Table of Contents

Proper Breathing

By: Nick Ryan | July 7, 2015 3 Comments

This entry is part 4 of 8 in the series The A.P.E.X. Way

Breathing is the most fundamental function of being alive, and under normal circumstances happens naturally and requires no thoughts; however, intentional breathing techniques can increase performance and protect the spine, control blood pressure spikes, and calm the mind.  Proper breathing varies depending on the desired outcome of the training session.  The following is a list of training modalities and the recommended breathing technique, followed by a detailed description of each training modality.  


  • Cardio: Find a breathing cadence that is natural and calm, avoid panting, take in deeper breaths if necessary
  • Sprinting: For short distances, breath in, begin sprint, steady exhale throughout the distance. RESISTANCE TRAINING

  • Olympic Lifts:  Deep breath in, hold breath (the valsalva maneuver) to create thoracic pressure, and exhale near completion of the rep, drop the weight not under tension, catch breath normally between reps
  • 1RM: Deep breath in, hold breath (the valsalva maneuver) to create thoracic pressure, and exhale near completion of the rep, lower the weight not under tension, catch breath normally between reps
  • 8-12RM:
    • Negative Phase – Little in, little out, big breath
    • Positive Phase – big breath out.


Whether you are running, biking, rowing, swimming, swinging a kettlebell, slamming battle ropes, or whatever you are doing, to goal of breathing during bouts of cardiovascular training is to breath naturally and stay calm.  It will depend on the terrain, the weather, and your state of fatigue.  You may be able to start a run breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth, but once you are 3 miles in and attacking a hill, all bets are off and you are hyperventilating just to not pass out.  Depending on the stroke, you may be grabbing a quick breath followed by a steady exhale while swimming.  The goal during cardio is to exchange nutrients and oxygen from lungs to blood to muscle cells, and in the reverse order remove carbon dioxide, byproducts of exercise, and circulate blood cells back to the lungs to start all over.  Steady, consistent breathing can get the body into a rhythm that accommodates extended cardiovascular bouts.


Sprinting encompasses speed drills, agility drills, short distance sprints, and explosive plyometrics.  Before you begin the exercise, take in a breath, then begin the short explosive movement with a steady exhale.  If this feels unnatural, just breath naturally. The distance may be too long or the duration broken up with changes of direction, and natural breathing may be more functional.  Make sure that there is adequate recovery periods between sprints to catch your breath.  A well planned work:rest ratio will make or break the workout if sprinting is used to fatigue the body.


Before discussing breathing technique on Olympic lifts, lets discuss their primary role in a training regimen, which has become more fluid since the establishment of CrossFit as a training style.  Olympic lifts incorporate an explosive positive phase that utilizes momentum as part of the technique, and generally omits the negative phase entirely; therefore, it is not an effective means of loading cross-bridges for the purpose of strength training and should be categorized as power development via CNS stimulation.


CNS stimulation is best accomplished when the musculoskeletal system is fresh, so that the maximal effort can be given to recruit the maximum amount of motor units.  Performing Olympic lifts in a fatigued state is essentially the same thing as attempting to run your best 40 time after running a 5K.  Using Olympic lifts to fatigue the body absolutely shocks the system, hence the success of CrossFit, but the fundamental purpose of Olympic lifts is to stimulate the CNS with maximal motor unit recruitment.


If we agree that Olympic lifts should be performed when the body is fresh, and that adequate rest should be given between reps and sets, than we can agree on a uniformed breathing recommendation.  If we are fresh and rested before performing the lift, and if we are completing the entire movement rapidly through the positive phase and omitting the negative phase, then our breathing is more a function of stability than oxygen exchange.  Oxygen exchange occurs between reps.  The purpose of breathing during the lift is to create thoracic pressure by utilizing the Valsalva Maneuver.  The Valsalva Maneuver is the combination of taking in a deep breath and tightening your core.  The push of your diaphragm on the rib cage and the pull of your abdominal wall against your rib cage creates a stable environment through your torso to protect your spine throughout the dynamic Olympic lift.  The more dynamic the lift, the more important core stability becomes.


A 1RM has many of the same precautionary concerns with the spine as Olympic lifts, yet requires more intentional control during the negative phase of the movement.  Unlike Olympic lifts, for example, a 1RM on Flat Bench Press requires a controlled negative phase, followed by the 1RM explosive positive phase.  Generally with a 1RM, to goal is to stimulate the CNS, recruit the maximal amount of motor units, and generate power through the positive phase, so the negative phase must simply be controlled enough to prevent gravity accelerating the weight too much, making the transition from negative to positive phase overly embellished.  The correct breathing technique for a 1RM is to take in a deep breath during a controlled one-second negative, followed by holding your breath to create thoracic pressure through the positive phase using the valsalva maneuver, exhaling near completion of the rep.  Some programs call for a 2-7RM.  In these situations, depending on the goal of power development vs. strength, you may have two-second reps or four-second reps.  Use the 1RM breathing technique for the two-second reps to power development.  Use the 8-12RM breathing technique below if your time under tension will be four seconds for strength.


If the desired rep for maximal strength gains and hypertrophy is 8-12 reps with an explosive one-second positive followed by a controlled three-second negative, then there needs to be a way to measure that to quantify the quality of the rep.  Many collegiate and professional sports programs use metronomes (the cadence device used by musicians), or music that has the correct cadence built into the beat.  Some coaches count down with their athletes until it is ingrained into the technique to do it correctly every time, all the time.  Regardless of training modality (free-weights, machines, TRX, resistance bands, dumbbells, etc.), if the target duration of the rep is 1-and-3, OR if the rep range is 8 or more, then the following breathing considerations should be implemented.


In order to perform a three-second negative, there needs to be a uniformed plan for breathing.  Whether we realize it or not, the most common way to manage a long negative phase is to take in a deep breath for one second, then hold your breath for two seconds before initiating the exhale during the positive.  Doing this for 10 reps on deadlifts for three rounds means that on the 30th rep you have done quite a bit of breath-holding in a short amount of time, which can lead to exertion headaches among other blood pressure related issues developed over time.  The other common option is to short-change that three-second negative and cut it down to two seconds to make it more comfortable, but then you lose the benefit of that additional time under tension.  Losing a second every rep adds up.


During the controlled three-second negative phase, the A.P.E.X. way of exchanging oxygen is to take a little breath in for the 1st second, then a little breath out during the 2nd second, followed by a big breath in during the 3rd second.  This allows air exchange to occur, does not require holding your breath, and ultimately functions as a metronome for your rep.  Control your breathing, control your time under tension.  Exhale during the positive phase for the final big breath out, then repeat the three-second negative.  This can be applied to virtually all strength training movements outside of the Olympic lifts where the valsalva maneuver is still recommended to create thoracic pressure to protect the spine.


If the goal is to stimulate the CNS and recruit maximal motor units, then by all means build the program around Olympic Lifts.  If the goal is strength and hypertrophy gains, then large compound movements (squats, deadlifts, barbell rows, bench press, etc.) that have an explosive one-second positive followed by a controlled three-second negative would be a better choice.  Isolated machines, TRX suspension training, resistance bands, manual resistance, and body weight exercises are also viable options, although they will not stimulate maximal motor unit recruitment as well as heavy compound lifts.  Intentionally slowing down to maximize cross-bridge activation through the full range of motion mandates that breathing be altered to avoid holding your breath or short-changing the time under tension.  A productive method is to correlate the three-second negative with a little breath in, little breath out, and big breath in, then exhale as you explode through the one-second positive to complete the repetition.

Nick Ryan, CSCS


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