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Crawl, Walk, Run...Before You Start Holding Your Breath

As with many things, social media is pushing another new fad in the fitness industry. Breath holding, or building a higher CO2 Tolerance. With most fads, you should probably be a little skeptical before jumping on the “hold my breath until I almost pass out train.” You may have learned as an infant, it’s probably best to crawl before you walk, and walk before you run. Before you begin working on breath holds and driving your BOLT score up (easiest measurement for CO2 tolerance), you may find it beneficial to take a look at your breathing mechanics first and foremost. Then transfer those over into mixed sport tests. Driving up CO2 tolerance in someone who doesn’t understand proper breathing mechanics is only going to drive compensation patterns and tension up in the system, which won’t have much carry over into the sport. Teaching this individual how to properly breathe in a squat, hinging motion, and pressing motion will have a huge transfer over. Then begin to work on CO2 tolerance. No matter how tolerant you get to CO2, you still need to get oxygen in the system and to the tissues for them to work. Working on better breathing mechanics can also lead to a higher CO2 tolerance. We are going to focus on 3 things that you can use to transfer over into the sport before you start expecting your breath hold work to start kicking in. 1) Lateral expansion during Diaphragmatic breathing 2) Owning barbell positions and 3) Nasal breathing during mixed work to ensure you are breathing through all positions.

Diaphragmatic Breathing

The first step is establishing proper breathing mechanics in the easiest position possible. Supine, or feet elevated in a supine position, is what I have found works best for people. It takes away postural misalignment's and allows you to comfortably focus on only your diaphragm without added input like balancing.

Laying on your back with something behind your head to put the spine in a neutral position begin to inhale and exhale. Bringing awareness to your breath will also help you to understand it better. Pay attention to what portion of your body you are breathing from. Is it your chest, is it your belly? Are you breathing through your mouth or nose? What rises? Does one rise and then the other? Do you expand your rib cage laterally? Do I inflate as I inhale or do you inflate as you exhale? (Yes I have seen this before.) Once you have a good understanding of how you are breathing begin to work on making sure these steps below are checked off before moving to the next part.

  1. Close your mouth and begin breathing through your nose. If you are having trouble doing this, an extreme example would be to tape your mouth shut, but just concentrating on this should do the trick.

  2. Breath from your belly and not your chest. It may help to place a hand on the chest and belly and make sure that the hand on the belly is the only one rising.

  3. Begin to slow your breath down. Start by focusing on a count 5/5-4/4 6/4 10/6, exhale to inhale. Something that isn’t going to stress you out, but allows you to get a better grasp on your breath, both inhale and exhale. I don’t recommend doing this for all your breathing work. Once you get comfortable it should begin to feel natural to slow your breath down and not worry about a count.

  4. Begin to try and make your exhales slightly longer than your inhales 4 to 5, 4 to 6, 4, to 8. 3 to 6 inhale to exhale. This will start to calm you down (and is the start to CO2 tolerance training.)

  5. Once you have mastered the above, start to begin thinking about lateral expansion. The diaphragm is like a balloon. If you can imagine blowing up a balloon this is similar to the way our diaphragm should expand. Without this lateral expansion our bracing patterns are going to be off. We become soft in the obliques and back during squats and pulling. Because of this, our spine is no longer fully protected and we may start to subconsciously hold our breath to brace the spine, as well the risk of injury rises.

Once you have mastered all these steps we can start to move towards breathing in sports specific work. We will focus on Squatting and bending here.

Sports Specific Breathing

Now that we understand how to breathe better we can begin to transfer this over into sports specific movements. The ones we see most in the sport of CrossFit are Hinging patterns, squatting patterns, and pressing patterns so these are what we are going to focus on.

In the Video Below we see Lauren Polivka’s drill for offering great tactile feedback during a squat. With a band wrapped around the athletes chest we can think about lateral expansion of the rib cage into the band as we squat.

The same can be done with a hinging motion and a barbell focusing on lateral rib expansion during the pull.

Next we need to figure out if there are any problem areas during any of these movements. Stiffness, or an inability to move into a position generally, means an inability to protect the spine in that position which will lead to an inability to breath in that position. We need to make sure that we “own the positions.” so that when you have high volume deadlifts thrusters or wallballs you are able to breathe through these movements to make them aerobic and get oxygen into the tissues that are working. Inability to breath during a portion of these movements is going to drive up HR or respiration rates and cause you to fatigue much sooner.

In the below videos we can see this done through positional breathing. Taking yourself through the full range of motion of a pull, squat and press while pausing every 2” or so to. These two drills here can for the most part be done in any order. You may even find that if you have a problem spot in a position you can use the band to help you create better lateral expansion while doing breathing drills for this position.

Nasal Breathing During Mixed Work

The final strep we can add into our tool box for building endurance in these new breathing patterns is nasal breathing. First we can build volume by doing sets of the movement at a manageable number that keeps the HR down and allows for you to focus on the breathing pattern.Then you can start to build volume by putting them in EMOM’s. After this you can build some density. An example might looks like 20 thrusters for time @ 95lbs rest 2 min x2. Then you can start to do mixed intervals 3 sets 2 Rounds 8 Thrusters 95lbs 8 BFB Nasal breathing only. Once you have started to get to this point you can now begin to work on raising your BOLT score or CO2 tolerance. I don’t recommend nasal breathing during actual sports specific workouts unless the session is specifically to train a certain pace or to train @ a certain threshold for the day. We will leave a lot of air on the table during higher intensity pieces if we are not uptaking oxygen through the mouth also.

Hopefully this gives you a good idea of how to start training your breathing mechanics before jumping right into breath hold work. This is just the tip of the iceberg and there is a lot you can do with your breath and a lot more to understand. If you are coach constantly be learning and discovering more about the breath to transfer it over to your athletes, and if you are an athlete be conscious of your breathing at all times. This is an easy thing to be aware of that you can training at all moments of the day that can have a huge impact on your sport.