13 April 2007
All elite athletes know that imposing any exercise program on a dysfunctional body only worsens dysfunction. You first have to analyze each person’s unique posture and structure and design a program to correct their specific structural imbalances, by strengthening weak muscles, and stretching tight muscles and fascia. Only then can you train properly. But, one important function that affects all movement is often overlooked – breathing. Correct breathing is in rhythm with movement, is vital for both oxygenating your tissues and stabilizing your core.
Athletes at rest take about 12-15 breaths a minute. The best tend to breath slowest and deepest. At 15 breath’s a minute, you breathe 900 breaths every hour, over 20,000 breaths every day. In concert with good structure and muscular development, breathing is our most important source of power. The form and rhythm and timing of the breath affects every movement we make. Yet most of the people we test breathe poorly. Imagine any other action in sport or in life that is practiced poorly 20,000 times a day. Disastrous!
The common faults we see are:
Exhaling at the point of effort.
Breathing that is uncoordinated with movement.
We teach Power Breathing for sport (and for life) as a three-part process.
Step1, and most important, inhale into the lower third of your lungs.
This is the area most richly endowed with oxygen receptors. The easiest way to learn, is to push the diaphragm down by sticking out your belly, the relaxed “belly breathing” taught in yoga for at least 3000 years. As you improve, you learn to push the diaphragm down while holding the transversus in, so as to increase intra-abdominal pressure to stabilize the core. Start by learning belly breathing and work from there.
Step 2, fill the middle third of your lungs by expanding the ribcage sideways.
You should be able to place your fingers on a person’s outer ribs, under the arms, and feel the ribcage widen by at least two inches.
Step 3 is to fill the top of the lungs by raising the chest.
For many people, chest breathing is all they ever do. They never properly oxygenate their tissues nor activate their Inner Unit, yet wonder why they fatigue easily, and cannot make powerful movements.
Coordinating Breathing with Effort
The second major fault we see is exhalation at the point of effort. This practice arose primarily because academics, whose biggest exertion was probably tying their shoes, told insurance companies that holding the breath during effort increases intra-abdominal pressure, raises blood pressure and puts the heart and arteries at risk. So, for insurance purposes, many gym clients are taught to exhale as they make an effort.
It is true that retained breath on effort raises intra-abdominal pressure. That’s exactly how the body is programmed. Intra-abdominal pressure stabilizes the core. That’s why you inhale sharply as an evolutionary reflex when faced with a sudden threat. As part of our ancient fight-flight system, the body is programmed to inhale to stabilize the core, to make the body as strong as possible for fighting or fleeing.
In the Power Program, we take advantage of this superb fight-flight reflex, to apply maximum effort by inhaling immediately before effort, and momentarily retaining the breath during the rapid concentric contraction, then releasing the breath evenly during the slow eccentric contraction. Unless your client knows how to do this breathing, they will never be able to apply maximum effort. Worse, if you habitually use the exhale-on-effort nonsense taught in many gyms, you will be weak in movement on the sports field, and highly subject to lower back injury as the destabilized core has to use the spine to take the load. At the Colgan Institute we teach boxers, martial artist, and all combat athletes to strike their opponent just as they finish exhaling, because that is when the body is weakest. All the top coaches we know teach the same.
“Small Hole” Exhalation
You can maintain your strength during exhalation by learning to exhale with the “small hole” technique. The easiest method is to push half the breath out suddenly through pursed lips, a technique taught to asthma patients to increase oxygen absorption. The sudden push momentarily increases intra-lung pressure, which also pushes down the diaphragm and further strengthens the core. There is also a genetically programmed reflex retraction of the upper abdominal wall. More difficult, but far superior, is to learn to narrow the throat, for small-hole exhalation, the way of controlling the breath taught in advanced martial arts.
To benefit most from small-hole exhalation, you have to coordinate the sudden push of breath exactly with the instant of greatest effort in a movement, or the point of impact in a kick or punch. Good examples are the “Ki-eee” shout in martial arts, and the closed-mouth grunt of boxers at the moment they strike. Try the grunt yourself now, with your core tight, and feel your abdomen retract further to increase stabilization. Timing is critical, however, and we see many poorly trained athletes who make the forced exhalation before the point of impact. They immediately lose 10-20% of their power.