Top 6 Breathing Drills To Reduce Stress and Optimize Performance
Fix Your Breathing To Optimize Your Performance
If you’ve hit a strength, endurance or performance plateau, or are just feeling beat to shit after every training session with the inability to recover, stop blaming your training and nutrition program on your stagnation and start looking at the movement pattern that transcends any activity or sport specific focus, breathing. Chances are, you’ve never spent the time or focus fine-tuning a fundamental skill that is literally keeping you alive and you are most likely butchering more than 20,000 times per day.
But not all breathing is created equally. And the way you breath during max effort squatting cannot be the same way you breathe during a 5k run. In order to truly unlock your potential, you must first learn to breathe well by correcting the dysfunctional breathing patterns that have plagued your performance and recovery, then learn to breathe according to the specific task and goal at hand.
Lets get one thing straight, this isn’t some fluffy deep breathing article to make you better at yoga-lates or not keeling over from a stress induced aneurism after the next fight with your spouse. This is the ultimate breathing resource featuring the top 6 battle tested breathing techniques that you’ll literally be able to instantaneously see notable results from in terms of your performance under the bar, and more importantly your recovery during training and between sessions. Here’s how fixing your breathing will finally unlock that potential and blast you through those frustrating plateaus once and for all. Game changing results can be as simple as taking the right type of breath.
#6 Correct Dysfunctional Breathing With Crocodile Breathing
Breathing is truly no different than any other movement pattern. When you step back and view breathing mechanics as a motor skill, this means that it can be improved with the same type of corrective and activation based strategies and progressions that you’d use to correct a squat or a deadlift.
But due to the fact that the average person takes over 20,000 dysfunctional and compensatory breaths per day, fixing faulty default breathing mechanics can be hugely challenging. Many times, verbal cues and corrections are ineffective, presenting the need for more tactile based cues to create a mind muscle connection that will start to improve breathing mechanics from the ground up.
The most effective corrective exercise that I’ve used to spark a change in dysfunctional breathing is called the Crocodile Breath, as originated by Gray Cook of the Functional Movement Systems. Using the ground as a tactile cue from the prone position, this strategy will be a game changer for starting to “feel” what it is to properly expand the belly through 360-degrees, avoiding the takeover of unwanted secondary respiratory muscles in the process.
When To Use This Technique:
This technique is most prominently used in the early stages of breathing re-patterning for those athletes who truly struggle with disassociating compensatory chest breathing from authentic deep belly breathing. Simply think of this drill as a corrective exercise. One notable benefit has been seen, it can be discontinued with the skill being maintained from proper breathing patterns during daily activities and training.
As breathing is classified as a motor skill, a practice component must be implemented in order to re-learn proper patterns that are not only present, but repeatable. Programming in 1-3 minutes of Crocodile Breathing per day, preferably as the first component of a dynamic warm up sequence is usually warranted to start chipping away at old habits and ingraining new ones.
How To Execute The Crocodile Breath:
As with any movement correction strategy, the focused intent needs to be on the quality of movement rather than the quantity or intensity. This means that we must be executing pristine breaths with the goal of becoming habituated.
Here are some major setup details you need to be keying in on to get the most out of the Crocodile Breath:
- Start in a prone (lying on your stomach) position on the floor.
- Bring your fists together and rest your forehead passively on the hands.
- Keep your legs straight and your toes pointed down.
- Relax all aspects of the body into this central position.
I often times get questions regarding the hand and head position, as it’s a bit un-natural feeling at first. The rationale behind propping the head on the fists is two fold. First, the head and neck need to remain in a neutral position (with the head NOT turning to one side) to clearly open up the airway. Secondly, with the hands and arms elevated, the secondary respiratory muscles, mainly the scalenes, sternocledomastoid (SCM), and the upper trap are placed into a more relaxed position away from stretch and tension.
Using positions to make it as easy as possible to start to execute proper breaths is a necessity when re-engineering faulty patterns. Once you are positioned correctly, the focus will be placed on the execution and the quality of the breath reps in order to allow motor learning and skill transference to occur.
