Skip to content

Correct your breathing, build up more muscles

Korrigiere Deine Atmung, Baue mehr Muskeln auf

Optimized breathing for more growth?

You've been doing it since you were born. If you didn't instinctively know how to do it, you would already be dead. Yes, you breathe continuously, but do you breathe optimally? And are you doing it in a way that helps you as an exerciser who does more than just sit, stand and lie down? Probably not.

If you have reached a plateau or you feel exhausted after training, then it may not be your training sessions or your diet that you need to optimize. It could be your recovery. And better breathing can actually help with this.

Think about it. You've all heard the standard recovery advice: monitor your weights, be careful with volume, prioritize protein and increase carbohydrate intake around your workouts to support your performance. But the one thing that's missing is also the thing you do continuously, tens of thousands of times a day.

The 3 techniques

Believe it or not, breathing is about more than just inhaling and exhaling. You can significantly improve your breathing with just 3 techniques. These will improve your performance under the bar and, more importantly, your recovery between workouts.

1 - Crocodile breathing

Breathing is like any other movement pattern. If you look at breathing as a motor skill, then you start to see how you can improve it with corrective and activation-based strategies in the same way as squats and deadlifts.

But it's a challenge. Why? Because most people breathe incorrectly. The average person takes over 20,000 dysfunctional breaths per day. And often verbal instruction is ineffective, which means there is a need for more tangible cues to create a mind-muscle connection that will help you begin to improve your breathing mechanics.

The most effective corrective exercise for breathing is known as 'crocodile breathing', developed by Gray Cook. Using a prone position and the floor as a tangible cue, this strategy is a game changer that will help you feel what it is like to correctly expand your abdomen over 360 degrees. This exercise is ideal because it helps you to leave secondary breathing muscles out of the process.

The correct execution

The focus needs to be on the quality of the movement rather than the quantity or intensity. Breathe perfectly and it will eventually become a habit.

The steps

  • Start lying on your stomach on the floor.
  • Bring your fists together and let your forehead rest passively on yours.
  • Keep your legs straight with your toes pointing downwards
  • Relax your body in this central position.

Your hand and head position will feel a little unnatural at first. The reason for resting your head on your fists is based on two things. Firstly, the head and neck need to remain in a neutral position (with the head straight and not turned to one side) to keep the airway open. Secondly, the raised hands and arms move the secondary breathing muscles - primarily muscles of the neck and upper trapezius - into a more relaxed position, away from stretch and tension.

You use positions to make it as easy as possible to breathe correctly. Once you have positioned yourself correctly, your focus will be on the execution and quality of your breathing to allow for motor learning and skill transfer.

Pace of breathing

  • Inhale 4-6 seconds
  • Hold 2-4 seconds
  • Exhale 4-6 seconds

Although the pace is important, your focus should first be on expanding the abdomen and the movement pattern itself. Since your abdomen is in direct contact with the floor, this is the perfect setup to breathe into the floor and expand the abdomen through the diaphragm (the breathing muscle located at the bottom of the rib cage).

We also want a 360 degree expansion, which means not only breathing into the belly against the floor, but also expanding our breath over the sides of the torso along with the lower back. To get a feel for this, a training partner can touch your sides. You can also use a block or a ball on your lower back, which you push upwards with each breath.

Once you have mastered this pattern, the focus shifts to the tempo of the breathing itself. Even though the tempo suggestions above (4-6/2-4/4-6) are not written in stone, you should make sure that the exhale takes longer than the inhale to optimize gas exchange and slow down the process to avoid compensation.

Also, make sure to pause and hold your breath for a split second at the highest point to experience the sensation of 360 degree expansion. That is the goal.

When should you use this technique?

This technique should mainly be used in the early stages of breathing realignment for athletes who are struggling with the transition between compensatory chest breathing and abdominal breathing. Think of this exercise as a corrective exercise. Once you have made noticeable progress, you can finish the exercise. The skill will then be maintained during daily activities and your training.

As diaphragmatic breathing is a motor skill, you need to train it to relearn it and repeat it continuously. Start with 1 to 3 minutes of crocodile breathing per day, preferably as the first component of a dynamic warm-up sequence. This will help you to break old habits and internalize new ones.

2 - Tactical breathing

In my time in San Diego working with some members of the Special Forces, I learned as much from these amazing people as they learned from my training. It is one method in particular that revolutionized my training - tactical breathing. And because of this technique, my athletes are able to train at a relatively high intensity while increasing the overall volume of the workout.

How does it work?

First, dysfunctional breathing patterns need to be addressed and improved. Imagine the goblet squat before classic squats. Once you have mastered abdominal breathing, you can progress further. From prone to kneeling to standing, make sure you maintain the ability to breathe correctly, which will eventually become a habit. Once you have achieved this, you can begin tactical breathing.

During a training session is NOT the best time to start tactical breathing. Instead, you should practice this skill in a non-threatening situation first. My favorite position is to have the athlete start sitting on the floor with legs crossed.

The steps

  • Sit cross-legged on the floor with your spine supported by the wall.
  • Place your hands in your lap.
  • Close your eyes and relax in this position
  • Inhale for 4 seconds, using your abdomen, chest and shoulders in that order.
  • After inhaling, hold the air in for 4 seconds.
  • Exhale through your mouth for 4 seconds.
  • After exhaling, pause for a few seconds between breaths.

Continue practicing this type of tactical breathing to make it an automatic process and gradually move to a kneeling and then a standing position. Once you have mastered this type of breathing, add it to your training session. The last thing you need between heavy sets of squats is to hyperventilate. You've been warned - master this skill before you use it in your training sessions.

