Breathing is an essential forgotten factor when it comes to strength, flexibility, speed, power, and even well-being. It is rarely taught and happens to be an essential aspect when it comes to health, strength, and fitness programs as well as sports today. How you breathe is the limiting factor that separates an athlete from superiority and evolving into a champion.
All sports have similar but different breathing patterns. A golfer is different from a boxer; a pitcher is different from a rower, a lineman is different from a sprinter. Knowing your sport-specific movements and breathing patterns will make you a force to be reckoned with. The exercises here will help you comprehend breathing, stabilization, and movement to strengthen your core. But, let’s understand what the core is first.
What is the core? How it works
The core is not just comprised of abdominals. Sit-ups are one way to produce strong abdominals, but not necessarily the core. Sit-ups build and isolate the strength on the front abdominal wall; however, this disrupts the functionality, stability, and symmetry of the core, as well as the spine, through an imbalance of strength. They do not integrate into movement patterns effectively, and, ultimately, leads to the compensation and dysfunction of movement. On the other hand, in reality, and most significantly, the core develops and forms from pressure and tension produced from breathing and the co-contraction and stabilization of muscles. Drawl a circle around your hips. Everything inside this circle comprises, develops, and affects the core. Remarkably, how you breathe, inhale and exhale, uniquely pressurizes and optimizes the tension of the core muscles, causing them all to react and stabilize. The core is based on a tension and pressure system that exist at the midline of the body.
The abdominals (front), obliques (sides), erectors, quadratus lumborum, and multifidus (mid and lower back) are the exterior muscles of the core. The intra-abdominal cavity, pelvic floor, and diaphragm are the interior aspects of the core located behind the front of the abdominal wall.
Nasal Diaphragmatic Breathing (NDB)
NDB is inhaling through the nose to contract the diaphragm. The inhalation and contraction of the diaphragm produce intra-abdominal pressure (IAP). When you inhale through your nose, the diaphragm contracts and descends. When you exhale, the diaphragm relaxes. When you inhale, and the diaphragm contracts, this process enlarges the abdominal cavity and expands the lungs by pulling them down. By expanding the abdominal cavity and the lungs, it increases the space for more air to enter and increase pressure.
Intra-Abdominal Pressure (IAP)
IAP is very important because it activates and enhances the tension of all the core muscles. The tension produced in the core induces stability that transfers through the whole spine: the lumbar, thoracic, and cervical regions. It also radiates through the whole body from the bottom of your feet to the top of your head.
Another important purpose for IAP is to generate greater tension, force, and stability. IAP boosts the ability to handle 10-20% more force. And this can be utilized in your strength training movements, for example, squats, deadlifts, lunges, pulls, presses, etc. The receptors located in the intra-abdominal cavity sense the increase in pressure from the inhalation and exhalation and boost the power of the nervous system (potentiation). Visualize it like a 4-cylinder car motor becoming an 8. The more pressure, the more tension, and the more potentiation. Breathing through an open mouth drastically reduces force because it decreases IAP. There has to be an increase in pressure to facilitate the increase in tension to lift more weight.
Training the synchronization and timing of breathing and stabilizing to move will develop powerful movements and enhance their neuromuscular pattern, in turn, boosting your strength, speed, power, and sports performance on the field.
- Stand up inhale through your nose. As you inhale, keep your abdominals tight. Don’t suck your stomach in, think brace, like the reaction of when someone is going to punch you in the stomach. Sucking in makes the core weaker because, when you suck in your abdominals, the diaphragm cannot descend. Inhale and brace the abdominals to create tension through pressure.
- As you inhale and brace your abdominals, you will feel the contraction and stabilization of all the muscles around your hip. Exhale and relax. Now, inhale and brace again, and when you reach full inhalation, squeeze your glutes. You will feel the core engage more powerfully, and, probably, feel irradiation down to your feet into the floor. Your hip alignment and gluteal strength are an essential part of your core power.
Now, when you exhale, the diaphragm automatically and elastically recoils. The diaphragm truly acts like a rubber band. But, what’s most interesting about the exhale, is the hiss. If you hiss, normally it will maintain pressure. If you hiss harder, it will actually increase IAP.
- Inhale through your nose, brace and tighten the abdominals.
- Now, as you exhale hiss, make an actual hissing sound. When you exhale, hiss your air out, there is a reflex in the hiss that maintains abdominal tension, and, if you hiss harder, you will feel the abdominals tighten and stabilize even more.
- Try it. Hiss slowly for a few seconds and with the same hiss, hiss harder. You will feel the core contract and stabilize more with a stronger hiss.