Tempo of Breath: Inhale 4-6 seconds / Hold 2-4 seconds / Exhale 4-6 seconds
While the tempo of this breath is important for the proper execution of the drill, the true focus needs to be first placed on the expansion of the belly and the movement pattern itself. Since the belly is in direct contact with the floor, it’s the perfect setup for breathing INTO the floor, expanding through the diaphragm authentically.
To take this concept one step further, we are also wanting 360-degree expansion, meaning that not only are we breathing into the belly against the floor, but expanding our breathe through the sides of the torso along with the lower back. To get a feel for this type of expansion pattern, you can use a partner’s hands to palpate your sides, and also use a block or ball on the lower back to push up against during the breath.
Once the proper expansion pattern is mastered, the focus will shift to the tempo of the breath itself. While the above tempo prescriptions of (4-6/2-4/4-6) aren’t set in stone, we do want to ensure that the exhalation is longer than the inhalation to optimize gaseous exchange and slow down the process to avoid compensations. Also, make sure to pause and hold the breath for a split second at the top to truly experience the feeling of a 360-degree expansion, as that’s the corrective goal.
#5 Maximize Bracing and Tightness With The Double Breath Technique
One of the most troubling misconceptions surrounding breathing during strength training is the common recommendation to inhale and exhale fully during reps under loading. If your goal is to move maximal weights with pristine form and stay safe while doing so, a full breath cycle during lifts is the last thing you should be focusing on, even if you’ve been previously told to exhale during the lift and inhale during the lowering process.
While it’s of course necessary to breath during extended sets with increased rep counts, there is a right way to do it, and a wrong way that places the body, and more specifically the spine into destabilized positions via a lack of core stiffness and control. Bracing effectively during any type of foundational strength training movement creates the base of pain-free movement and maximal performance. And with full breaths going in and out, it’s physiologically impossible to gain or maintain maximal brace, placing people into potentially risky positions to train from.
Instead of continuing to breathe haphazardly during lifting and playing the odds with your orthopedic health, the brace and breath can create synergy in the form of the double breath technique to first maximize pillar position and core tightness, while scaling the breath cycle back under controlled tension and control with a shallow “straw sip” breath, and dare I say even a fine tuned grunt. I first picked up this technique while squatting with Dave Tate at the EliteFTS S5 Compound. And man, was it an instant upgrade to core stiffness. Here’s when to utilize each of these techniques for fine tuned bracing strategies.
When To Use This Technique:
Every single time you approach the bar or attempt to move a weight, we must treat the setup, lift and dismount of load with the utmost respect, as respecting load is a powerful tool in not only staying healthy but optimizing performance. So when it comes to strength training, the double breath bracing technique should be utilized each and every set in order to protect the body while performing at the highest levels possible.
Big loaded barbell movements like the squat and bench press tend to demand the most respect from lifters keying into a bracing strategy as compared to the smaller and lower loaded movements. But by going through the motions and lifting loosely without fully bracing and controlling the hips, shoulders and core coordinating together as a functional unit, we are essentially chronically picking the scab of aches and pains long term that can eventually lead into more acute injuries due to simple laziness and disrespecting the process of lifting loads.
The best example of this is deadlifting or hip hinging using a maximal brace and neutral spinal position on leg day, and then turning around the next day and hoisting up dumbbells off the floor for bench press with zero brace, a flexed spine position and loads of compensation. No, you may not get hurt on a single poor setup like this, but over time, the unwanted compensatory stress on the spine will catch up with you.
By positioning and setting up with focused intent, utilizing the double breathe to help maximize the brace, then maintain a brace sipping air at the top of reps when needed, we can better protect the body while staying stiffer to produce more force, leading to more optimal top end performances under load. When in doubt, fine tune your setups, brace harder and respect every rep.
How To Execute The Double Breath Technique:
The key to bracing maximally just before moving a load is tapping into the potential of the diaphragm leading the brace while actively contracting around it with stability generated from the shoulders, hip and core musculature. In order to achieve an optimal diaphragmatic position, this process must start with the breath.
