Breathing: An Introduction to Breathwork
Breathing patterns are the result of our current moods, but taking deliberate control of our breathing can work in reverse—to alter our moods and alter our performance. A lot of bodily processes are out of our control, but breathing can be a powerful tool to change the body’s state when we take conscious control of it.
Breathing: An Introduction to Breathwork
By: Noah Hayden, BLOC Staff Editor
Particular breathing patterns correlate to particular moods. When we are anxious or under a lot of stress, breaths become short and shallow. Compare this to the deep sighs of relaxation when we climb into bed after a satisfying day or the deep breaths we take after a good belly laugh. These patterns are the result of our current moods, but taking deliberate control of our breathing can work in reverse—to alter our moods and alter our performance. A lot of bodily processes are out of our control, but breathing can be a powerful tool to change the body’s state when we take conscious control of it.
In everyday life, our default state is an exhaled state—meaning we inhale moderately, relax the diaphragm to passively expel air out of the lungs, and exist in that exhaled state (called a “neutral lung”) until the next breath cycle begins again. This is a good breathing pattern for everyday life because exhaling is relaxing, and it’s good to be relaxed most of the time.
Most of the time is not all the time. We don’t want to relax while lifting, for example—and just because we default to an exhaled state does not mean we are able to relax by simply inhaling and exhaling. Correct breathing in lifting changes your body’s state to be ready to perform that very specific task, but when the task changes (say, for conditioning work), or when your goal is to improve other qualities of your life, breathing is no less important. Here, I will introduce breathwork concepts that apply to training and other breathing patterns that can help improve breathing quality and control for the other areas of your life.
Breath and Lifting
Of all the things to think about while lifting, breathing may seem like it needs the least amount of attention. We’ve been breathing our entire lives, so we’ve had some practice at it by now. Being such an automatic process, it’s easy to delegate this responsibility to the background and take for granted whether we’re breathing the best way for the occasion at hand.
“Just breathe naturally” is exactly what we don’t want to do during lifting. As I mentioned above, a natural exhaled state encourages our muscles to relax—which is the last thing we want during any big, compound barbell movements. Since most exercises consist of transferring force from the feet to the hands (because that’s how the body works), we want the torso-bracing muscles to always stay tightly contracted and rigid, to make the torso a better force transmitter for the extremities. The torso muscles are intimately connected to breathing patterns.
We can best maintain rigidity during lifting with an inhaled default state—a big held breath. It needs to be as big as possible, and the torso muscles need to be braced hard against it, for reasons illustrated here (the lifting belt discussion).
From this big held breath, we start the cycle over by quickly and forcefully expelling maybe 5% of the total lung volume, immediately followed by a maximal inhalation that we again brace against. This breathing pattern minimizes the relaxing aspects of exhalation and very much feels like simply holding your breath for the entire set, which is a good thing for mechanical efficiency.
The downside is feeling the uncomfortable urge to breathe. Being able to calmly endure this feeling is one of the execution skills that needs to be learned as we develop into more experienced lifters. After decades of practice at “normal” breathing patterns, deliberately straying from this can send the body into panic mode. Of all the impulses we feel, the urge to breathe is one of the strongest (and hardest to ignore). Changing ingrained habits is difficult work, but it can be accomplished. It can help to know some facts about the situation to better inform us of what is actually going on.
There is not much actual need to breathe for the 30-second window it takes to perform most sets. Most metabolism being utilized during a heavy barbell set is anaerobic—meaning oxygen is not necessarily being used to a great degree. A lifter wearing a pulse oximeter during a set would see steady blood oxygen saturation levels around 97%—despite feeling out of breath. So, where does the increased need to breathe after the first heavy rep come from? I think this is simply the body preparing for the coming aerobic recharge phase as soon as possible. Again, the body is acclimated to the regular activity and breathing cycles it has been chronically exposed to over the years.
The human body is very bad at sensing oxygen levels but very good at sensing CO₂ concentrations. The urge to breathe is caused by the buildup of CO₂ in the blood, not the absence of oxygen. So don’t panic! It’s an uncomfortable sensation (especially at first), but there’s no real danger.
Also, we don’t have to actually hold our breath the entire set! Luckily, we get to exchange a little bit of air between reps, which helps lessen the discomfort and gives us the opportunity to re-tighten all of the bracing muscles. All of this amounts to a very achievable breathing habit for efficient and effective lifting.
Most barbell lifts will benefit from this style of breathing, but HIIT is definitely an exception. When pushing a sled, carrying a yoke, sandbag, or something similar, you still need to brace the torso—but you’ll also need to continuously breathe. Conditioning exercises of the HIIT variety primarily use anaerobic metabolism to do the work, but our goal here is to tax the aerobic system’s ability to recharge these, so rest periods are restricted. This means we need to continually breathe because the body is behind on its aerobic duties (by design).
How do we brace the torso and breathe at the same time? By forcing air in and out of our lungs while holding abdominal muscles as tightly as possible. This is a compromise, of course, because we could more effectively perform work (and brace) if we completely held our breath. But breathing is not optional for these exercises, so we do what we can. Many strongman carries require this form of breathing, and strongman competitors often refer to this breathing technique as the “air pump”: simply brace like normal, and try to maintain that level of muscle contraction while forcing air to move into and out of your lungs. It’s not easy at first.
