Food for Thought: Breathing Air Before Fire

We've been talking to you about bracing a lot lately in class... Here is another article on how to breath properly and putting it into practice.  I knowOriginally published on the CrossFit Journal.

Other than bracing for a heavy lift, most CrossFit athletes don’t pay much attention to breathing technique—inside or outside the gym.

Jill Miller has studied anatomy and movement for more than 27 years, working on the links between the worlds of fitness, yoga, massage and pain management. She is the author of “The Roll Model: A Step-by-Step Guide to Erase Pain, Improve Mobility and Live Better in Your Body.”

“Breathing happens automatically about 20,000 times a day,” Miller said. “Think about doing 20,000 burpees (with bad form) in a day. What havoc would that wreak on your system?”

We are born breathing perfectly, but over the years many people develop poor breathing techniques. Breathing is a foundational movement that provides both trunk control and mental acuity, and Miller said an athlete who practices breath mechanics has a performance advantage.

“When the crushing pressure of competition deflates capacity, the skilled breather can inflate him- or herself to rise above any challenge,” she said.

 Note the deep belly breath on the left compared to the engaged abdominal muscles on the right.

Note the deep belly breath on the left compared to the engaged abdominal muscles on the right.

 (Both: Colleen Baz/CrossFit Journal)

(Both: Colleen Baz/CrossFit Journal)

How to Breathe Correctly

First, the bad news: To breathe properly, you have to inflate your belly.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent much of your adult life holding your stomach tight, hoping to avoid the slightest appearance of a belly. Shallow breathing, using the chest and not the diaphragm, does not allow you to get as much oxygen as you could. This can increase heart rate, which causes stress and anxiety and can contribute to high blood pressure.

When you breathe in and your belly expands, your diaphragm contracts, allowing space in your chest cavity for the lungs to fill. This causes a decrease in pressure, allowing air to flow into the lungs. Breathing out moves the diaphragm back to its original position. With shallow chest breathing, you aren’t making as much room and can’t fill your lungs as much as when you take a deep belly breath. As this video shows, we are born knowing how to belly breathe. It’s something babies do instinctively, expanding their bellies with each breath.

Miller said when we suck in our stomachs while breathing, we keep tension in the transversus abdominis muscle, which runs along the front and side of the abdominal wall, deeper than the oblique muscles.

“The transversus abdominis is stitched into the same fascial fabric or fascial continuity as the respiratory diaphragm. So the respiratory diaphragm could be seen as the stocking cap on the top of the transversus abdominis,” Miller said.

The respiratory diaphragm is tethered to these abdominal muscles and can only move as much as they allow.

If your abs are constantly tight, the diaphragm can’t go through its range of motion, which is a descent on inhalation, she said.

“When the diaphragm goes down, your gut bloats and you get a little baby belly temporarily. And when you exhale, the diaphragm slides back in towards its rib attachments and hides away in there, and everything kind of gets suctioned up. If you are walking around pulling your belly button toward your spine or acting like you have a weight belt on at all times, you are going stifle the diaphragm’s movements,” Miller said.

The heart sits on top of the diaphragm; Miller calls the diaphragm a mattress for your heart. Shallow chest breaths don’t move the heart around as much.

“Your cardiac and respiratory tissues are interconnected—always have and always will be. When there is excessive tension on any tissue, it impedes tissue function. A restricted diaphragm that does not move well can impede the natural assistance it provides to the vena cava (your major vein running into the heart) to promote ease of blood flow,” Miller said via email.

Chest or clavicular breathing—which occurs when you lift your shoulders up to your ears and don’t fill your belly—mimics the type of breathing common during stress, in fright or after difficult physical exertion.

“You see this all the time in athletes. They will run up and down the court, and they will partially hinge over, hands on their knees, and drop their head down and try to catch their breath. And you will see their shoulders are up by their ears,” Miller said.

This is fine when we’re struggling to catch our breath during or at the end of a difficult workout, but it’s not a good way to breathe habitually. In a workout, athletes must often use thoracic breathing. Athletes need to maintain abdominal tension at times, and belly breathing isn't always possible. Imagine trying to take a deep belly breath while doing heavy push presses. At times like that, athletes must expand their ribs to take in air while bracing the spine with the core muscles. Unfortunately, most of us unthinkingly use shallow thoracic breathing when hunched over a computer or phone.

“And so you have this false-clavicular-breath posture that many of us are holding from a day-to-day basis, and that’s something you definitely want to address in your self-care routine and in your awareness of your breathing,” Miller said. “You don’t want to be breathing up into your trapezius or your scapula all the time. You want to have a rhythm of breathing that happens below the collarbone.”