From a stable position with a majority of the joints in anatomical neutral (think of standing straight up here as neutral vs. attempting to breath from a fully flexed and bent over position out of neutral) we will incorporate a 3-step process to breathe and brace around:
- Step 1: Inhale fully through the nose
- Step 2: Gulp additional air in through the mouth
- Step 3: Contract the core musculature expanding 360 degrees
*Hold and maintain brace after Step 3 during active reps
By inhaling fully through the nose, we can extend the time period necessary to utilize close to a full tidal volume of bringing in maximal air into the lungs and pushing the diaphragm down and out. This initial nose breath usually takes around 3-seconds to execute. It’s imperative that this breath is taken in slowly in order to accentuate the air coming in through a belly breathing strategy utilizing the diaphragm as the primary mover, and avoiding the secondary respiratory muscles like the neck and upper back muscles like the upper traps to take over and compensate with more of a chest breathing strategy.
From the initial nose breath, the air must be locked in and held for a split second before we move into the second step, which gulps air in from the mouth. By holding the air in through the nose, and gulping the last bit of air in through the mouth, we can top off the air into the lungs and expansion of the diaphragm into the core space anywhere from 5-15% more. And as we know, a boost in bracing quality leads to potential boosts in strength and power performances.
After both the full nose inhalation and mouth breath, only then do we actively brace the abdominals around the optimal mechanical position of the diaphragm to lock in the super stiffness in the mid section. From there, the focus is shifted into the maintenance of the brace quality through the number of repetitions that will be executed during the set at hand.
For rep counts of 1-3 in a more pure power scheme, all reps can be completed on a single breath hold. But as rep counts exceed 3, we need to ensure that there is air exchange happening in order to continue to bring in oxygen syphoning to the active musculature. A full breath will not be taken between reps here if sets range from 3-8 repetitions. Rather we will sip air in at the top of a movement and push air out slightly and slowly during the concentric raising phase, ensuring air and brace is maintained during sticking or straining points. This is largely the reason for the occurrence of grunts during active loaded reps.
For sets that require more than 8 repetitions, a half breath can be reset at the top of the lifts with a re-bracing strategy in order to continue to bring in more oxygen to the system to help the continuation of a higher rep count. There is never a time to take a full breath cycle in under loading, as this requires us to ultimately lose the entire brace with the inability to gain a quality brace again due to being under constant loading of the position. When taking in air and blowing out during reps, we must adopt a minimal viable dose mentality to maintain brace first, as this will be the number one indicator of quality repetitions and injury prevention.
Tempo of Breath: Nose Inhale 3-seconds / Mouth Gulp 1-second / Hold and Brace
As reviewed above, the goal of maximizing bracing quality starts with a calm, controlled and calculated breath setup and cycle. Air will be taken in initially through the nose for 3-seconds (this time is relative to the time it takes to maximize expansion of the lungs and diaphragm) a secondary gulp of air through the mouth, and a hold while initiating muscular recruitment in a 360 degree fashion.
Different from some of the other breath types and tempos reviewed in this resource, we will see more variability of the time it takes to fully expand the initial nose breath, the gulp time through the mouth, and the hold times based on the movement itself and more specifically, the rep counts associated with the desired training effects. When in doubt, breathe more slowly and under control, and look to the bracing quality as the indicator of what works best for you.
#4 Amplify Performance With Sympathetic Huff Breath
While the major focus on breathing strategies in our industry today are centered around the down regulation of the central nervous system with a parasympathetic emphasis (and rightfully so as western society is stressed the hell out), there are advantageous times and places to actually up regulate the CNS in order to optimize performance with a sympathetic spark. Yes, this goes against common practice and belief, but as it’s been said, there is room for ALL in a more intelligent approach.
The breath cycle is a leading mechanism to quickly and effectively manipulates the central nervous system spectrum according to the goal, environment and challenge at hand. By utilizing the sympathetic huff breath pre-set, especially for power or strength performances, we can spike the brain and body’s response to potentiate for performance when we need it the most.
