Believe it or not, deep diaphragmatic breathing is one of the best tools that athletes can use to improve their health and increase their strength. Yes, breathing has greater purpose for the body than simply keeping us alive.
Taking the time to re-learn diaphragmatic breathing can help restore posture, better engage the glutes and core and help to increase stability and force production during training.
Although some of you don’t want to trouble yourselves with learning how to breath properly, it’s worth your time, because it can have significant benefits on your performance in the weight room and in your sport.
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Breathing for Health
Proper breathing can do a lot for athletes who run and jump. This is because running/sprinting and jumping place the hips into repetitive hyperextension. This creates high levels of activity in the hip flexors and erectors (low back); and as a result, these movements can leave athletes carrying a chronic anterior pelvic tilt, which they also end up bringing into the weight room.
If the hips are not restored to a more neutral position, athletes will be prone to soreness and discomfort in the hips and lower back. Anterior tilt can also be the catalyst for a domino effect where tight lats, excessive rib flare and depressed scapulae also become problems—all of which are detrimental not only to running and jumping athletes, but to overhead and throwing athletes as well.
To make matters worse, heavy lifting exacerbates these problems. With the ribs flared and the hips rotated forward, it becomes difficult to place the body in the ideal position to engage the glutes and abdominals. This sets people up for injuries.
However, when we learn to harness our breathing , the diaphragm inflates like a balloon as we inhale and forces the abdominal wall to stretch. As we exhale, the ribcage depresses and moves closer to the pelvis as the abdominal wall provides a deep contraction to help force the air from the diaphragm.
With practice, this contraction of the abdominals can result in greater activation of the deep and superficial muscles of the abdominal wall. This works to the advantage of restoring the ribs and pelvis to a more neutral position so that it becomes much easier to engage the glutes and abdominals in static and dynamic postures. It also helps to maintain the long-term health of our joints.
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The process of re-wiring the nervous system to more powerfully and consistently use breathing is one of the most efficient fixes for the aforementioned postural and performance problems. The following exercises can help beginners learn the ins and outs of how to do just that.
These initial exercises will help groove the feeling of driving air into the torso and then forcing it out, using tools (the floor and a box) for kinesthetic feedback.
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Step 1: Lie on your stomach and place your hands under your forehead. If you experience low-back discomfort when lying on your stomach, place a foam roller or towel under your hips. You can also place an item such as a yoga block on the small of your back. If you have a partner who can hold the sides of your waist (the space between the 12th ribs and the top of the pelvis), this is also helpful.
Step 2: Inhale into your diaphragm so that your stomach (belly button) expands into the floor, your waist expands into your partner’s hands (or simply expands outward if you don’t have a partner), and the item on your back rises. You want minimal movement at the neck and chest (a little bit is okay because the ribs should rise slightly).
Step 3: Through pursed lips, make your exhalation last as long as possible (go purple and blue in the face), and simultaneously contract your abdominals to force out every last drop of air before inhaling into your diaphragm again.
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This is the same as Crocodile Breathing, the only difference being position. Lie on your back with your feet flat on the floor. The floor should be against your back and the item should rest on top of your stomach. Inhale the same way so that your low back expands into the floor and the item rises. There should be minimal movement at the chest and neck. Exhale the same way as before. This progression is slightly more difficult, because the stomach does not receive the hard and objective feedback that it received from the floor in Progression 1. But because the pelvis is more posteriorly tilted, engaging the abdominals should be a bit easier.
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Breathing For Strength
As mentioned above, breathing can greatly affect your strength. The goal is to create intra-abdominal pressure, which helps stabilize your core during heavy lifts to increase strength and prevent injury.
The traditional Valsalva breathing maneuver has been used for ages and accomplishes this job. The Valsalva maneuver involves forcefully exhaling against a closed airway as you lift weight.
Although it’d effective, it can be uncomfortable for many during repetitions that require significant strain or prolonged effort. Strenuous repetitions while using this method can lead to dizziness, headaches and lightheadedness or “spot seeing” because of its effect on blood flow and oxygen supply. For some trainees—especially those who have issues with their blood pressure—it limits the amount of work they are capable of doing (or willing to do) at higher intensities.
In contrast to this, the French Press style of diaphragmatic breathing can be used to increase intra-abdominal pressure for prolonged sets or repetitions. The longer the set or repetition, the more pressure builds up within the abdominal wall, further fortifying the skeleton.
This tight knit breathing style uses the relationship between the abdominals and the diaphragm to maximize the amount of force you can produce and the length of time you can produce it. Also, it does not compromise blood flow or oxygen supply nearly as much as the Valsalva technique. Moreover, this type of strategy can have better carryover to efficient breathing and abdominal tone during on-field performance and is a useful addition to any athlete’s or coach’s toolbox.
Here are exercises to learn this technique:
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This progression moves from the basic technique you learned in the first two exercises and adds a power component. This will improve the amount of power present in your exhalation (how fast you can engage and contract the abdominal muscles, both superficial and deep).
Step 1: Lie on your back with your feet up against a wall and your hips and knees at 90 degrees. Wrap the opening of a balloon around a straw and exhale into the balloon as hard as possible for as long as possible.
Step 2: When you have exhausted every ounce of air from your diaphragm, pinch the balloon and straw so that air does not escape. Inhale into your diaphragm, and repeat.
Step 3: Continue until the balloon is full of air or pops. If it took you eight breaths to fill or pop the balloon, next week try and do it in seven breaths. Continue in this fashion until you can fill the balloon in a small handful of breaths (or better yet, one).
French Press Breathing
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Once the above three progressions have been mastered, it’s time to employ breathing for strength with the French Press Method. which I learned from Karsten Jensen.
With this method, you exhale the same as with the Balloon Breathing exercise. However, during the subsequent inhalation, you breathe into your diaphragm as usual but try to prevent your abdominal wall from expanding. In other words, whereas in the first three exercise progressions, we can visually see movement of the abdominal wall during inhalation, this exercise has the diaphragm inflate “against” the abdominal wall isometrically. There should be zero to minimal movement of the stomach during the inhalation. This technique is repeated for each breath and repetition. Each exhalation builds off the intra-abdominal pressure created from the previous inhalation to greatly increase and prolong your stability.
As opposed to the Valsalva-type maneuver, which is more like an isometric abdominal contraction, exhalations during the French Press result in a prolonged concentric abdominal contraction to further stabilize the hips and spine and provide a boost to your numbers. The French Press technique is best used for short, high intensity sets but is effective for sets of any length. However, be careful! Make sure you empty your bowels before attempting it, or your blood, sweat and tears may not be the only things spilling out onto the floor!
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