Breathing: Master It or It Will Master You
All movement is a constant symphony between tension and relaxation, yet very few people recognize the important role breathing has in controlling the balance of tension and relaxation that keeps the symphony moving along.
If you hold your breath your body will reflexively tighten, when you exhale or sigh your body will reflexively relax. Slow steady breathing accompanies calmness. Erratic breathing accompanies panic. Forceful breathing accompanies powerful movement. By learning to control your breathing to be tense, relaxed or powerful at the appropriate times and you can better control your state of mind and your body.
Breathing for Safety and Performance
When used properly breathing will simultaneously increase safety and your ability to produce force. As a general rule of thumb
I recommended inhaling through the nose as the weight is lowered and exhaling as the weight is lifted, or swung forward.
An exception is during long lasting kettlebell movements like the getup or farmer’s walk both which require you to constantly find ways to sip air and breathe shallow while maintaining a braced midsection.
Breathing for Safety
To illustrate the role of breathing as a safety measure place one hand on your abdomen and deeply inhale by sniffing air forcefully through your nose. When done properly you should feel your abdomen tighten and your waist thicken or expand. This tightening and thickening acts like a natural version of weightlifter’s belt to stabilize the lower back. Hardstyle kettlebell practitioners use this sort of strong inhalation to brace their midsection when lowering the kettlebell during grinds or hiking the kettlebell during ballistics.
Breathing for Performance
To illustrate the role of breathing in power production imagine the sounds made by the likes of a martial artist, a boxer, a volleyball player, a tennis player, or a NFL lineman when trying to exert maximum force against the opponent or ball. You’ll typically hear audible and powerful grunts, hissing, or a form of shouting. These athletes time powerful exhalations to accentuate the power they produce while hitting, pushing, pulling, jumping, throwing etc. You must learn to do the same.
When it comes to kettlebell movements like a heavy press or squat breathing in the right way at the right moment can determine whether you will dominate the sticking point of a lift, or get dominated by it.
Match Your Breath to the Effort
Your breathing should compliment and guide your movements. A quick movement requires a quick breath and a slower movement requires a slower breath. A slow heavy lift needs breathing that produces enough muscular tension to complete the lift, while longer sets of fast movements needs just enough tension to get the job done on each rep, but also the right amount of relaxation to prevent premature fatigue.
Imagine how odd it and counterproductive it would feel to throw a series of rapid punches or perform a 10 yard dash while using only a single long sigh. Conversely imagine how hard unnecessarily tiring it would be to strike a heavy bag repeatedly for several minutes using full-power, loud high-tension breathing on every technique.
I once met a martial art expert who understood this concept and applied it into his art by teaching his students different sounds to produce while performing different techniques. The sound assigned to each technique was a tool intended to guide his students’ into moving with the appropriate speed and intensity during the proper part of each technique. I seem to recall that there were one or more intense hisses, grunts or shouts paired with the moment(s) of impact meant to help produce power, followed by a relaxed sound immediately after to help recover and prepare for the next movement.
Breathing properly should make the task at hand both better and safer by helping you produce the perfect balance of tension and relaxation. As you become more skilled you should strive to learn how to dial the volume knob up or down to appropriately match the task at hand. Both using too much tension or too little can make techniques unnecessarily hard. During slow lifts or “grinds” you’re generally safer using more tension than necessary and you can then dial it back as you gain experience.
For example I’ll use the same breathing pattern when deadlifting a 16kg kettlebell as deadlifting twice my bodyweight, but I don’t need to breathe as loudly or as powerfully with light weights as I do with heavy weight. There is a time to practice using loud powerful breathing and the high tension that it produces with light weights, but that time is not all of the time. The key is to regulate your breathing in such a way as to make the task at hand safer, better and easier.