For example, when you squat, inhale as you squat down to the floor. This activates core stability. As you redirect the force from the squat to the standing position, exhale hiss to accelerate concentrically, back up to the standing position. The exhale hiss will increase the IAP and stability to accelerate up. You will feel the exhale hiss lift you up naturally without forcing.
You don’t need to hiss hard all the time. If you are lifting heavy, for example, using three reps, you can hiss hard to really increase the pressure of the core. Or inhale before the descent to the floor.
If you exhale hiss all your air out too fast or through an open mouth, you will lose pressure that diminishes tension. Similar to unplugging the TV when it’s on, it cuts the power instantly. Timing the hiss is important when exerting force.
The core radiates and transfers tension through the body. That leads to greater stability and force when standing, running, sprinting, tackling, etc. Like I had mentioned before, sit-ups are not integrated into movement patterns. Therefore, they don’t optimize stability and tension for the core. Specifically, this compensates for the core and spine functionality. To note, at the same time, the position of your hip is essential when establishing this stability as well.
When you lift a weight/heavyweight:
- The inhalation through the nose causes the diaphragm to contract, and this produces intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) during the eccentric loading phase. This pressure is sensed by the receptors in the abdominal cavity connected via the nervous system.
- IAP amplifies the nervous system, augmenting the tension and stability of the core and spine that transfers the enhanced tension to muscles through the whole body. This is the reason all your power comes from your breathing and the core.
- It is important to synch the inhalation and the diaphragm contraction to the eccentric motion and the exhalation hiss with the concentric motion, the exertion.
Overhead Position Holds
- NDB is essential because the pressure activates the tension and stability of all the muscles around the hip. NDB links and unifies the stability of the hip, core, and spine.
- Overhead movements will definitely challenge your core the most. But, what’s most important is your hip position for overhead movements. In the photo, you can see the glutes maintain proper hip alignment that optimizes the stability of the core and spine.
Poor Hip Alignment
- Most people don’t breathe and pressurize correctly nor have good hip alignment and stability to link-up with the core.
- When weight is held in the overhead position, if you arch your lumbar spine, you sever the link between the core, hips, and spine. This reduces the core’s power.
- Most people hyperextend their spine due to poor breathing mechanics, a lack of core strength, and/or weak glutes. This leads to compensated movement patterns that produce pain, strain, or injury. People are more concerned about pressing more weight; therefore, they compensate for doing it.
Clean, Front and Rack Position Holds
- The clean/rack position is another great position to develop your core. It is much easier, and, recommended first, to establish control and strength in the core before overhead movements.
- You can use this position in a majority of movements ranging from deadlifts, squats, and lunges. Remember, you are making the entire body react, training, and strengthening neural pathways.
Be strategic with strength: breath, stabilize, then move. You will be much stronger. Think of a shoulder press not so much as a shoulder press and a squat, not as a squat. Visualize exercises and movements as strengthening your core. This is what I do in my training.
Why You Should Never Breathe Through Your Mouth
- When you breathe through your mouth, you breathe into the chest and not into the bottom of the lungs losing IAP.
- When you breathe through your mouth into the top of the lungs, the diaphragm is not very active. The diaphragm plays a crucial part in the exchange of O2 and CO2.
- The inhalation through the nose contracts the diaphragm. When the diaphragm contracts, it pulls down on the bottom of the lungs. First, this process of pulling down the lungs increases the amount of space and air entering the lungs, whereas breathing through the mouth does not.
- When the diaphragm contracts and pulls the lungs down, it expands the bottom of the lungs, about 50% more, where there are about 50% more exchanges for O2 and CO2.
- Breathing through the mouth increases your breaths per minute, affecting the respiratory, musculoskeletal, and nervous system negatively, also detrimental to your health and making you work harder than you need in your training. Breathing through the nose creates healthier, less breathes per minute and links and unifies the respiratory, musculoskeletal, and nervous system to optimize strength and performance.
- Since breathing through your mouth is not effective at contracting the diaphragm, it will not be effective at producing IAP.
- When you inhale through your nose, you inhale a gas called nitric oxide (NO) that acts as a bronchodilator for your lungs, meaning it dilates the bronchial tubes of your lungs. NO mixes with the air to dilate the bronchial tubes for air to enter with ease. Nitric oxide also acts as an antimicrobial to kill any bacteria in the airstream from entering the lungs through inhalation. Inhaling through the mouth, on the other hand, causes the bronchial tubes to constrict, contributing to high blood pressure, accelerated heart rate, and fatigue.