Relaxation, Mechanics, and Position
Breathing has been a hot topic in the fitness world recently. The more we learn about the influence breathing has on our health and performance the more we realize how little we know about the topic. We have discussed breathing related topics on the TTT blog in the past: Evan has a fantastic write-up on breathing limitations during exercise I’ve written an article about identifying breathing versus muscular limitations , and Max has written extensively on the use of breathing as a tool for influencing the parasympathetic system and thus improving relaxation and recovery. However, despite covering this topic extensively, I feel that understanding breathing holistically can be quite confusing due to the fact that it is related to so many of our physical and mental processes. It is guaranteed that if you are pushing your body and mind in competition (...the Open anyone?) that breathing is going to impact your performance. This blog is meant point out some of the issues we see revolving around breathing and the types of breath training with which we have experimented.
Due of the rising interest of breathing in athletic performance, one of the most common questions I get from my athletes right now is: “how should I be breathing?”. They intuitively know that there is *something* wrong or that their breathing feels more labored than it should, but generally they have no idea what is wrong or how to go about fixing it. Until recently I had never put much thought into breathing as a modulator of performance and health. However Evan’s investigations w/ the Moxy sensor (a real-time muscle-oxygen sensor) along with deep discussions I’ve had about influence of breathing on posture, muscle tension, and movement with Max have made it clear to me that addressing breathing is essential to creating a holistic training paradigm.
“did the training program that made the power athlete more powerful lead to adaptations that result in lower functional lung volume or did they gravitate toward power training because of their lower functional lung volume in the first place?”
As it turns out, the breathing dysfunctions that athletes sense during training affect more than just their performance in the moment, but also the type of adaptations they make to their training program. An athlete with poor breathing mechanics who is doing what they perceive to be aerobic work may really be driving anaerobic adaptations - a phenomenon that many experienced coaches have observed but never really had good explanations for why it was happening, nor what to do about it. Along these lines we have observed that relative to body-size, the most powerful athletes that we work with tend to have lower functional lung volumes than more enduring athletes, which has led me to some chicken or the egg type discussions: “did the training program that made the power athlete more powerful lead to adaptations that result in lower functional lung volume or did they gravitate toward power training because of their lower functional lung volume in the first place?” Regardless of the answer to this question it is clear that breathing plays a much bigger and more complex role in sport performance than it seems on the surface.
"can breathing mechanics be changed in some way to improve an athlete’s response to training?"
Knowing that how an athlete breaths can alter the intent and effectiveness of their program begs the question: can breathing mechanics be changed in some way to improve an athlete’s response to training? The answer to this question is emphatically, yes. The problem is that the methods for correcting these nearly ubiquitous breathing dysfunctions are not simple. The process of improving “breathing” as a whole is quite complex because it is involved in nearly every physiological process related to athletic performance, from cellular respiration at the microscopic level to bracing our spine under near maximal loads at the macro level. Breath training needs to address and improve the full spectrum of these processes as they are all interconnected.
In order to create a system for understanding how to train your breathing, it helps to separate breath training modalities into discrete categories. We have identified 3 major categories of “breath training” that simplify the understanding of how to prescribe and apply this complex training tool. (1) Arousal Control (2) Breathing Mechanics (3) Positional Breathing. Each category of breathing is related. For example, an anxious person will tend to exhibit shallow high-chest hyperventilation breathing patterns which prevent them from breathing fully while bracing a load like a front squat. The result is that their inability to breathe changes their blood chemistry resulting in altered blood flow, increased muscle tension, and finally a decrease in performance. This is just tiny example of the massively complex and interconnected aspects of breathing.
At face value, all things are simple. Breathing is inhaling and exhaling. However, like most things, when you begin to analyze at a more complex level you can begin to master a tool and use it for your specific goals. Breathing is an aspect of physical training culture and of academic exercise physiology curriculum that is far too often glossed over. As you go through the remainder of this article, you should begin to see how many things breathing can influence, how important it is for strength and endurance, how many methods you can choose from to train it, and if you are like me, how much more there is to learn. This blog is a starting point for teaching about breathing and breathing is only one small subcomponent of what we consider ‘movement.’ In this article, I could not comprehensively cover either breathing or movement, but we have recently launched our TTT Movement Course which provides a much more comprehensive view of how breathing is related to the bigger picture that is movement. The remainder of this blog though will delve more deeply into improving breathing with training and the 3 categories we separate breathing into when writing progressions.
