Food for Thought: Performance Breathing for CrossFit, Pt.1

When speaking to athletes about bracing, I find many need to start at the beginning: learning how to breathe.  It may seem straight forward, but many people are disconnected to their breathing patterns and have been convinced subconsciously by our beauty standards to avoid proper diaphragm breathing all together.  I found a great article from WODMedic to help you check in with your own breathing.  I know, it's long... but suck it up (literally)... it's worth it!

Today’s blog is the first in a 3 part series from WODMedic Elite Facilitator, Jon Herting, DPT, CSCS.  This 3 part series will take in an depth look at the important topic of performance breathing.  As a coach this will give you a deeper insight in to performance breathing. As an athlete the recommendations given by Jon will make you a better, stronger athlete.  

Performance Breathing for the Crossfit Athlete Part 1: Position and Breathing Fundamentals

If you follow health and fitness magazines and blogs breathing has been a recent hot topic. Men’s Health recently had a centerfold article entitled, The Power of Breathing and a closer look into their archives uncovers another article entitled. The Secret to Running Faster. Once you know a topic has the attention of a main stream magazine you know that it’s important and people will finally begin to take notice ;). Those of us who are in “the know” have been preaching about the importance of breathing to improve trunk stability, generate power, improve position, improve endurance, hasten recovery and improve resiliency for thousands of years.

Other posts on this page have addressed maintaining The Four Knots and 15 Second Abs…with Loaded Carries? They have touched upon maintaining trunk control and using diaphragmatic breathing to promote good intra-abdominal pressure (IAP). I will further delve into this topic to help you understand respiration at a deeper level.

Proper breathing can influence the following:

  • Naturally and legally increasing EPO levels (Improved Red Blood Cell production)
  • Higher oxygenation levels
  • Increased oxygen being delivered to muscles, tissues, organs and the brain.
  • Increased power
  • Decreased breathlessness
  • Decreased recovery time
  • Improved recovery from injury
  • Increased performance thresholds
  • Increased composure

All of these seem good right? But are you achieving all of these positive changes?

Take two minutes right now to pay attention to how you are breathing.

  • What is the position of your tongue, teeth, lips?
  • What moves first? Chest, neck, belly, etc.
  • Do you feel stressed, anxious?
  • Do you feel like you lose your breath?
  • Do you have to sigh or yawn?

Based on your feelings and observations over the last two minutes you will be able to use the chart below to assess whether or not you are getting everything you can out of your breath which at rest.

Now it is important to note that 2/3 of your breath should be through belly before chest begins to move in last 1/3rd.  If you found that you may not be breathing optimally at rest you are most likely not carrying this over into your workouts, thus you are leaving valuable reps and power on the table. By being able to breathe properly as you enter intense workouts you are going to be better able to bring in and utilize the fuel that will keep you going as you get deeper into your workouts. Proper respiration during activity is the key, and often the missing link, to improved performance.

If you find that you are unable to breathe optimally per the chart above I would suggest the following.

First, begin to master the nasal breath through all walks of life. The first step of learning how to breathe optimally is to work on being able to breathe into and out of your nose while maintaining your tongue on the roof of your mouth, lips closed, teeth apart and lips forming an “O” behind your closed lips. You will then focus on inhaling for approximately 3 secs and exhaling for 6+. The exhale will be the most challenging for most of your but this is the most important part to improving performance and being able to influence gas exchange both while at rest and when working out. As you exhale focus on pushing your ribs down and tucking your hips under. This can be done in all positions including, sitting, standing, squatting, etc. Looking at the picture below which is going to be the more stable posture? The picture on the left depicts an “open scissored” posture where the ribs are angled up and the pelvis is angled down. This leaves a large opening in the anterior trunk and does not promote a nice cylindrical position from which to build strong inter-abdominal pressure. By contrast the picture to the right depicts the ribs in a caudal (down) position and hips tucked under. This allows for a more stable trunk and a better ability to create intra-abdominal posture to support your lift and workout. I would argue that this position also helps you to utilize oxygen more efficiently to better fuel your workouts.

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Once you have been able to find the proper position and have mastered nasal breathing you can then focus on the diaphragmatic breath.

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As you can see the diaphragm sits below your lungs and attaches on your ribs and low back vertebrate among many other soft tissue structures. This being said the diaphragm, along with your external intercostals, is your primary muscle of respiration. On inhale it drops to help the ribs expand to allow the lungs to expand. As this happens your belly will subtly expand and as you passively exhale you belly will return to its resting position. If you are in the proper position your diaphragm will be opposed by your pelvic floor which will help you to create that all important inter-abdominal pressure. This is why position and proper breathing patterns are so important. A proper diaphragmatic breath looks like this:

1. 3 Sec breath in through your nose as belly subtlety expands.

2. Chest rises.

3. 6+ sec exhale as your chest and belly passively return to their resting positions with a brief, comfortable pause at the end.

4. Repeat.

A proper breath will result in your belly rising for the first 2/3rds of the breath, followed by an accompanied rib expansion for the final 1/3rd of the breath.

Now that you have lots to think about and some homework look out for my next post which will address performance benefits and how to apply this to your training.

COMING NEXT- Performance Breathing for the CrossFit Athlete Part 2: Improving Performance