But before you go huffing and puffing in preparation for each and every set in your workout, we must realize that there is a marked difference between riding the sympathetic wave strategically with a sprinkle approach and overdoing this and fatiguing yourself centrally which will lead to reduced power and strength outputs and a fried CNS. Here’s how to get the most out of the sympathetic huff breath, and the most advantageous places in a strength or performance program to use this powerful technique.
When To Use This Technique:
No matter your goal of training or the orchestration of your training program as a whole, each individual day should be centered on a main performance goal, also known as the key performance indicator (KPI). The KPI represents the most important aspect of the training day, and the strategic exercise, technique or output that is the long-term focus for improvement across the board. Simply put, the KPI is what is measured repeatedly to ensure positive progress is being made towards goal achievement and is usually the movement that is loaded the heaviest or trained the fastest.
While the dynamic warm up and accessory movements in a training plan are of course important, they do not require the up regulation of the CNS in order to optimize performance. This is what differentiates these methods and focuses from the KPI, where performance is the sole focus. It is at these times where the pristine execution and performance of the KPI can be enhanced by using a strategic sympathetic huff-breathing pattern to amplify the CNS’s preparation to perform.
But as powerful of a tool as the huff breath can be, it can also fry your CNS and leave you pre-fatigued before your big KPI’s if overdone or over used throughout too many sets or for too long of a time period. So proceed with caution with the sympathetic huff breath, as more is not better, more strategically implemented is better. Like being in a firefight with bullets in the chamber of the gun without another clip in your pocket, every bullet counts so use them wisely.
How To Execute The Sympathetic Huff Breath:
This breath type is the simplest of all featured in this resource as its execution is dependent on something that a majority of people are already too keenly skilled at, powerful compensatory chest breaths. We can prepare for a big KPI by rapidly bringing air into our lungs and rapidly pushing it out with a huff against resistance. We will complete 2-4 rapid inhales to rapid exhales for a total time of 2-3 seconds.
When best executed, the powerful rapid forced exhalation can be accompanied by a depression of the shoulders while the rapid forced compensatory chest inhalation can elevate the shoulders through active range of motion. This increased range of motion places the secondary respiratory muscles like the SCM, scalenes, pectoralis group and upper trap into advantageous positions to be stimulated, thus up regulating the CNS’s response to the change in position.
Note that the position of the lips and mouth matter in order to achieve the highest level stimulation from this technique as well as the external movement form the shoulders. The lips should be pursed creating less room for the air to exit the mouth when forced exhalation occurs. This will create resistance with the goal of again up regulating the vital metrics before a big bout of power or strength focus.
Tempo of Breath: Rapid Inhale / Rapid Exhale
Tempo of this breath type is pivotal. The speed and contraction quality of the diaphragm centrally, and the secondary respiratory muscles more superficially must be completed in fast and succinct ways in order to tap into the power of the CNS to prepare the body and mind for maximal performance.
Think rapid and fast when executing the 2-4 sympathetic huff breaths, and follow this method up with the double breath bracing strategy covered in the section above. This technique is best saved for a last top end set where you really need to amplify your CNS for performance. When utilized in a similar way as a trap slap, sprinkling this power breath type into programming can be an ace up the sleeve for getting the most out of your performance on a more reliable metric day in day out.
When used strategically, 1-3 sets of sympathetic huff breaths per workout is going to be a general recommendation. And for total weekly use, do not exceed 8 sets where preparation with the sympathetic huff breath is implemented in order to manage fatigue and recovery to the best of our abilities.
#3 Increase Endurance With Rhythmic Breathing
Endurance sports like running have been notoriously associated with some of the highest injury rates of any physical activity not only due to the sheer number or participants worldwide, but also the ultra repetitive trauma placed on the body through use of specific and repetitive movement patterns. While cardiovascular health and wellness should be a staple focus across the board no matter the demographic or specific activity of choice, it’s imperative that chasing cardiovascular health does not jeopardize orthopedic health.
But chronic pain, injuries and breakdown is exactly what ends up happening to a majority of people chasing endurance as their sole physical focus. Sure, biomechanical positions, general technique, tissue preparedness and a host of other co-factors interplay to create potentially injurious physical conditions, but as we continue to learn more about growing injury rates in endurance sport, one of the central tenets that becomes potentially risky across the board is the association of dysfunctional breathing patterns and injury.