 This common post-WOD posture can be troublesome if you replicate it by elevating your shoulders and taking shallow breaths when working at a computer. (Piero Lupino/CrossFit Journal)

This common post-WOD posture can be troublesome if you replicate it by elevating your shoulders and taking shallow breaths when working at a computer. (Piero Lupino/CrossFit Journal)

Performance Breathing

Deep, diaphragmatic breathing helps athletic performance by sending more oxygen to the muscles, improving muscular endurance.

Another advantage of deep breathing: It relaxes the body. Anyone who has tried to do a high-skill gymnastics or weightlifting movement when panicked or anxious knows the value of relaxed energy in athletics.

So how do you break a bad habit you’ve been practicing most of your life?

You’ll need to start outside the gym—or at least not in the middle of a workout.

Miller said a yoga class is a good place to learn and practice breathing strategies. If yoga isn’t your thing, Miller said studying voice, hiring a vocal teacher or joining a choir can also correct breathing habits.

“You will probably learn some phenomenal breathing mechanics, and if you like being in groups, then that might be something that is actually fun,” Miller said of singing lessons.

 Try taking a deep belly breath while slouched. It doesn't work well, so you can imagine what poor posture does to breathing over the course of a day. (Thomas Campitelli/CrossFit Journal)

Try taking a deep belly breath while slouched. It doesn't work well, so you can imagine what poor posture does to breathing over the course of a day. (Thomas Campitelli/CrossFit Journal)

To get the hang of diaphragmatic breathing, lie on your back. Put a hand on your chest and one below your ribcage. Breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose, making sure you can feel your stomach move with your hand. Exhale through pursed lips. Throughout, the hand on the chest shouldn't move much. After you get the hang of diaphragmatic breathing while lying down, practice the technique while sitting in a chair.

Once you’ve practiced this style of breathing, either in a yoga class or at home, you can start incorporating it into your workouts.

Miller suggests isolating portions of the workout so you can observe how your body breathes in reaction to the exercise you are doing and the moments in between. At times you'll need to employ deep belly breathing for best results, but at other times thoracic breaths will help you perform better.

“Just let yourself be coached, but your inner coach is observing you breathing every time you breathe. That’s what yogis do. Every single breath is observed (during yoga practice). It’s an incredible way to sharpen your mind and get familiar with the behavior of your breath,” Miller said.

Miller recommends you pay attention to your breathing as much as you can during the workout, using it to stabilize during a heavy lift or to calm down during rest periods. Your focus will go in and out as the workout progresses, but make an effort to check in on the quality of your breathing as often as you can.

Another way to observe and control your breathing is to try a breathing-ladder workout. The simplest version of a breathing ladder is an ascending scheme of one rep followed by one deep, controlled breath. Kettlebell swings are most commonly used, but you can select other movements.

A one-to-10 kettlebell breathing ladder starts with one kettlebell swing followed by one breath, then two kettlebell swings followed by two breaths. You can breathe as much as you want while you’re swinging the kettlebell, but you can only take the prescribed number of breaths during the rests. So eight swings are followed by only 8 breaths, and then it’s back to the kettlebell. If done heavy enough and with enough reps, a breathing ladder induces a panicked type of breathing. Being aware of this type of breathing, and learning how to control it, is valuable when you find yourself in a situation where you’re gasping for breath.

Keep your breaths deep when doing a breathing ladder and see if you can resist switching to shallow, panicked breathing, even under stress. Then see if you can improve your breath control and avoid panic breathing in other workouts.

Grace Under Pressure

 How might a belt affect your breathing before a workout? (Colleen Baz/CrossFit Journal)

How might a belt affect your breathing before a workout? (Colleen Baz/CrossFit Journal)

Practicing breathing isn’t a showy, Instagram-worthy skill, but it can be done anywhere without any special equipment.

The next time you walk into the gym and see something terrifying on the whiteboard, something that causes your shoulders to rise up to your ears, stop and take 10 deep diaphragmatic breaths. Then use that relaxed energy and go attack the workout.

Updated 11 a.m. PT, Jan. 26, 2018, to include additional information on thoracic breathing.

About the Author: Hilary Achauer is a freelance writer and editor specializing in health and wellness content. In addition to writing articles, online content, blogs and newsletters, Hilary writes for the CrossFit Journal. To contact her, visit hilaryachauer.com.

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