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Unf*ck Your Breathing: The Mechanics

“In my class today, we were discussing avoiding the Valsalva maneuver when lifting and cueing clients to breathe out on the hard parts of the lift and breathe in on the easier parts.  A few of my students have just become level 1 [fitness] coaches, and they were curious how this translates when someone is powerlifting and trying to "brace" their core to maintain correct posture throughout the lift.  The way they understood it was that you should breathe in sharply and you end up holding your breath for a bit as you perform the lift.  My knowledge is pretty limited, so I thought I'd run it by you since you're an exercise physiologist AND strength coach!”

Today I received this email from a colleague of mine. What they are asking might be one of the more complex and misunderstood issues in human performance; not coincidentally, it also happens to be a buzz topic in the S&C world right now. For this article I am going to take my strength coach hat off and tap into my other job, an exercise physiologist with a specialty in pulmonary mechanics. By the end of this, you should be able to understand the pros and cons of the different types of breathing and when or, more importantly, when not to apply them.

Why does it matter?

Breathing matters because it is the primary way you build stability in your trunk. All the dead bugs and side pillars in the world won’t do the trick if you breathe like an asshole. When we talk about breathing, what we’re really talking about is the contraction of your diaphragm, a dome like muscle enclosing the bottom of your ribs. For a visual, think of a 2L pop bottle with the bottom removed (rib cage) and a balloon stretched across the bottom (your diaphragm). As you inhale you contract your diaphragm, it flattens and pulls air down into your lungs. When you exhale, you relax the diaphragm. Thus, inhalation is active whereas exhalation is passive.  There are some other muscles that could be involved, but this is the main mover.

What has become a recent hot topic is the connection that your diaphragm has with the muscles of your trunk and pelvic floor. Another visual: your pelvic floor is like a bowl and your diaphragm is like the lid. Ideally, the lid lies flat on top of the bowl. In reality, due to a bunch of factors, the bowl is usually tipped forward and the lid is being peeled off backward. This is why you’ll often hear the cue “ribs down” or maybe (though less effective) “squeeze/tuck your butt”. This relationship between your diaphragm and pelvic floor is important when talking about the different types of breathing, because it is the top priority when it comes to creating a stable trunk.

Breathe In, Breathe Out

There are a few types of breath being used in training. Chest breathing is common (and usually accompanied by an open mouth), especially under fatigue. Here you’ll see the rib cage expand and elevate as your athlete begins to recruit accessory muscles to breathe. The only pro to this style of breathing is that you will move more air faster. The drawback is that your body wasn’t designed to breathe this way, so you’ll actually require more energy to breathe. Your body will actually shift blood from your working muscles to your breathing muscles, thus affecting performance. Avoid this as much as possible. An easy strategy is to breathe through your nose. This will limit flow and might be slightly uncomfortable as you’ll not be able to blow off as much CO2, but you’ll be able to avoid serious respiratory muscle fatigue and won’t steal blood flow from working muscles. But, simply breathing through your nose doesn’t clear everything up. In doing this, you’ve still got options.

Suck It In

For instance, the second most common breathing you’ll see, is a “vacuum” breath where your athlete pulls the belly button to their spine. There is a positive here as your athlete will need to recruit their transverse abdominis (TA), a deeper sheath of muscle below your rectus abdominis (RA, six pack muscle). The TA is a primary player in proper trunk stability, but still requires the correct orientation of the diaphragm and muscles of the pelvic floor. This style of breathing will deviate from that alignment causing an “open scissors” relationship (flaring the ribs up and anteriorly tilting the pelvis). It also puts the TA in a concentric contraction which impedes the ability to pressurize the trunk. So here we enter the cue: ribs down.

Ribs Down

When we cue our athletes here, they typically make it happen, but as always, we’re interested in the how. And more often than not all they do is flex the glutes and the RA. So maybe we have the proper diaphragm-pelvic floor relationship, but the other trunk muscles are concentrically contracted, again impeding proper pressure development. This is also what we see many athletes interpret as a Valsalva maneuver, or “bearing down”. This creates pressure in a unidirectional manner vertically, which is why this contraction pattern is optimal when sitting on the toilet. Great for the bathroom, not great for the weight room. moving the needle in the right direction, but all you’ve really done is turn your trunk into an aluminum can of soda. Pretty strong, until you open the top and then it takes very little pressure to crush it.