If your goal is to maximize cardiovascular fitness while minimizing risk of injuries in the process, the rhythmical breathe can be a powerful mechanism of keeping you safe while also unlocking performance potential at the highest of levels. By embracing a relaxed rhythmical breathe in alternating right left patterns upon ground contacts, we can equalize mechanical stressors in the body with more symmetry while also retraining the neuromuscular system to perform at lower threshold strategies. Here’s exactly how and why to use this powerful technique.
When To Use This Technique:
As the sympathetic side of the central nervous system is spiked through high levels of physical activities, our body naturally shifts into a fight or flight protection mode. While this can be useful in the short term, in the long term this red lining of our system creates potential problems centered on potential injuries and performance glass ceilings in bouts of exercise exceeding 10-15 seconds in duration. When we perceive stress, our bodies and minds shift into a reactionary autopilot mode, which isn’t necessarily a good thing.
Since traditional reciprocating cardiovascular activities such as walking, running, biking, swimming and cardio machine training are usually trained at durations exceeding a few minutes, fighting the sympathetic response and maintaining lower level outputs both centrally and mechanically can become extremely advantageous for increased training effect and decreased risk of pain and injuries. By operating at lower outputs, we also are able to more volitionally monitor breathing cycles in coordination with our physical positions. That’s where rhythmical breathing comes in.
The highest amount of force and stress in an activity such as running takes place upon initial foot contact with ground, which can exceed 3-4 times bodyweight. And with many runners simply operating in survival mode, breathing becomes shallow, chest emphasized, and most importantly, utilizing an exhalation that occurs on ground contact of one side most frequently as opposed to being equal between right and left.
As an exhalation occurs, the diaphragm rises, decreasing central core super stiffness that can create increased unwanted traveling force up chain from the foot into the knee, hip and spine. Simply put, one side of the body tends to take a brunt of the forceful hit of ground contact while the other is spared. And as we know, one of the biggest predictors of future pain and injury is symmetry of chronic loading.
The rhythmical breathing technique is best incorporated into any reciprocating cardiovascular activity that utilizes the arm and leg moving opposite of one another such as running, walking, swimming and many others. With a 3:2 tempo of 3 strides on inhalation and 2 strides on exhalation, we can alternate side-to-side ground contacts in activities such as running, or even out side to side breathing strategies in activities like swimming. In the short term, the rhythmical breath will be a performance enhancing skill. In the long term, it will have the ability to keep you healthier across the board.
How To Execute The Rhythmic Breathing:
Like any other motor skill, rhythmical breathing must be intelligently implemented into training with a predictable step-by-step approach to mastery. To think that you can go from dysfunctional one sided breathing patterns on your run one day to a 3:2 tempo on the next day seamlessly without detriment to your performance is a bit of a stretch. So similar to the method that’s proved highly effective for rebuilding foundational movement patterns (remembering that locomotion is itself a foundational movement pattern) we will incorporate a 3-step progressive strategy for rhythmical breathing.
- Supine 3:2 Breathing with March
- Standing 3:2 Breathing with March
- Locomotion with 3:2 Breathing
With the normalized developmental sequence in mind, we start our clients down on the ground in a supine position with the feet flat on the floor and hips and knees flexed. From this position, we have more stable ground contacts supporting the spine while also having two feet on the ground, which is a pivotal position for walking and running dynamic transference. The feet will be lifting up and down with alternating form while the breathe is first taken over the duration of 3 steps at the feet, and exhaled out during the duration of 2 steps at the feet. Continue to practice this coordinating of breathing and foot striking out of the supine position for 3-5 minutes at first, then up to 10 minutes with mindfulness and coordination.
Once you have the ability to exceed 10 minutes, it’s time to get up to standing on two feet. In a similar way, we will march the feet on the ground alternating right and left while coordinating the 3:2 rhythm with 3 steps taken on inhalation and 2 steps taken on an active exhalation. You’ll note that this rhythm and tempo will create alternating foot contacts with the ground upon every other exhalation, essentially distributing the force through the ground and feet evenly between right and left.
