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Breathing exercises to improve performance

Breathing is essential - to martial arts, sports, and to life in general. The way that you breathe directly impacts your performance in cardiovascular exercise, and your recovery rate from it. Surely then, it makes sense to improve your breathing technique?

In this article, I will be outlining a number of breathing exercises, along with their benefits, history and manner of application.

Straw Breathing exercise

Old Russian military dive schools had an exercise to teach soldiers economic breathing for conserving air in their dive tanks. This exercise improves lung capacity and cardiovascular endurance by teaching you to control your breathing and extend your breaths. This is most useful when air feels limited e.g. heavy cardio. To do this exercise, you must lay on the ground with a straw in your mouth, breathing only in and out of the straw.

Once you become accustomed to this, tape another straw to the end of the first straw and then breathe through the extended straw in the same manner - repeat the process again until you are ready to extend the straw a second time (3 straws total). Your goal is to be become accustomed breathing solely through this long straw; you will be forced to learn how to extend and calm your breathing. Calming your breathing is the best way to recover from heavy cardiovascular training sets.

Never breathe through more than three straws taped together, as you will only breathe the air you have already expelled.

This will be difficult, as the amount of air you can take in at a time, and the amount you can expel, will be drastically limited.

Ratio breaths

Anyone who has ever done cardio heavy sport can describe the experience of attempting to recover from a set. Your breathing is panicked, your throat is dry and you can feel your heartbeat thumping in your ears. Your body is panicking and doing its best to recover energy by hyperventilation. However, hyperventilation is damaging to your recovery time. The last exercise showed you how to control your breathing, but this is how you can train yourself to control your breathing when recuperating from intense training.

Ratio breathing is simple; take the amount of reps you have just performed in your last set, and apply a ratio for the amount of breaths you will take before beginning your next one. For example, if I have just performed 10 reps of heavy kettlebell swings (a highly recommended exercise), I will apply a 2:1 ratio, and take, at most, 5 breaths before beginning my next set.

This exercise is a modern form of Shinkokyuu, a breathing method performed by traditional (and some Kyokushin style) karatekas. Looking around a room of tired karatekas, you may spot some of them having a deadpan look on their face. They are focusing on performing deep, abdominal inhalations to help them extend their breaths. Skip to the last exercise if you wish to learn about abdominal breathing.

Breathing 'behind the shield'

Breathing behind the shield is the concept of breathing whilst keeping your core muscles tensed. This is a type of breathing that is most beneficial to those in grappling arts and powerlifting or weightlifting competitiors. Breathing is necessary for all activities, and the ability to breathe whilst maximally tensing your core is very advantageous for increasing your endurance when supporting or lifting heavy loads (e.g. framing attacking opponents in BJJ, or squatting heavy ass weights).

The best way to learn this is from experience - focus on keeping your core braced as tight as possible whilst performing such activities. I personally recommend slowing down a heavy lift between 3-5 seconds, and focus on squeezing your glutes and abdominal muscles as tight as possible.

Abdominal breathing

This is easily the most important exercise on the list - I have saved the best for last. Applying abdominal breathing will benefit you in all types of ways, from endurance to striking speed. It is a skill that is heavily emphasised in Karate - one of the biggest proponents for abdominal breathing is Karate legend, and founder of the Kyokushin style, 'Godhand' Masutatsu Oyama. He earned his nickname after fighting 52 bulls barehanded and chopping off their horns with his bare hands.

The Godhand, Masutatsu Oyama

Oyama spent much of his time on breathing techniques, namely Ibuki and Nogare. These techniques are complementary; one is fast, the other is slow. One is hard-style, and the other is soft-style. Regardless, both utilise abdominal (or diaphragmatic) breathing. When learning to breathe with the abdomen, it is important not to use your throat muscles to force the air out; breathing must not be forced. Instead, contract your glute and core muscles to squeeze the air outwards.

Abdominal breathing can make your strikes and lifts faster - a relaxed limb is a fast limb, and breathing with your chest creates tension in your arms and upper body. Learning to use abdominal breathing in combination with the other breathing exercises above, will improve your grappling endurance during actions such as framing, your lifting speed and stability, and your ability to withstand body shots in striking arts, even more.

I hope you have found this article helpful. If you wish to learn more about Ibuki and Nogare breathing, make sure to subscribe to my email newsletter for weekly, shorter, articles through my home page. Do your best to apply these exercises to your training, and if you stay consistent, you will see your abilities soar.

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