Quality of Breath
Most adults inhale shallowly—only into their upper chests—and this tends to devolve into small mouth and throat panting breaths in the elderly. (As an aside, I think this speaks to why the elderly tend to die from pneumonia more often: unused lung tissue easily fills up with mucus, which the atrophied diaphragm can’t clear out during a bout of sickness.) Children, on the other hand, tend toward belly breaths—naturally using their lung tissue more effectively. Of course, these are heuristic descriptions, but the point is that, as we age, we tend to utilize less of our lung’s surface area for breathing, to our detriment.
When we are in stressful situations, we also tend to breathe more shallowly in our upper chests. With the professional lives most adults lead, it’s no surprise that many breathe like this chronically. We should retrain ourselves to breathe more usefully. You might be surprised by how much lung capacity you actually have.
Retraining your breathing pattern starts with the quality of each breath. Initially, inhaling should expand the belly out. The chest should not rise while this is happening. After the belly is pushed out all the way, then the chest rises to continue the inhale. To exhale, reverse this: the chest falls, then the belly deflates. You may find the simple act of breathing this way and paying attention to it helps clear the mind and bring focus back to the moment.
Going a little bit further, by developing just a few breathing habits, we can learn to calm down, fall asleep more easily, or prepare for a performance.
Breathwork for the Rest of Life
The following breathing patterns play on our natural responses to encourage a transition to a different mental and physical state. Recall that breathing while lifting uses an extended held breath, accentuating the readiness that comes from inhalation. Relaxation breathing, in contrast, will often focus on exhalation—like an extended sigh. There are quite a variety of groups that discuss and practice breathing patterns—free divers, yogis, Buddhist monks, Navy SEALS, and those that practice cold exposure, just to name a few. Collectively this is known as breathwork. Breathworkers use a fairly standard notation to describe breathing patterns.
We will use “box breathing” as an example to illustrate: Think of four equal sides of a square. Inhale evenly over 4 seconds, hold your breath for 4 seconds, exhale evenly over 4 seconds, and finally maintain a neutral lung for 4 seconds. This basic technique has been used by military forces for a long time to calm soldier’s nerves in stressful life-and-death situations, so they can perform more effectively. This pattern would be notated as 4-4-4-4. After starting like this, you could experiment by lengthening the time up to maybe seven seconds if you like—or only lengthening the breaths (the vertical lines of the box), or only lengthening the breath holds (the horizontal lines, called apneas).
The next pattern to explore is “bottom triangle” breathing. Starting in the bottom left corner of this imaginary isosceles triangle, inhale evenly for 5 seconds (approaching the point at the top), exhale evenly for 5 seconds (descending down the other side), and maintain a relaxed neutral lung for 5 seconds (the horizontal base). This would be notated as 5-0-5-5 since there was no full lung apnea. Notice this pattern approximates the breathing of everyday life and has the potential to be very relaxing if approached deliberately. A common variation is 4-0-7-8: a short but even inhale followed by a long, controlled exhale—and slightly longer neutral lung. This forces us to linger on relaxing aspects of breathing, which tends to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and can lead to a calmer state of mind. I personally employ 6-0-15-5 when I feel frustration or annoyance coming on. Breathing in through the nose and slightly parting the lips to control such a long exhale works well—and best of all, I can do this in public (when someone is being obnoxious) without anyone noticing.
“Top triangle” breathing works in reverse and could be helpful when you need to get motivated or calmly prepare a state of alert readiness. Using the same equal 5 second periods: inhale evenly, hold a full lung, and exhale; then repeat. There is no empty lung hold. This pattern focuses more on the inhaling aspects of breathing and tends to excite the sympathetic nervous system. This prepares the body for performance and confrontation. Notice that barbell lifting employs a top triangle breathing pattern.
A variation on this pattern I have found useful is 6-4-1-0. Inhale through the nose maximally, focus on a big belly and chest during the inhaled hold, and forcefully expel everything in one contraction. Relax the diaphragm and feel a small amount of air come back in, then repeat.
The last breathing style I will mention is what I call “I” breathing. There are no apneas here, only continuous (or nearly so) breathing—up and down the two vertical lines. This pattern is used during endurance exercise, in HIIT and strongman as the air pump, and also by many to acutely prepare immediately before a difficult physical or mental task. Practitioners of cold exposure use this style of breathing frequently during training.
It can be helpful to practice and experiment with breathing patterns to a metronome. When a social situation makes a metronome inappropriate or inconvenient, use your heartbeat instead. Of course, a heartbeat is variable, but this can be used to our advantage. With an elevated pulse, it’s harder to maintain breath holds for long periods of time, and conveniently the heart-metronome has quickened. As we relax and get our bodies under control, the pulse slows—which naturally allows us to lengthen our breathing with it, furthering the calming effect. Aside from all of this, focusing on breathing and pulse for any amount of time—no matter what breathing pattern is used—will help us regain focus and body awareness.
All of this only scratches the surface of breathwork. It may be surprising just how deep this topic goes, but the above information should be enough for orientation. Set a metronome (yes, there’s an app for that), try a few of these examples, and see what happens. People tend to react differently to the same breathing patterns, so a fair amount of experimentation is needed to find the ones most useful to you.