The final step in the process is implementing body locomotion via walking (and eventually higher paced jogging and running) with the same 3:2 breathing strategy. Start slow here, only walking or running as fast as you can coordinate the breathing cycle with 3 steps taken for every inhalation and 2 steps taken for every exhalation. This is a continuously evolving process and skill set with the ultimate goal of being able to be automatic with this cycle.
Tempo of Breath: Inhale 3 steps / Exhale 2 steps
As it indicates in the name, the focus on rhythmical breathing is the rhythm and tempo of the breathing patterns itself as coordinated with movement. While the average runner or endurance athlete utilizes a 2:2 breathing sequence naturally, this again creates problems as the exhalation is notoriously taken while one side is striking the ground more than the other, creating asymmetries in force exerted on the right vs. the left side of the body.
The simple fix here is incorporating a 3:2 breathing sequence where 3 steps are taken during times of inhalation, and 2 steps for the duration of exhalation, essentially alternating ground contact forces occurring on the right and left sides respectively. This will look like this through two 3:2 breath cycles:
- Inhalation: Right Strike – Left Strike – Right Strike
- Exhalation: Left Strike – Right Strike
- Inhalation: Left Strike – Right Strike – Left Strike
- Exhalation: Right Strike – Left Strike
- This reciprocation continues
*Bold indicates side strike pattern at full exhalation
While alternating strike patterns doesn’t seem like a huge deal in the short term, in the long term after accumulating literally millions of gait cycles all hitting on one side while exhaling and loose in the core and pillar complex, the stress adds up, and can even manifest as pain or injuries. Systemize your breath with cardiovascular activities, perform your best and protect your body in the process. That’s how we make cardio work for us without risking orthopedic health during the chase to improve endurance.
#2 Mitigate Stress With Tactical Breathing
When we think about the highest-level physical performers in the world, our minds automatically gravitate towards professional sports. Sure, there are some serious freaks of nature running around the field on Sundays, but it would be short sighted not to mention the elite tactical athletes such as the Navy Seals in the same sentence.
I’m not here to compare military operation to training in the gym, as of course there’s a huge difference between the two. But it would be negligent for strength coaches and athletes NOT to utilize the advanced techniques that make these tactical athletes so damn incredible under pressure. One of those methods is the tactical breath.
In my time working in San Diego with some of the Special Forces, I learned as much from these amazing human beings as they learned from my coaching. But looking back on it, the single most game-changing method that has revolutionized the way my athletes have been able to train at high relative intensities while also escalating the total volume of work is by mastering and continuously monitoring their breath during sessions. Enter the tactical breath.
When To Use This Technique:
Like many innovative methods, the tactical breath was developed out of pure necessity. I first started formally studying the tactical breath under the teachings of ex-Navy Seal, Mark Divine.
There’s nothing routine about a firefight, no matter how much experience you have in the field. Our human instinct is to instantly heighten our senses with a sympathetic response that elevates heart rate, increases blood pressure, dilates the pupils, and prepares the body from head to toe to fight for it’s life.
While this is a primitive response that is as old as humanity itself, it can present as less than ideal for fine and gross motor skills needed in to physically execute tasks at pristine levels. Imagine if every time Chris Kyle saw a threat walk into his sniper scope he got the sympathetic shakes. That wouldn’t’ exactly be ideal to carrying out his mission. The same can be said (of course to a far lesser extent) to training performances.
While training on the nerve can sometimes create physical and neurological advantages under the bar, more times than not learning how to harness the potential of the sympathetic system by grading it back becomes a more advantageous skill long term. Not every training session is treated the same as a competition, especially as volume, relative intensity and cumulative capacities are challenged throughout the course of a training session.
Simply put, the tactical breath can be used between sets to optimize the recovery window inside the rest periods, and allow for a more full and complete mechanical and systemic recovery that enhances the quality of work being accomplished in training. The quicker you can recovery, the more efficient your training becomes. And the more efficient training becomes, the less energy is wasted, and the more can be streamlined into the training itself, which presents with obvious benefits.
