How I Teach The Breath, Now
In my dining room, there’s a window. It looks out toward my little backyard. Light peaks in through the window early in the morning when I grab my pillow to sit with my legs crossed on the floor. I settle into my seat and take a moment to look outside at the light soaking only the leaves on the tops of the trees. I sit straight and exhale all of the air out of my lungs before inhaling deeply and completely, directing air into all of the spaces in my lower abdomen, lower back, and sides of my trunk. I search for areas that feel concave and try to inflate them before letting the air travel up to my ribs, to my upper back, my chest, and finally even further past my collar bone trying to create a feeling of taking the breath into my head. Then I let it go. Sometimes I take thirty breaths like this, sometimes I change the cadence or manner in which I take in the air, let it out, or hold it.
Most mornings I do this or some other variation of breath practice. It’s frequently a variation of the Wim Hof breathing method like this. You can Google or search on YouTube to learn everything you want on it, I’m not an authority on teaching or explaining any of it. Other times, I prefer a box breathing technique similar or taken from a pranayama breathing practice. Sometimes I try to experiment with fire breathing or where I can control the inflow and expansion. Other times I sit and just listen to the breath. Feeling where it's most pronounced, and focusing on this.
As I said, I’m no expert on any of these practices. What I’ve learned, I’ve learned from reading and from watching or listening to online instructionals that anyone can access on their phone. I haven’t been to any courses, summits, or had any conversations with founding teachers. I’m not qualified to teach any breathing practice but I have no hesitation about telling the story of my own experience and what I’ve experienced from it. I’m also not reluctant to tell you to search out more information, because I do believe it’s very important everyone learn about the breath.
I’ll learn more in time. Maybe from more reading or maybe from learning first hand from experts. But I know my direct personal experience will give me understanding, as is true with everything. So I’ll practice and tell of the practice as I discover more.
The Breath As An Entire Practice
I’d sway side to side, with the efficiency you only learn when you’re so large it’s difficult to move your body. My lower-back would arch to push my belly forward leading the way as I walked. Toes turned out to make sure my legs didn’t rub together too aggressively. I was in my early twenties and my bodyweight somewhere between 130-140 kilos (270 lbs-310 lbs).
I was competing in powerlifting pretty seriously and gained a very large amount of weight to help me lift as heavy as I could. All of the hard lifting was stress on my back by itself, but forcing on all that bodyweight and the big powerlifting belly that accompanied it pulled my pelvis forward and took an even greater toll on me. Because of it, even after I lost some weight and stopped powerlifting as hard, I had chronic back pain for some time.
It just so happened that as I was searching for ways to relieve some of this pain, thought leaders started sharing ideas on diaphragmatic breathing. Techniques like 90/90 breathing were becoming more popular.
Even before then, I had always been pretty focused on learning, what I thought at the time, was proper breathing rhythms for lifting and I had even started playing around with how breathing could control my heart rate during exercise, slow and calm me before competitions, and how focusing on timed inhale and exhalations improved my daily stress.
But I’d never thought the breath could influence as much in the body and mind as we know it can now. I started practicing diaphragmatic breathing after hearing how a powerlifter used it in his recovery after having painful disc herniations. I started with the 90/90 breathing and moved to practice taking in the breath in a sequenced way, filling the mid-section with air starting in the lower abdomen and moving up the rib cage and chest.
I found, as everyone who’s never practiced, I was very bad at breathing into my lower back and into the sides of my mid-section up into the area of the upper ribs. I also was not very good at exhaling all of my air out, not at all actually.
At that time, experienced powerlifters would teach you how to aggressively breathe into your belly, forcing the abdominal wall out and holding the breath while flexing both your abs and low-back. But that was the extent of the instruction. The idea was to use the so-called Valsalva maneuver creating internal pressure with the air force against a closed glottis. And just doing this sure does make the weights feel lighter, and it does help stabilize the spine, though not entirely.
Many lifters also started pushing the pressure from the air downward after they inhaled when using a weight belt as if they were trying to shit. And many of them did end up shitting their pants… I know a guy… What they were doing was pushing down on the pelvic floor, which is what you wouldn’t want to do.
I knew there was more to the breath, not only as it related to my back health, but also for performance in lifting weights. So, I went on a mental walkabout to learn everything I could about what’s helpful and what could be thrown out, both for myself and my athletes. That resulted in me accumulating enough info on it that I felt I could write my first ever published article on an online strength and fitness publication - https://www.t-nation.com/training/freakish-strength-with-proper-core-training
What’s amusing is that this article, my very first, is that the instruction I gave in the article has been used by powerlifting coach Josh Bryant and Dr. Belisa, a leading expert in breath mechanics, who has impressive ideas in this area. Check out her book.
What To Do About Lifting
If you have no clue as to why keeping your trunk tensed and stable while you load yourself up with a barbell should be your first concern, you need to start here. To keep the trunk tight is to stabilize the spine. I’ve seen lifters squat with an exaggerated arch and others with a rounded back and never get hurt, although I wouldn’t recommend doing it. But where a lifter will inevitably incur an injury, if nothing else but one of overuse, is when the spine changes under load. To give you a picture, imagine someone squatting down with a super exaggerated arch and getting to the bottom of their squat and immediately reversing the arch and rounding their spine as they push up. This moment is where the injury happens. This is why you need to first learn to brace before you start pushing the lifts.
Bracing the trunk involves contracting both your anterior abdominal musculature and your low back muscles at the same time and tensing as if you were about to get hit in the stomach. Some accompany bracing by pushing the abdomen out. This involves the use of the obliques to produce a more stable and powerful contraction. But just pushing the gut out doesn’t make a braced spine. This full contraction needs to eventually include pelvic floor contraction which is a full co-contraction of the trunk to pull your pelvic floor upwards. This is similar to a kegel exercise.
