Breathing and Bracing

By Andrew Serrano

Breathing – it’s somewhat of a hotly contested topic in fitness. Bracing isn’t quite as controversial, but they’re so closely related, especially in strength sports, that I always discuss them in tandem.  Why is it controversial? Well, everyone has to breathe – all the time – regardless of whether they train or not. So, it almost seems silly to some that you would ever have to ‘learn’ how to breathe because if you didn’t you would be dead.

You’ll hear a lot of guys say something along the lines of ‘just do a 20 rep max on squats, trust me, you’ll be breathing!’ or some other nonsensical bro-ism. These are the same guys that make fun of ‘corrective exercise’ and say things like, ‘If you can do the movement your muscles are activated! You can’t turn off a muscle unless you’re paralyzed, or dead!’. While technically correct, and good for maybe a laugh on the gym floor, that advice helps no one.

A lot of the arguing about terms like ‘activation,’ or ‘corrective’ and some of the methods they entail are just arguments about semantics. Few people will argue that a muscle can be weak, underdeveloped, and uncoordinated. Whether you want to deem that to be an activation problem or not – pick whatever word you want – the muscle needs some work to get things where they need to be.

There are coaches and therapists out there that can explain the nitty gritty anatomy of breathing much better than I can, so I will try to simplify this into something easy to understand and that you can hopefully apply immediately.  I am going to introduce some fundamental breathing drills with the purpose of INTRODUCING you to proper breathing mechanics.  Once you can do this, you want to take these mechanics and APPLY them to your actual training movements. I want to throw that in as a disclaimer before any bros stop reading at the sight of ‘silly’ breathing drills.

And one more disclaimer, as mentioned, I’ve debated this topic to great lengths with many coaches that I respect. Other than the guys making vapid jokes about it, some great coaches think this stuff is a waste of time. My observation has been that most of these coaches had an athletic upbringing and tend to work with higher level athletes. I’m entirely open to the possibility that someone who has been training from a young age does this stuff automatically, but I work with a lot of people over 40 years old that have never exercised in their life and teaching breathing mechanics is an integral part of my practice.

How It All Works

The lungs are just inert bags with the ability to exchange gasses (oxygen and carbon dioxide), and they don’t inflate or deflate themselves. The diaphragm along with the muscles of the abdominal wall, rib cage, and neck are what actually expand the lungs to pull air in and then also depress the lungs to force air out. I like to picture one of those accordion air pumps used for stoking a fireplace. It’s the mechanical movement produced by you that pushes air in and out – you’re the diaphragm, and the pump is the lungs.

Posture

The first consideration in a healthy breathing pattern is the position of both the pelvis and rib cage about each other. At ‘neutral’ the top of the pelvis and the bottom of the ribcage should be parallel to each other when viewed from the side. This positioning allows for the proper function between the pelvic floor and the diaphragm which act as the top and bottom ‘walls’ for the air cylinder created by breathing with the diaphragm. When the pelvis dumps forward, and the ribcage flips up these muscles can’t work correctly.

Using the Diaphragm

Whenever you have multiple muscles that contribute to a movement, you have the possibility of specific muscles doing more work than the others, possibly leading to imbalances. It’s easy to feel this on just about any exercise. Anyone that squats, or does any bilateral movement will at some point have the experience of one leg doing more work than the other. How far this imbalance progresses will determine whether it becomes pathological or not.  In a healthy breathing pattern, the diaphragm should do most of the work, and the muscles of the ribcage should only assist a bit. When you breathe this way, on your inhale, you should see the abdomen expand in all directions, and your ribcage shouldn’t rise. This creates a cylinder full of air inside the torso.

Bracing

Once you’ve mastered how to position your ribcage and pelvis and effectively breathe with your diaphragm, you can now use this new pattern to brace. A very common cue in strength sports is ‘big air’; this is used to get the lifter to take a big inhale before they clamp down their core muscles for the lift. What you will commonly see when the air is taken in are rising shoulders which indicate that the lifter is breathing with their ribcage rather than their diaphragm and leaving poundage on the table.  What you want to do is breathe into your abdomen and pelvic floor as described above and then brace your core muscles against this air pocket to create the maximum torso stiffness possible. This can take some getting used to, and you may even feel like you can lift less weight initially, but like any new pattern, practice and develop it, and I guarantee you will see your numbers increase.

Programming

For lifters that were previously ‘chest breathers,’ I like to take them through all the drills in the videos first and work on that for maybe 5 minutes per session until they get it down. Once they can breathe and brace in static positions (laying down, sitting, standing). I’ll start to cue them through those steps on warm-up sets and accessory work, and then when they feel comfortable – apply it to their actual lifting. It can take some time to develop and feeling like you can’t get a full breath this way is quite common so give yourself some time. You won’t be able to apply this to your heavy lifts right away.

If you want to learn more about breathing and bracing, check out Dr. Stuart McGill’s books Back Mechanic and Ultimate Back Fitness & Performance, on SALE in the store.

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Andrew Serrano

Andrew Serrano

Andrew Serrano is a full time trainer, holds a B.S. in exercise science and has worked in almost every facet of the training industry. He is currently competing as a 198lb raw lifter, his meet PRs are 589/391/601. His training is guided by the 10/20/Life philosophy with a focus on sustainable injury free progression.
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