Article By: Cassandra Strunk
If you’ve attended any lifting competitions or gotten any training from a gym on weight lifting, I can bet that you’ve heard “BIG AIR” being yelled at the top of a coach’s lungs. Some of you may have even learned the generic breathing strategy to “inhale on the way down (such as lowering the bar to your chest during a bench press or on the way down in a squat) and exhale on the way up or during exertion (as you press the bar off your chest or as you squat up).” Maybe someone has given generic advice that the “Valsalva maneuver” isn’t good for you. Why does the technique of breathing–besides the fact we have to do it to live– matter? Why this emphasis on breathing?
First off, let’s clarify a couple of nuances:
- Breathing is not bracing. Check out this video taken out of our Kabuki Strength Principles of Loaded Movement course discussing this topic.
- Cueing “a belly breath” does not mean the air is going into your stomach, nor does it mean trying to push your belly out when you breathe. Air is still going into your lungs… and the expansion of your abdominal wall comes from the increase in intra-abdominal pressure. The intent behind this external cue to “take a belly breath,” is to facilitate diaphragmatic function, which we will discuss shortly.
So you may be wondering, If breathing is not bracing, why is the title of this article “breathing is a catalyst to better bracing?”
Think of your abdomen as a cylinder. The top of the cylinder is your diaphragm, the sides are the muscles of your deep stabilizing system 360 degrees around your trunk, and the bottom is the pelvic floor. Now let’s say that cylinder was a container. If I asked you to make sure nothing spills out of the container, your first solution would likely be to go find its lid. If the container was sealed tightly and had no holes, you could fill the container and avoid leaks. But remove the function of the lid, and you just took away the first solution used to avoid leaks. Your diaphragm is the lid in this analogy. The function of the diaphragm has been discussed in the literature as being associated with improved trunk control… better trunk control has been associated with better energy force transfer. And in a circumstance such as during powerlifting or exercising under load, we want to minimize those energy leaks. Coach Kyle uses another analogy relating a pop can to intra-abdominal pressure that you can check out here: Pop Can Analogy
As you take a diaphragmatic breath, your diaphragm acts like a piston drawing down into the abdominal cavity and drawing air into the lungs. Concentric muscle activity of the diaphragm occurs during inhalation, and diaphragmatic activity plays a role in both respiratory function and stabilization function of the trunk. This drawing down of the diaphragm creates intra-abdominal pressure and loads the abdominal muscles and pelvic floor in preparation of the isometric brace during exertion. The increase of intra-abdominal pressure has been associated with improved trunk stiffness, improving force transfer to the limbs during movement. Check out some of the works that have inspired us and educated us when it comes to how we assess loaded movement: studies and courses by Dr. Stuart McGill, as well as concepts of Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization created by Pavel Kolar, PT, Ph.D.
At Kabuki Strength, this coordination of the creation of intra-abdominal pressure through diaphragmatic breathing and co-contraction of deep abdominal muscles is a fundamental coaching strategy and is discussed as one of our fundamentals in our hierarchy of movement assessment in our Principles of Loaded Movement seminars.
The creation of intra-abdominal pressure and bracing is co-contraction of multiple muscles action around the trunk. It is not just one thing that happens in an “all or nothing” fashion. Bracing should be able to occur at different intensities, depending on the task, and not dependent on how big of a breath you take. If that wasn’t the case, we’d all be taking giant breaths to pick up anything heavy or do anything strenuous including tasks like sprinting… and telling a sprinter to just take in one giant breath of air probably wouldn’t end well for them by the time they got to the finish line. This is why we teach breathing and bracing as concepts to think about on a dial. Different tasks require different levels of breathing and bracing. 1 RM squat? You shouldn’t be exhaling all your air out on the way up (queue: Squat Face), but that brace under that belt is likely as tight as you can make it. Running a marathon? Breathing throughout the task becomes a lot more important, but bracing to have good trunk control is still occurring with each step.
Remember, the air is still going into your lungs, not your stomach. Your diaphragm only moves so far… so the bigger breath isn’t going to just push your diaphragm deeper and deeper down into your stomach, giving you a better brace. Coaching tip: when working on bracing drills, make sure you can still take in smaller sips of air while doing an exercise or bracing drill. Your 1RM squat should not be the same effort as doing a classic dead bug exercise. Start with initially taking that diaphragmatic breath, brace, and while holding the brace, cue yourself to take in small diaphragmatic breaths. We’re a fan of tactile cueing, so place a hand on your lower ribcage or utilize tools such as The Breath Belt to help you retrain that awareness of where the expansion is happening.
While many have heard the general fitness advice to “avoid the Valsalva maneuver,” it has been observed to occur during exercise with a heavy load or heavy exertion, and especially with 1RM attempts. Per Hacket & Chow’s article, The Valsalva Maneuver: Its Effect on Intra-Abdominal Pressure and Safety Issues During Resistance Exercise, a brief Valsalva maneuver or forced exhalation against a closed glottis, is unavoidable with lifting tasks greater than 80% of their max. This is why we stress the importance of understanding breathing and bracing on a dial and knowing how to control breathing and bracing depending on the task at hand. Breathing is not an “all or nothing” approach, bracing as hard as you can and holding your breath every rep regardless of the intensity of a task. This leads us to talk about why the cue “big air”– while it is a well-intentioned cue– may work well for some great lifters, but not for all. Especially if that “big air” cue leads to a big superficial breath through the chest and shoulders and a drawing in or sucking in of the abdominal muscles, leading to poor bracing strategies. A better brace doesn’t rely on a big intake of air.
So how should you breathe to improve your brace? Learn to feel what a diaphragmatic breath is, and feel your breath facilitating an increase in intra-abdominal pressure. Try it at rest, just breathing at your normal resting breathing pace, then start adding in some drills combining breathing and bracing. Remember, you breathe 24/7… just tuning into how you breathe at rest in different positions can be a drill itself and doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Tune in to feel horizontal, 360-degree expansion of the abdomen vs. a vertical rise of shoulders and chest, and try different cues! Some of our favorites: “think about breathing low into your ribcage,” “expand the lower ribcage,” or if you’re using a belt, “think about filling or breathing into your belt.” We want our breath to facilitate the creation of intra-abdominal pressure… Hence our choice in the title and describing how breathing is the catalyst to better bracing.
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