The example I came up with when I first learned and wrote about this that seems to stay with people was to imagine finally getting an opportunity to take a piss after drinking a big cup of strong coffee during your hour-long commute to work. Now imagine you had to stop the stream, as it were because someone barged in on you in the bathroom. That feeling is pelvic floor contraction
Now to practice the full brace with this pelvic floor contraction, squeeze your glutes like you just sat on something sharp, perform that pee stopping pelvic floor lift, and brace your abdominals, obliques, and low back muscles to protect against a punch. And there you have it.
But these bracing techniques won’t help you lift more weight and protect your spine entirely if there’s no increase in intra-abdomina and intra-thoracic pressure. Spinal stability is generated partly by diaphragm activation. When pressure is increased in the abdominal cavity, it helps support the spine and works against the compression forces of axial loading (the kind of loading in a squat or standing shoulder press). Without this inner pressure from the breath forced against a braced abdominal musculature while forcing the diaphragm down, the spine we can’t talk about true stability.
First, To Breathe
Haphazardly gasping at air won’t direct it sufficiently and accurately to where it should be pushed to. What lifters are trying to do when they suck in air is something called the Valsalva maneuver. The idea is to take in that air to push against the trunk by breathing into the lower abdomen, then allowing it to travel up the ribcage to the chest. Once you fully inhale, you’d then hold the breath and force the air against a closed glottis. But this isn’t easy to learn at first and to do this, especially while you lifting, you need to first learn how to control the inhalation and exhalation of breath.
Air shouldn’t just fill the front portion of the body but also the back and up to the ribs to expand them outward. For most people, learning to breathe into the back of their bodies is the most difficult, which is why I’ll usually teach this first. I start with something called crocodile breath, where you can practice in a relaxed lying position, always the easiest to focus on breathing.
Once you have the awareness of expanding the back with air, you can practice the full mechanic of total inhalation and exhalation with something like a 90/90 drill or something similar. To beat it in, I’ll repeat: the front portion of the abdomen and trunk shouldn’t be the only thing to expand. The sides need to broaden.
I use a very simple drill to teach lifters how to take in the breath that they need as they load the bar on their spine.
Anyone who practices this should have a reasonable understanding of the mechanics we’ve gone over. The hand placement acts as a tactile cue to prompt you to fill the air as needed while you practice the rhythm and timing with bracing.
Timing and Use
Next, to practice the timing of it all for barbell lifts. We’ll take the squat as an example. I’ll teach beginners to take a breath and stabilize the spine as they get under the bar to unrack it because, I mean, they’re loading their backs. Then after they step back and set, I prompt them to forcefully exhale a little air out but not all. You don’t want to hold your breath that long. Things like, I don’t know, passing out happens. Then take an even bigger breath just as you’ve been practicing and brace for that punch. It seems simple, but it needs to be practiced and become an almost unconscious habit, especially with heavier weights that push down and make it harder to breathe deeply in.
As I teach with all lifts, hold the breath and brace through the entire lift. In the case of the squat, take in the breath and brace at the top before you descend and don’t let go of the brace and air until you’ve completed the rep, standing completely upright.
Weight Belts For Self-Brace and Breath, Not Support
I used to tell people that the weight belt was first made as a tool to reinforce lifters to brace harder by providing feedback for them to breath and tense against (kind of like how pushing your fingers into your mid-section does). I claimed it wasn’t originally made to be supportive brace for the back like some use it for now.
But the more original gang-stars of irregular lifting I speak to, the more I think I may have made that up and convinced myself it was truth. Maybe some powerlifter said it in passing at some hibachi buffet and as I sucked in more Chinese noodles I heard what I wanted to hear.
I’ll restate this for the record - the belt can and should be used as a cue to brace rather than just a support. But it also has another use and that’s teaching and reinforcing the mechanics of the breath and brace that you practice.
Place the belt with the center of it covering the navel. The idea is to draw the air fully in the entire circumference of the midsection. Before you take in this air, you should be able to stick two fingers in between you and the belt. Then the air should expand the mid-section so much that the belt is tight to your skin.
The Gravity Of A Breathing Practice
When you first experience how a deep braced breath can help you lift heavier weights and stabilize your mid-section making the weights feel lighter, you’re amazed. The moment you feel how focusing on your breath can help you in meditation or improve a yoga pose or help you relax into a stretch you’re happily taken by surprise.
Diaphragmatic breathing drills that improve function, like the ones shown above, show the benefit and power of the breath. And yet most can’t see the significance of a regular breathing practice.
There’s no short of breathing practices and techniques. The one I show in the first video is one of many, and it’s a personally abridged version of a more formal technique. Other types include box breathing, pranayama variations, nostril breathing, breath of fire, long breaths with holds, holotropic breathing, and the Wim Hof breathing technique which is also a variation of older yoga and meditative breathing techniques
The breath, specifically the control and practice of it, changes your base condition state. This is a change not only in your body but also in your mind. It’s a physiological and psychological change. A consistent breathing practice not only changes your blood chemistry, energy levels, and regulatory processes while you perform the breathwork but also changes it chronically. It alters your very baseline.
The actual experience of controlling the breath can be very meditative and the consistent use of it actually lowers stress and anxiety with many of the same neurological and chemical changes deep meditation does.
So stop, soften your belly and take a long, slow, deep breath. And remember that this breath is your very life.
Learn some better principles for squatting. One’s that can apply to all of your lifts. Check it out and leave your e-mail so I can send you this video guide: Click here