"Let's focus on the breath...” It’s the kind of tedious statement usually uttered by an overearnest yoga instructor or the super-annoying, disembodied voice that came with a meditation app.
But if it came from a guy who squats 900 instead, would you pay closer attention? You should: The way you breathe is one of the biggest determiners of how strong and muscular you can become.
You’re about to discover how you’ve been doing the most natural thing in the world wrong your whole life—and how doing it right can change everything.
How to breathe
If your chest and shoulders rise when you inhale, you’re breathing wrong. A proper breath uses the diaphragm, the cone-like muscle under your lungs that draws in air. As it contracts, your belly should expand 360 degrees. “Imagine your torso is an empty vessel, and water comes in from the mouth,” says Chris Duffin, a world-record-holding powerlifter and strength coach (kabukistrength.com). “Your torso’s going to fill from the bottom up. So if you put your hands and thumbs on your bottom-most two ribs when you breathe, a wave will come up and you’ll feel the ribs expand outward.”
Belly breaths—or diaphragmatic breathing—are enormously beneficial for your health, improving your blood’s oxygen content, lowering blood pressure, and even helping digestion. “Good breathing lowers cortisol and promotes healing,” says breathing coach Belisa Vranich, Psy.D., who works with law enforcement personnel and athletes (thebreathing class.com).
But for most of us, this natural breathing pattern is corrupted early on in our lives, says Vranich, when we’re told to suck in our stomachs, or we develop poor posture in front of a computer.
How breathing makes you stronger
Reclaiming belly breathing is crucial if your aim is to lift bigger weights, as it also teaches you how to brace your core.
Heavy lifters like Duffin know that taking a lot of air into the abdomen stabilizes the spine and helps them lift more, “but it’s not really the air that’s stabilizing,” he says. “As the air drives down and around the trunk, it makes the outer abdominal muscle rigid.” Your core turns on.
Creating intra-abdominal pressure with a belly breath keeps the spine neutral, which not only maximizes your biomechanics for strength, but also prevents injury. A new study in the Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology found that exposing subjects who were performing abdominal bracing to a sudden, unexpected load on the front of their bodies reduced acceleration on their lumbar spines and increased spinal stability.
Duffin notes that lifters often cue each other to arch their backs on a squat and keep their chests up (“Big chest!”) to protect the spine from rounding forward—a common cause of injury. But this technique actually has the opposite effect.
“Your diaphragm needs to face directly down to the bottom of your pelvis. If your pelvis is rotated, or your chest is flared, you can’t create pressure properly.”
Instead, he says, try to draw your sternum down, as if a string were pulling it to your hips. On a squat, you could imagine pushing your belly into your legs as you go down, or inflating your lower back ribs.
Exactly when you let air in and out depends on how heavy you’re training. If you’re doing a light set of squats, you can breathe in on the descent of each rep. If you’re shooting for a max, breathe in before you begin, and hold it until you come up.