It’s no longer good enough to sit around huffing and puffing for 5 minutes after every tough set of squats. Use the tactical breath to steady your CNS, optimize your intra-set recovery and repeatedly train at your highest levels.
How To Execute The Tactical Breath:
As we reviewed above in the Crocodile Breath, dysfunctional breathing patterns first need to be addressed and improved before we can start successfully implementing these more advanced breathing strategies. Think of it as goblet squatting before back squatting.
Once you have mastered the skill of belly breathing in a fully expanded 360-degree fashion, it’s time to start moving up the ladder of developmental positioning and continuing to master the same authentic breath in different positions. From supine, to kneeling, to standing, ensure that you are maintaining the ability to breathe properly, which will eventually become habituated. From there, it’s time to implement the tactical breath.
It should be noted that during a training session is NOT the ideal time to start using the tactical breath, but rather practicing this skill in a more non-threatening environment first to simplify the variables at hand. My favorite position to start athletes with is sitting cross-legged on the floor with the back supported by the wall.
Here’s exactly how to execute this breath:
- Sit on the floor with legs crossed and your spine supported by the wall.
- Place your hands passively into your lap.
- Close your eyes to simplify sensory input and relax into this position.
- Inhale with a 4-count using your belly, chest and shoulders in that order.
- Hold for a 4-count at the top of the breath in full expansion.
- Exhale with a 4-count out through the mouth.
- Pause at the bottom of the breath for a few seconds between breaths.
Continue practicing this tactical breath in order to improve your automation, and progress into kneeling, and standing before implementing into your training sessions. The last thing we need between heavy work sets of deadlifts is you guys all hyperventilating, so again… you’ve been warned to earn the right to implement this skill by mastering the technique first.
Tempo of Breath: Inhale 4 seconds / Hold 4 seconds / Exhale 4 seconds
This technique has been referred to as “box breathing” due to the rhythm of 4-second durations at each aspect of the breath. While this tempo has been highly successful in a myriad of physically, emotionally and mentally challenging situations, I’ve gravitated towards teaching a quicker pause at the bottom of the rep, especially in the training setting.
Without getting too technical, we want to ensure that an optimal amount of exchange happens in the lungs and cardio-respiratory system. While the 4-second pause at the bottom of the rep has some merit for grading back of the sympathetic response, mechanically speaking the active tissues during lifts need more perfusion of oxygen and exchange happening locally aka we need more breaths in during our rest periods to expedite recovery for repeat bouts.
By taking the 4-second hold at the bottom of the breath and reducing it to around 1-second, we can increase the amount of breaths we can get in a given rest period. For example, using traditional box breathing, one cycle takes 16-seconds. By reducing the bottom hold to 1-second, a breath will now take 13-seconds. That doesn’t seem like a ton, but as any lifter knows, it’s those last few breaths that truly spark recovery when you really need it.
#1 Expedite Recovery With Parasympathetic Positional Breathing
Optimizing training, no matter if your goal is to get as big as possible, as strong as possible, or just to have a more high performing physique, is all about monitoring your training loads and ensuring proper recovery between sessions. But many times, our focus lies solely on training, forgetting about the all-important process of recovery in order to actually regenerate from the training stress itself.
So how to we recover quicker to train harder and train at higher frequencies? Sure, nutrition, hydration, and stress all play an obvious role, but what about the time it takes us to shift from a sympathetic based CNS response in training to a parasympathetic based response that allows the recovery process to start doing it’s work?
That intermediary period between your last set and the time where your CNS comes down off the sympathetic bender it’s currently been on for hours in the gym needs to be minimized. And one of the most effective methods to do that is by implementing recovery breathing as the last “exercise” of the day before you ever leave the gym in the Performance Recovery System.
When To Use This Technique:
If you find yourself jacked up for hours after training followed by a huge crash, this recovery breathing strategy is going to be a game-changer for your ability to recovery along with living a more normal existence away from the gym that doesn’t involve the continual shakes.
