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Military Fitness

Fitness For The Special Tactics Operator

Issue #5 1 March 2003

The Power Breathing Issue

Power Breathing Examined Breathing can make all the difference in anything we do in life. Research indicates that "improper" breathing can actually lead to the onset of disease and other health abnormalities. Martial artists, fighters, and elite athletes know very well the intricacies of breathing properly and its affect on the outcome of a contest. To say that breathing is as simple as "breath in on the way down and breath out on the way up" would be not only inaccurate but grossly understating a myriad of issues within the body. Anatomy and Physiology It is of vital importance to understand the anatomy and physiology behind breathing in order to fully understand the coming material. When you inhale, you create a vacume inside your lungs and air rushes inside to equalize with the atmospheric pressure around you (14.7psi at sea level). This vacume is created by the expansion of a flexible container, your thoracic cavity (chest) and lungs. There are several planes of movement associated with normal healthy breathing. In the lower chest at the Xyphoid Process the diaphragm descends into the abdominal cavity, compressing the intestines when you inhale. This creates a vacume inside your lungs as the diaphragm pulls the lungs down. When you do this your stomach will expand. Don't worry, your not getting fat. At the same time in the mid thoracic area (about nipple level) the muscles surrounding the chest contract to expand the rib cage forward (anteriorly) and to the sides (laterally). This serves to further expand the flexible container. There is yet another set of muscles that do the same to the upper third of the chest. In emergency medicine we call these last two "accessory muscles" because they are not the prime movers for proper respiration. And are commonly used when use of the diaphragm is not possible due to injury or disease process. When the air rushes into the lungs, Oxygen is immediately diffused into the blood stream while carbon dioxide and other waste products are downloaded into the lungs from the blood to be exhaled out of the body. The oxygenated blood is then pumped off into the arteries, arteriols, and finally the capillaries. It is at the capillary level, where the blood vessel is the diameter of only one red blood cell, that the oxygen is downloaded to the individual cells. In the case of a muscle cell, the oxygen is used as a part of a complex chemical reaction that results in contraction, thus releasing waste elements into the interstitial space and the blood. The waste is then eliminated through respirations and the kidneys. In the abdominal cavity, the transversus muscles play an important role in forced exhalation. This will become important later on. Other effects of breathing are compression of the heart and major blood vessels in the thoracic and abdominal cavities resulting in varying degrees of increased blood pressure. Don't think that breathing gives you chronic high blood pressure, that's just how it works. The Stabilization Effect One of the things we all hear is that "strong abs protect the back". This is not exactly true. The only muscles that support the lumbar Vertebrae are the spinal erectors and simply being able to knock out 100 sit-ups has no bearing on lumbar safety. The majority of Americans, even those who are "in shape" have terribly under developed spinal erectors. However we can still use the abdominals to protect the back. How is that you ask? The human torso is composed of three major cavities, the thoracic, the mediastinal, and the abdominal cavities. These are literally airtight spaces that contain various innards. These are relatively fixed spaces, but by manipulating the body we are able to change the conditions inside these spaces. In power breathing we use expansion of the thoracic cavity to compress the abdominal cavity, which causes an increase in