Breathing tempo

  • Inhale 4 seconds
  • Hold 4 seconds
  • Exhale 4 seconds

This technique is also known as "box breathing". There is a 4 second rhythm for each part of the breathing. Although this pace is successful in helping people during physically, emotionally and mentally demanding situations, when it comes to training, I teach my trainees to use a shorter pause at the lowest point of the movement.

You want to make sure there is an optimal amount of exchange in the lungs and cardiovascular system. While a 4 second pause has some value when it comes to reducing the sympathetic response of the nervous system, the active tissues need better local blood flow and oxygen exchange during exercise. We need more breaths during our rest periods to speed up recovery.

Reduce the 4 second pause at the bottom of the breath to about 1 second and you can increase the number of breaths during a given rest pause. By reducing the pause after exhaling to 1 second, one breath will now only take 13 seconds. This may not sound like much, but it is these few breaths that will boost recovery when you need it most.

When should you use this technique?

Tactical breathing was born out of necessity. I first began formally studying tactical breathing under the guidance of former Navy Seal Mark Divine.

In a firefight, there is no such thing as routine - no matter how much experience you have in the field. Our human nature is to heighten our senses with a sympathetic response that increases the heart rate, raises the blood pressure, dilates the pupils and prepares the body for a fight for survival.

Even though this is a primitive response, it is less than ideal for the fine and gross motor skills needed to perform tasks perfectly. Imagine Chris Kyle getting sympathetic tremors every time he sees a threat in his sniper sights. That wouldn't exactly be ideal when it comes to accomplishing his mission. The same can be said for training - to a much lesser extent, of course.

Although hyped-up training at the limit under the bar can sometimes create physical and neurological benefits, in most cases it's better to learn to harness the potential of the sympathetic nervous system by dialing down your activity. Not every training session is treated like a competition, especially because volume, relative intensity and cumulative capacity change over the course of training sessions.

Simply put, tactical breathing can optimize the recovery window during rest periods. How? By allowing you a more complete mechanical and systemic recovery. The faster you can recover, the more effective your training will be. And the more effective your training becomes, the less you waste and the more you can invest in your training itself.

You shouldn't have to sit around huffing and puffing for 5 minutes after every hard set of squats. Instead, use tactical breathing to calm your CNS, optimize your recovery between sets and train repeatedly at your highest level.

3 - Parasympathetic recovery breathing

Optimizing your training is all about weight control and recovery between workouts. However, most exercisers only focus on training and forget about the all-important process of recovery, which is needed to recover from the stress of training sessions.

So how can we recover faster to train harder and more often? Sure, nutrition, hydration and stress all play a role, but what about the time it takes to switch from a sympathetic based CNS response in training to a parasympathetic response that allows the recovery process to begin?

This phase between your last set and the time it takes for your CNS to exit the sympathetic arousal state it has adopted during training needs to be minimized. One of the most effective ways to achieve this is to use recovery breathing as the last "exercise" of the day before you leave the gym.

How does this happen?

Recovery breathing is all about position and setup. Passive positioning of the arms and legs helps with centralized drainage of lymphatic fluid. The spine remains in a relatively neutral position to reduce the body's threat response.

So basically you are making your body as comfortable as possible to achieve a reversal of the CNS response to exercise.

The steps

  • Try to find a quiet corner of the gym, away from music and noise.
  • Lie on your back with your head on the floor.
  • Raise your legs by placing them on a box or something similar, above heart level with your knees slightly bent
  • Place your arms to the right and left of your head
  • Close your eyes and relax your body

From this position, you should be able to relax every muscle in your body to allow a completely passive response. From here on, focus on just one movement: Your breathing.

Breathing pace

  • Inhale: 3-4 seconds
  • Hold: 2-3 seconds
  • Exhale: 6-8 seconds

The main focus of the breathing tempo is on a slow and controlled inhalation and exhalation. Since most athletes and strength athletes have trouble slowing down, especially in the presence of iron, the use of specific tempos can be very useful in this strategy.

Inhale to the max within 3 to 4 hours, hold your breath for a few seconds and then try to extend the exhale to about 8 seconds. This pace should be slow and controlled, but also become so habitual that it happens more or less passively. The last thing you should do during recovery breathing is worry about the exact duration of your breaths. Relax.

How long should you lie like this? As long as it takes you to turn off the sympathetic switch before you leave the gym. And since this is the whole purpose of this exercise, you should use techniques such as positive mental imagery to get the most out of these few minutes. Set a timer for the recommended amount of time to avoid constantly checking the clock and simply enjoy a few minutes on the floor celebrating the killer workout you just completed.

When should you use this technique?

If you feel hyped up for hours after a workout followed by a major slump, this strategy will change everything. You'll be able to recover faster and relax better from day to day, which is priceless.

What happens to exercisers - especially those who exercise in the morning - is that they stimulate a sympathetic response through their workout and can't come down from it. They remain aroused throughout the day until their system finally breaks down and a hard slump occurs. This can limit recovery and prove to be a huge barrier to strength, muscle and performance - not to mention quality of life.

You can rid yourself of more stress in just 3 to 5 minutes. This will stop your body from holding down the gas pedal on the CNS and keep you aroused for hours after your workout.

It will seem a little strange at first to lie on the floor with your eyes closed while others are lifting weights. But when you recover from your workout in record time and have more strength and energy, you'll see that those 3 minutes were well spent.

I learned this strategy years ago from legendary strength and conditioning coach Buddy Morris, who used this technique in the NFL and other high performance sports. If this technique is good enough for professional athletes who make a living from their athletic performance, then it's probably good enough for you.

How do you know it works?

You should feel calm after a round of this. If you're struggling to get a positive response, then go back to crocodile breathing and improve your skills. And if that doesn't work, get a training partner to check in with you to help solve your problems.

By Dr. John Rusin | 06/07/17

Previous article The definitive guide to preventing muscle loss