Just Breathe

What separates a good athlete from a great athlete?

A standout performance, from an average performance?

A slight edge.

Slight edges come in many forms.

For instance, a strategy for attacking Open Workout 15.2  (overhead squats and chest-to-bar pull-ups) could be a slight edge.

For others, a slight edge may look like proper body mechanics, extra mobility work, a workout-specific warm up, a particular food they eat pre-workout, or as simple as breathing.

Just breathe.

Perhaps you’ve heard it before in the gym during a training session, or even in a competition, or, you’ve been reminded, “Don’t forget to breathe” during a heavy 1-rep max back squat.

Breathing is one of those slight edges that many talk about—but far too many more fail to do—correctly.

I’m not just talking about breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth or inhaling prior to a lift. I am talking about proper braced-breathing for correct execution of all your movements and proper engagement of your core.

Proper breathing is where strength is enhanced, new PR’s happen, performance is improved and utmost potential can be realized.

Recently, I had the opportunity to work with USAW Weightlifting Champion and CrossFit competitor Sara Beth Phillips, as she prepares for the upcoming Atlantic Regional.

Sara is an incredible athlete, whom sitting at 5’1’’ and 128 lbs. with a 230 lbs. Clean & Jerk and nearly 200 lbs. snatch (190 lbs. currently), seems like there may be very little room for improvement (she’s already so good!).

However, upon my evaluation of her, I discovered that she did not have stabilization in all planes of her body (sagittal, frontal, transverse).  Why not?  She had improper breathing and bracing mechanics.   What caused this? I’d argue years of sagittal plane movement, and an immense amount of toes to bar, GHD sit ups and regular sit ups, making her rectus abdominis the dominant “core” muscle.

As soon as I taught her how to brace and breathe, she went out to attack her workout right after and hit a 20 lbs. PR on her clean.  While not everyone will hit a 20-pound PR when they learn to brace, something to take note is that she’s an ADVANCED athlete, and advanced athletes take time to hit PR’s and they don’t normally hit big ones like this.

Needless to say, she was shocked!

The same thing happened with a hockey player I’ve been training.

He has played the majority of his life and has ‘good puck skills’, but admits to ‘never being fast on the ice’.

As with every client, I had him sit on my evaluation table and assessed breathing.  This of course isn’t the only assessment I run, as I also ran him through an FMS and full SFMA.

In order to help him improve his speed and agility on the ice, instead of working on speed and power output, I first helped him address the gaps in his fitness: including his breathing.   Yes this required him to take two steps back, but it allowed him to take a giant leap forward.

Often times, athletes and clients are incorrectly taught to “hard arch” the spine and as it turns out, that probably wasn’t the best cue to use.  Much like the old high school cue “look up” in the squat.

My point is that with this minor tutorial, this slight edge to his sport…he now would tell you he is faster and more confident on the ice than he’s ever been.

So what exactly is braced breathing and how do you incorporate it?

Braced breathing is really the active engagement of your diaphragm pushing against your pelvic floor.  It is a way of deep breathing that allows your rib cage to expand outwards (not just rise upwards) and helps expand your abdominal wall not just anteriorly, but posteriorly and laterally as well.

This is more than just injury prevention or pain management.  This is about performance enhancement at its finest.  Everyone knows (or should know) that technique work is important with any sport. Regardless to whether it’s fitness or team sports, technique work needs to be included in the program, and when it comes to technique, including proper intra-abdominal pressure will make you that much better.  Just go ask Sara Beth Phillips!  So if you want to improve your performance, keep reading.

So how do you do it?

A few key points here:

  1. Typically, in order to first teach bracing, I have my clients lie flat on their back on my exam table, with their knees flexed, feet flat on the table, and hips in neutral.
  2. Next, I have them locate their ASIS (hip bones) with their hands on both sides and then move in an inch or so.
  3. Then, I instruct, “Push down into your lower abdominals with your fingers and push out with your breath into your low belly.” That is where bracing will occur first.
  4. Upon standing, they are advised to keep their spine neutral, not a hard arch, ribs down but not pulling the thoracic spine into flexion and to keep their head in neutral, not looking up.
  5. For some, they are unable to locate this is extremely challenging, and that’s ok.  I’ll instruct them to lay on their belly with their forehead on their hands and inhale through their nose.  When they inhale, it should be silent and their low belly should push into the ground or table, and their chest should not move.

In essence, a strong brace is really what ‘core strength’ is all about.  It’s ability to resist lumbar flexion, rotation, extension and lateral flexion.

No weighted GHD sit-ups, crunches or v-ups needed, unless your sport specifically requires it.  Though I still recommend everyone learn to brace properly first before throwing flexion based activities into their program.

Tap into the power of breathing during your training and workouts, and ‘just breathe’ takes on a whole new meaning.

Michael Bann


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