How often do you think about breathing? Sometimes? Not really? Are you thinking about it now? What about now?
Our Breathing is usually on autopilot, which is a great function of our body to keep us alive, but there are many opportunities to benefit from consciously controlling our breath. Breathing has a significant impact on how the central nervous system interprets the outside world. Stress level, mood state, and perceived intensity of exercise can all be affected by our breathing. After all, it’s something we are all doing, all the time.
Breathing is a cornerstone in lifting technique, and yes breathing is also important to life… but mostly lifting… Within this blog post I will describe useful breathing techniques, and some insights as to why we should utilize them. Before we dive into that, a little background on the central nervous system (CNS).
The CNS operates like the software of any technology, selecting different programs to run (outputs), by reacting to stimuli from our surrounding world (inputs). Our physical bodies are then, the hardware, acting out these programs. Breathing is typically one of these programs ran as a subconscious reaction.
For example, you find yourself in the middle of a rainforest, face to face with a tiger. Not completely unlike the at home views of Tiger King, your heartbeat starts racing, your breathing quickens, and you are ready to fight or fly.
What we can do with our breath is reverse this relationship, instead of our breath being a reaction, we can act to calm our breathing, and use it to our advantage. The same is true when we workout. We should utilize our breath for safety, optimal movement technique, and more recovery/mood control during our workouts.
First, let’s think about how we breathe while we are lifting, or exercising. I utilize different techniques based on the intensity (amount of load) of the exercise. With less intense exercises, such as the ones that you will be doing at home, breathing should be controlled, constant, and tempoed. Smoothly inhale as you set your body in position for the exercise, exhale while you exert energy, and then reset. Begin again in the same fashion. This can alleviate some light headedness and also subconsciously help you create a flow for the tempo and technique of the exercise.
For heavy lifts, I’m talking lifts that you doubt you could do more than 5 reps, you should employ the Valsalva Maneuver. The Valsalva Maneuver is a way to create the most stable base through Intra-Abdominal Pressure (IAP). Simply put, by inhaling deeply and expanding your stomach, sides, and low back, then holding your breath, you create a pressurized cylinder which tolerates heavy loads very well. While you set up, a sharp inhale acts to expand your trunk and create pressure. You hunker down, hold your breath, and utilize that pressure to maintain posture during the lift. Once the lift is complete, you release your breath. This approach will affect blood pressure, and may cause lightheadedness, but for the typical individual or athlete lifting heavy, the pros (maintaining posture & strength) outweigh the cons (potential lightheadedness, and acute spike in BP). I would still only utilize it when necessary though, not on those 75 reps of bodyweight squat jumps in your EMOM.
Lastly, a different way to utilize your breath, is to control your body’s reaction to imposed stress. Breathing long and calm is at the foundation of yoga, and the thought is to create unity between the mind and body. Breathing and movement can be huge in linking the mental self to the physical self. Consciously slowing your breath and utilizing it to calm your body, is a fantastic way to be more aware, recover faster, and also to just reduce your perception of life or exercise stress.
“Diaphragmatic Breathing” or better put “belly breathing” is a great way to reduce your body’s automatic perception of stress. I personally use belly breathing quite often, during warm up stretches, post workout recovery, and directly before falling asleep. It calms the whole body, and mind. How you do this: upon inhaling, consciously try to expand your stomach, sides, and lower back, while avoiding lifting your chest or tightening up. Once you have expanded through inhalation, calmly exhale all of the air out of your diaphragm. Simple, right?
I have found the best way to achieve this is to use feedback. I put my hands on my stomach to feel it expand, I lay flat on the floor to feel my lower back expand. Putting your feet vertically up a wall helps to subconsciously signal relaxation as well. To calm my mind, I count my breath. 1, 2, 3, 4 on the inhale. Hold for 1 (I replace the 1 with the amount of breathes I have taken) and 4 seconds on the exhale. Calming music is also a great addition to this practice.
Breathing can be a reaction, or an action. It can calm your mind and body, or spike arousal for a 1 rep max. Lightheadedness, stress, fatigue, and instability, can all be addressed and affected by fine-tuning your breath during exercise and after. Understanding and utilizing the correct breathing technique and tempo during your workouts is one of the basic principles to optimize your performance. Practice it now, achieve the Zen, then employ it when we get back. -Alex Friedman