The End Goal

Diaphragmatic breathing is ultimately where we want our athletes to end up. This style of breathing creates 360° pressurization, intra-abdominal pressure (IAP), as well as proper posture and alignment of the diaphragm and pelvic floor. This style of breathing is optimal not only in the weight room, but in every aspect of life. By creating proper IAP, you will actually be able to freely breath while still maintaining pressure. Highly effective in movements like pause squats as well as dynamic movements such as kettlebell swings or sprinting.  However, there are still some drawbacks to this.

Here we need to introduce the idea of “tension-to-task”. Though we want use this in every aspect of life, it needs to be noted that you should not create the same amount of pressure to back squat 500lbs as you would to stand up from the couch. But for an athlete who is new to this technique, they will have difficulty dialing this in which is why this is best introduced supine with the legs fully supported. This removes all postural loading to the muscles involved and will allow them to focus on connecting everything before adding load. Once they are proficient there, slowly begin to load by simply going from lying to seated, to standing, and then loaded externally. And don’t feel like regression is a bad thing. Beginning each session with supine diaphragmatic breathing is a great way to find connection prior to training. Once your athlete is proficient and performing under load, we can step into the taboo...wearing a belt.

Another Notch in the Belt

Though it’s been bastardized by folks thousands of times over, the purpose of the weight belt is NOT to create a shell around your trunk. It is actually there to serve as a form a feedback, a proprioceptive target. The belt should be loose enough that when you aren’t creating IAP it isn’t restricting you. But, when you do go to move, it gives you something to push out against (again, 360° not just a “power belly”) to create and maintain pressure throughout the movement. To do so, it must be placed properly which is somewhere around the midpoint between the bottom of your ribs and the top of your Iliac crest. The wider the belt, the more feedback. The thicker the belt, the greater the barrier to create pressure against.

In a perfect world, you wouldn’t even need a belt. But, when chasing near-max singles or doubles, lifting heavy enough that you temporarily lose some of your sense of hearing and vision, a belt isn’t a bad thing to turn to. But, even in those situations, if you tighten the belt as tight as possible, you may actually be making yourself WEAKER. Remember the analogy of the can of soda? What happens if you were to crunch down the middle of that can? It would crumble under even the lightest weight. While you may not crumble under light weight. The muscles of your back will be able to compensate, but not forever.

The Final Word

As humans, we don’t necessarily need to think about breathing. But, much like a simple hip hinge or sprinting, if we’ve built poor patterns over time, we are bound to mess ourselves up.

However, while you are able to get by in training without sprinting (we wouldn’t recommend it), you’ve got to breathe. Treating your breathing like you do every other movement and giving a concentrated effort on creating proper patterns will pay off in literally every other aspect of your training.

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Ben Skutnik, PhD(c), CSCS, PN1

Ben Skutnik, PhD(c), CSCS, PN1

Block One Coach and Nutrition Coach at Power Athlete HQ
Ben grew up a football player who found his way into a swimming pool. Swimming for four years, culminating in All-American status, at a Division III level, Ben grew to appreciate the effects that various training styles had on performance and decided to pursue the field of Exercise Physiology. After receiving his M.S. from Kansas State University in 2013, Ben moved on to Indiana University - Bloomington to pursue a PhD in Human Performance. While in Bloomington, he spent some time on deck coaching swimming at the club level, successfully coaching several swimmers to the National and Olympic Trials meets. He also served as the primary strength and condition coach for some of the post-graduate Olympians that swam at Indiana University.

Currently, Ben is finishing his PhD while serving a clinical faculty member at the University of Louisville, molding the minds that will be the future of strength and conditioning coaches. He also helps support the Olympic Sports side of the Strength and Conditioning Department there as a sports scientist.
Ben Skutnik, PhD(c), CSCS, PN1

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