this rule may be extremely heavy lifting, such as a 1 RM max. Practice this breathing technique by itself before trying to apply it to a lift. This technique is especially useful for abdominal work.
Congrats, you will now prevent a lot of back injuries, recover your heart rate faster, and get your abdominal muscles to fire more effectively! So, the next time you hit the weights, breathe the right way. Do not be afraid to make some noise.. There is nothing more deafening and detrimental to your survival, especially while weight lifting, than unfocused breath.
National Academy of Sports Medicine CPT
National Academy of Sports Medicine Corrective Exercise Specialist
National Academy of Sports Medicine Performance Enhancement Specialist
National Academy of Sports Medicine Mixed Martial Arts Conditioning Specialist
National Academy of Sports Medicine Senior Fitness Specialist