intra-abdominal pressure. This pressure acts like a balloon and pushes out against the spine and the abdomen. Now, an important distinction needs to be made here. The set of muscles that deal with this internal pressure are the Transversus, which lie underneath the Rectus Abdominus (the muscles everyone sees and develops into chiseled six packs). When the abs are braced, not flexed but braced as if you were going to be punched, that is when proper intra-abdominal pressure is built up. It all works like this; you take a deep breath sending you diaphragm downward compressing the intestines and other abdominal organs. At the same time you brace for a punch and hold your breath. This "blows up the balloon" and stabilizes the lumbar spine. That is the stabilization aspect of power breathing. How effective is it? Consider that most of the current Olympic and Power Lifting champs do not wear a belt and these guys are dead lifting and squatting over 800lbs!! Applying the Power So how do we breath when we lift. The general premise is to "inhale on the way down and exhale on the way up". In other words, inhale on the eccentric phase and exhale on the concentric phase. But simply inhaling and exhaling is not the whole story. If you exhale quickly with no tension in your body you will be weak, relaxed, and flexible which is great if you are stretching, but very bad with 225lbs on the bar. If you exhale with your tongue on the roof of your mouth at a specific and controlled rate while maintaining full body tension you will become stronger. This was a secret that my brother taught me years ago but never explained the science to me. There is an important point here that needs to be emphasized. Tension equals strength. The goal is to keep tension throughout the lift. If you inhale and brace the abs you are creating tension. When you tense the other muscles in your body to "shore up" your skeletal system you want constant tension. Constant tension can not be achieved without applying tension to your breathing. When you exhale you maintain that tension by releasing the air in a controlled manner by squeezing the transversus muscles to force exhalation. At the same time you try to trap the air in your upper chest or throat. With your tongue on the roof of your mouth the air will escape in a hiss. It is of vital importance to keep pace with the weight. Martial artists call this "matching the breath to the force". Picture the Bench Press. You load up the bar with plates and lie down on the bench. You get your grip, inhale deeply and brace your abs and squeeze your glutes and you hold your breath as you lift the bar off the rack. You keep the tension but you exhale about half the breath, inhale and reestablish the tension lost from that exhalation. Hold your breath as you descend and pause on the bottom. Now, as you squeeze the bar off your chest begin to exhale as the bar rises, tongue on the top of your tongue, hissing as you exhale to keep the tension. You want to exhale ¾ of your breath on the way up into the lockout. At the top you pause, inhale, brace, and repeat. That is basic Power Breathing. The Second Focus There is one more little trick you can apply to get an extra little boost. Toward the top of the rep, explosively exhale the rest of your air. This has the effect of giving you that last little boost. Use this with caution because once that air is gone, so is the tension that protects not only your back but also every other joint involved in the lift. The obvious caution here is not to use it too soon or the bar will be visiting you shortly! More than Just Benching I chose the Bench Press because it's an easy example. You can and should apply power breathing to most exercises you do. Play with each exercise to find the right amount of matching the breath with the force. For example, when doing Pistols I hold my breath for 2/3 of the movement to maintain the tension required. For the Dead lift I start exhaling as the weight starts to move off the floor. A perios of trial and error will be necessary but well worth the effort. CAUTION!! Use caution and do not hold your breath for too long, as this will cause you to pass out under heavy stress. This is because of a feed back loop in the body controlled by the Vagus Nerve. PJs like to use "Vagal Techniques" to slow their heart rates during pool sessions. Any "bearing down" activity will result in Vagal stimulation and it is a common technique used in Advanced Cardiac Life Support for patients with


excessively high heart rates. Holding your breath during a lift, especially a challenging one will result in unconsciousness. The result is self-critiquing. Practice Anywhere Power breathing can be used alone to simply strengthen the abs. Simply exhaling under pressure, without weight will work wonders on your mid section. Try power breathing for five reps at every traffic light for a week and you will be amazed at the difference! It may help to involve your hands to get a sense of "matching the breath with the force" and don't forget the second focus. Many people write to me commenting on how effective this is. Just a week or two will show improvement. Give it a shot and tell us how well it worked on the fitness forums.


-When running, concentrate on forcefully exhaling. It may sound funny but your body will respond in two ways. First it will relax. Second it will take an abdominal breath, which means more air (oxygen). Your body will thank you for this. -Always squeeze your glutes when doing power breathing. This properly aligns the pelvis and the spine as well as having a powerful hyper-irradiation effect. This will make you stronger and all your lifts will be safer. -Don't do too many reps. In strength training stay between 3-5 reps as a rule. Power breathing is a full body event so give yourself time to recuperate. 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps in the car and that scheme works great for weight training in general. -Consciously breath with your diaphragm throughout the day. This will tend to relax you and make power breathing more natural.

Living By The Motto, Nathanael Morrison



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