You’ve undoubtedly heard your Coach say things like “take a big brace breath” or “breathe in your nose, out your mouth.” This is not some New Age guru-esque attempt at getting you to channel your inner fire breather or spirit animal; breath work is integral in tons of life’s applications, especially with fitness.
Not all breathing is created equal when it comes to the type of task or demands you are performing. So let’s take a deep breath and jump right into the concept of breath work as it plays out in the gym…
The Heavy Stuff…
When we are weightlifting, we generally have two phases we are moving back and forth between our reps: eccentric and concentric. Fancy words aside, here’s an example to follow along with the back squat.
As we prepare to squat down, we are in the eccentric phase. Before the squat, we need to make sure to take a nice, big breath in. But we aren’t breathing for the sake of breathing.
For any lift, we are wanting to have structural integrity, rigidity, and stabilization of our body while it is performed. This breath “braces” or pressurizes our system to keep a solid body position and rigid form throughout the lift. As we squat we maintain that tightness of our back, midline, and torso.
We hit the bottom of the squat and drive out of the hole to rise back to a standing position; this is the concentric phase. At this time we can exhale, but it should be an exhalation that is timed with your exertion. What I mean by that is we aren’t blowing all of our air out like it is a fog horn and then promptly become a mushy mess trying to not collapse under the weight of the barbell.
The exhalation should be controlled, forceful but shallow, and consistent, one that maintains tension as you rise without blowing everything out all at once.
Bones and muscles alone aren’t enough to have the full array of efficiency and stability in the body for any lift. We need to reinforce them with breath that promotes tension, contraction, and pressurization of our soft, squishy bits. This will look and feel different from lift to lift. For example, our strict press focuses on keeping the butt and abs tight (not sucked in), where our midline as a whole unit is strengthened, keeping our rib cage down and our torso lean back minimized.
For a deadlift we are wanting an engaged posterior chain, back and lats being contracted, and yes, midline stabilized. What you’ll notice is midline stabilization is crucial, and that bracing breath before the lift should, at a very minimum, seek to reinforce and tighten up the midline.
All lifts should be treated as full body lifts: consider everything from foot placement to midline stability regardless of whether it is a squatting, pushing, pulling, or <insert your favorite verb> . Our safest and best attempt in any lift (gainz, as they say on the street) requires an understanding of how our breath will ultimately help or hinder the rest of the system.
The Gas Tank Stuff…
Intense training leads to soulless, gas tank emptying, open throes of out-of-breath despair. While that may not change, what will change over time is your level of capacity and recovery during and after those bouts of intense, earth-shattering workouts.
Your brain may freak out and cordially inform the rest of your body that you are dying and in need of desperate attempts at fast, shallow breathing. Don’t listen to your reptilian brain, it’s an old, silly creature. If you need to recover quickly during or after a workout, slow, big deep breaths in your nose and out of your mouth are key.
This limits the amount of recycled CO2 you are breathing and promotes as much oxygen grabbing as you can while also telling your body the threat is over, heart rates can normalize, life can go on, the sabertooth didn’t kill us.
We’ve all been the victim of the death gasp breathing post workout, the quicker we can consciously shift to the deeper, more controlled cyclical breathing through the nose and out of the mouth, the more rapidly we’ll get back to badass status instead of badass-on-your-back status.
This is a tiny piece of mountains of research and continuing study. I won’t geek out on it forever but it’s always worth keeping in mind since it is a cornerstone of performance and recovery.
Breathing. Do it right, and as Aladdin says, it’s a whole new world!