What happens to people, especially those who train in the mornings is that they spark a sympathetic response in their training, and never come back down from it. They stay highly heightened all day until their system finally fails and they crash hard. While this can be limiting to recovery, it can also be a huge limiting factor to strength, muscle, and performance plateaus as well from the glass ceiling this neurological and systemic state places your body into routinely.
In a matter of 3-5 minutes after training, we can avoid punching the gas on your CNS for hours after your training session has ended. Sure, you’ll initially feel like a bit fluffy at first lying on the ground alone with your thoughts with your eyes closed while others pound away at the iron. But when you turn around in record time with higher energy and more dynamic capabilities under the bar, you’ll quickly see that 3 minutes is some of the best time you’ll ever invest in the gym.
I picked up the positional recovery breathing from legendary strength and conditioning coach Buddy Morris years ago, who has championed this simple yet highly effective technique throughout the NFL and other high performance sports. Want a buy in? If it’s good enough for pro athletes who make a living based on the performance of their bodies, it’s probably good enough for you.
How To Execute Recovery Breathing:
While the other two breathing techniques above are more structured in the actual execution of the breath itself, the recovery breathing is more about the position and setup. We want to position your body to make it as easy as possible for a few key things to happen to help spark recovery in multiple facets of physiology.
First, we need passive positioning of the arms and legs to ensure proper centralized drainage of lymphatic fluid. Second, we need to ensure that the spine remains in a relatively neutral position to reduce the threat response to the body. And lastly, we want to make these positions as comfortable as possible, again all for the goal of reversing the CNS response from training.
Here’s exactly how I setup my athletes for recovery breathing after each and every training session to spark the recovery process before they ever leave my watch:
- Lay on your back with the head resting on the ground.
- Elevate the legs to above heart level with knees slightly bent.
- Elevate the arms up overhead.
- Close eyes and relax the body reducing any tension of stress.
*A quiet area of the gym away from music or noise is preferable
From this position, you should be able to relax every single muscle in your body to allow a fully passive response to take place. From here, we will focus in on only one single movement, that of your breath.
Tempo of Breath: Inhale 3-4 seconds / Hold 2-3 seconds / Exhale 6-8 seconds
The main focus with the tempo of the breath is about slowly inhaling and exhaling under control. Since most athletes and lifters have trouble slowing down, especially while in the presence of the iron, using specific tempos can be very useful when initially adopting this recovery breathing strategy.
Inhale for 3-4 seconds fully, hold for a few seconds at the top of the breath, and then really focus on extending the exhalation to around 8 seconds. We want this tempo to be slow and controlled, but also habitual to the point of being passive. The last thing we want to do during recovery breathing is to stress about exact numbers of the breath counts, so you have an excuse to chill and zone out a bit on this one.
The time of recovery breathing is about turning off the sympathetic switch before we leave the gym, so techniques such as positive mental imagery can absolutely be synergized together out of this position to really get the most out of these few minutes. Set your iPhone timer for your prescribed duration in order to avoid checking the clock, and just enjoy your time on the floor in celebration of the ball busting work you just put into the weights.
How do you know it’s working? You should feel an instant calming sensation throughout your body after you are done with a round of this. If you’re struggling to get a positive response, revert back to Crocodile Breathing, and refine your skills. And if that doesn’t work, use your training buddy as your personal psychologist and work out your issues that way.
About The Author
Dr. John Rusin is a sports performance specialist and injury prevention expert that has coached some of the world’s most elite athletes including multiple Olympic gold medalists, NFL and MLB All-Star performers, and professionals from 11 different sports. He has also managed some of the most successful barbell sport athletes in the world including world record holding powerlifters, CrossFit Games athletes, and IFBB professional physique athletes.
His innovative pain-free performance programs have been successfully implemented by over 25,000 athletes worldwide including his best selling training system Functional Power Training, which has revolutionized the way coaches and athletes develop strength, muscle and performance pain-free. Dr. Rusin’s work has gained him the reputation as the go-to industry expert for rebuilding after pain, injuries or plateaus.
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