1. Arousal Control
a. Relaxation Breathing
The most well known breathing techniques are what I collectively refer to as “relaxation breathing”. In other words, breathing that induces a sense of calm on the nervous system. Relaxation breathing techniques are commonly employed in Yoga and various forms of breath-based meditation, so many people are familiar with the impact that focused breathing can have on arousal. Relaxation breathing is a tool I have played with for my entire coaching career. I implemented a consistent relaxation breathing routine with the high-school / club swim team I coached after reading an article about using Progressive Muscular Relaxation post-training to improve recovery. After the first session, many of the athletes related to me that they “felt great” and “had the best sleep of their life” later that night, despite the fact that I had put them through a punishing acid bath of a training session. I realized then that teaching athletes to relax and holding them accountable by running guided relaxation sessions after training was crucial to improving their ability to recovery from higher volumes of hard training. The added benefit of consistent relaxation breathing practice was that during their championship meet that season, when nerves were running high, all of the athletes had a great strategy for self-regulating their competitive anxiety so they could be in the right zone for their optimal performance. That team went on to take the runner-up title that season, tying the school's best finish in history. I attribute much of what we were able to accomplish that year to the effective management of their recovery habits.
I consider relaxation breathing to be any type of breath training meant to stimulate the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. This is typically accomplished by implementing various cadences of breathing, however there are three factors that enhance the parasympathetic response to breathing (1) stretching of the diaphragm by deep breathing, (2) exhalation duration longer than inhalation, (3) inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth. An example of a simple relaxation breathing protocol could be: set a timer for 10 minutes, inhale and exhale fully and deeply through your nose ensuring that you are taking “belly breaths”, and inhale for 3 seconds and exhale for 6 seconds. This is an incredibly simple but also incredibly effective tool for modulating parasympathetic activation and thus initiating a relaxation response.
Example Relaxation Breathing Prescription
Set a timer for 10min:
Seated in an upright “yoga” position or lying flat on your back breathe @3162 cadence breathing into the belly while limiting expansion of the ribs and lifting of the chest and shoulders. Breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth.
b. Excitation Breathing
Just as our breathing can work to calm us, we can also use it to increase arousal. Many people in the sporting realm have experienced this as part of their pre-lift routine. This “excitation breathing” serves to ramp us up in preparation for hard physical effort. Nowhere is this more obvious than watching a strength event, whether strongman, powerlifting, or weightlifting, these athletes have learned to use their breathing to turn up their arousal, increasing their muscle tension and giving them a boost of adrenaline that can positively impact their strength.
I consider excitation breathing to be any type of breath training meant to stimulate the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. Excitation breathing is typically (1) shorter and shallower than a normal breath and (2) forces expansion of the mid and upper chest and a engagement of the traps and neck musculature. I’ve played around with both deep-aggressive breaths and shallow-aggressive breaths before various strength related training tools and have found that both are quite effective at preparing me for a heavy lift. An example of a simple excitation breathing protocol could be: take 3-5 fast breaths ensuring to breathe deeply and expand the upper chest, and then return to your normal breathing pattern. You will feel the change in your nervous system very quickly. A word of caution - this is a controlled hyperventilation protocol which can leave you feeling lightheaded. I strongly suggest that you first test this in a seated or lying position in a controlled environment to see how you will react.
Example Excitation Breathing Prescription
At the completion of your warm-up, lie flat on your back and perform 3-5 aggressive full inhales with an immediate forced exhale. You should be expanding ribs and chest while shrugging shoulders upward during these breaths to maximize the arousal response. Remain lying and return your breathing to “normal” for 20-30sec and get up slowly.
2. Breathing Mechanics
I recently started working with an athlete who consistently struggled with local fatigue during cyclical work. When we would perform intervals intended to improve their aerobic power they would fail to hit the designated pacing needed to achieve the desired stimulus. After some review of their movement testing, implementing a breathing assessment, and further discussion we discovered that they were not breathing effectively once they hit their respiratory threshold (the HR at which they can no longer “control” their breathing). We decided to implement some inspiratory and expiratory breathing resistance training and discovered that they could inhale easily against resistance but could barely exhale against light resistance. From this we were able to identify that their breathing “mechanics” were poor resulting in weak exhalation. The prescription for this athlete was to add expiratory muscle training to the program 3-4 days each week to strengthen their respiratory muscles, and work to retrain their breathing patterns at rest. We are still quite early into the experience however after just a short period of time they are experiencing far less local fatigue and a subjective reduction of effort at training paces that used to be extremely challenging.
Breathing mechanics work will likely be a must for most athletes at some point in their career in any sport that drives them into sympathetic states frequently (again reference the ANS article for more information). We are typically not aware of it, but when our competitive juices are flowing we tend adopt stiffer, more aggressive postures with shallow breathing patterns. If we subject ourselves to fight-or-flight inducing stresses on frequent basis (yes, hard training is one of them), this poor posture and shallow breathing becomes our new normal. The result is that over time we will see a decrease in performance, not because we have lost “fitness” but because changes in our breathing mechanics have altered our physiology. When athletes reach this stage, most assume that they need to perform either more volume, more intensity, or both. The reality is that choosing either of these routes will only exaggerate the problem. The right strategy is to implement breathing mechanics training and movement work to synergistically improve their breathing and posture. With a bit of work they will begin to see steady improvement in their breathing and subsequently athletic performance.
Example techniques used to improve breathing mechanics include inspiratory and expiratory muscle training using devices like the SpiroTiger or the PowerLung as well as having athletes focus on using a proper breathing sequence at rest. There is vast literature that exists on the use of the SpiroTiger or PowerLung for improving respiratory strength, so I’d suggest searching for their reference materials for more information there. The optimal breathing sequence at rest begins by expanding the diaphragm followed by expansion of the lower ribs during the inhale, and then the same sequence in reverse during the exhale. Breathing in this way should feel smooth and natural at rest. As exercise intensity increases the sequence of the breath should not change dramatically, but the speed of breathing should increase in parallel to intensity. It has been my observation that most athletes with major “mobility” problems also exhibit breathing mechanics issues, so if you find that you’re constantly tight you may want to to look to your breathing for improvement.
Working with athletes I have found two positions that seem to allow them to access diaphragmatic breathing more effectively: the quadruped position and lying on their back with their feet elevated on a bench or box. Both of these positions encourage the proper sequencing of breathing mechanics and can be used to reinforce this optimal sequence prior to or after training sessions.
Example Excitation Breathing Prescription
A1. Quadruped Breathing - 2 x 10 breaths; rest 30sec (build momentum with each breath)
A2. 1/2 Kneeling Breathing - 2 x 10 breaths; rest 60sec (build momentum with each breath)
*inhale: breathe fully into diaphragm first, expanding belly and obliques, then expand lower ribs. You should not be "lifting" your shoulders or altering spine position as this is an indicator of faulty breathing mechanics
*exhale: slightly forced, start by contracting lower ribs first and then compressing diaphragm to exhale the last of your air
3. Positional Breathing
Athletes in a sport with many disciplines like CrossFit™, will often find that they have particular movements with which they struggle. This is true from the top to the bottom. One thing that is consistently clear is that the movements you struggle with the most are typically ones in which you struggle to breathe effectively. How can a games athlete like Travis Mayer be so good at cycling clean & jerks, while struggle so much with cycling snatches? Max asked this question (why) and proposed a simple test for Travis: get into the setup position of a clean and try to breathe and then get into the setup position of a snatch and try to breathe. The difference was night and day. Travis could breathe easily when he was at the bottom of a clean rep but couldn’t figure out how to generate tension while inhaling in the bottom of a snatch rep. The solution here was very clear, Travis had to learn to breathe while in the bottom of a snatch, and then eventually learn to breath while dynamically moving through the snatch positions. After observing this, I began developing positional breathing routines for my athletes to target their weakest moments in their weakest positions. The results have been quite impressive with athletes becoming not just comfortable with movements they had struggled with for years but also developing capacity for those movements that they had never had before.
The concept is simple, do you struggle with thrusters? If so, do thrusters and monitor your breathing. Does it feel free and easy or restricted and mechanical? Are there certain spots in the movement where you can breathe and others where you cannot? As you investigate your movements and start to answer these questions you can begin to train yourself in these specific positions. If you struggle to breathe in the bottom of a squat, then sit in the bottom of an active squat and breathe (using good mechanics as described above). If you struggle to breathe during overhead squats then put an empty barbell overhead and move through slow and controlled overhead squats. As you progress you will likely find that many of the movements that you lacked endurance with in the past have really restricted breathing. Note that there will always be a load which you have to use your breath to brace your spine and generate more tension, but below that weight threshold you should be breathing as efficiently and freely in your movements as possible. Your performance literally depends on it.
Example Positional Breathing Prescription (click each below for example video)
A1. 10 Breaths in bottom of active squat @3162 cadence
A2. 10 Breaths holding barbell in front rack @3162 cadence (ensure optimal spine position)
A3. 10 Breaths holding barbell overhead @3162 (ensure ribs down)
A4. 10 Empty Barbell Thrusters slow controlled tempo, inhale down / exhale up
(cadence: 3sec in / 1 hold / 6sec out / 2 hold)
"For breath is life, so breathe well and live long"– Sanskrit Proverb
Putting it all together
Collectively we’ve known for millennia that breathing is a critical aspect of the human experience. It is something that we take for granted in most all aspects of life despite possessing profound impacts on the way we experience life. We are most aware of our breathing when it is hard to come by - the anxiety that we experience when we’re starved for air might well be one of the most frightening things we can encounter. Over the past months of exploring this topic deeper and deeper, I’ve been able to draw clear connections between my emotional state and how I’m breathing. This has provided me with a new context for observing my athletes as they move and train, helping me to relate to them in ways I haven’t been able to before. The ideas that I presented here in the blog only scratch the surface of what is possible when we understand the importance that breathing can have for athletic performance and haven’t even touched on the relationship between how one breathes and their health. I urge you to become a part of the conversation, educate yourself on the impact that breathing can have, and then experiment using the tools I’ve provided in this blog as a starting point.