By Teresa B. Duffy
Breathing. It’s the universal life-giver and connector. I’m breathing while I type this. You are breathing while you read this, and on average you will take 20,000 breaths today. If you hang on and read this blog post for one minute, you’ll have taken 20 breaths without even knowing it.
Sometimes we breathe less. Like when you sink under the surface of the ocean to escape the wave that’s quickly arriving. Sometimes we breathe more. Like when you’re in the last 400 meters of a marathon and you pick up the pace, pulling from an energy source you had no idea remained, but it was there hidden inside your cells as oxygen and it propelled you toward a 2nd place finish.
Breathing can calm, it can alleviate the sense of pain, and breathing in a specific time cadence can bring us to a point of focus. Breath is powerful and its value can’t be denied.
With that said, let’s explore four types of breathing techniques to use in four different situations:
Bracing, Box Breathing, Piston Breathing, and The 10 Second Pause.
Bracing is what weightlifters, male and female, have been utilizing for centuries. Bracing means giving strength or vigor to a person or a thing. It’s used to describe the act of reinforcing. In the context of breathing, bracing while lifting weights provides reinforcement. This conscience breathing method is used to firm up your core strength and protect your spine while under load-bearing movement.
The basic concept of bracing is to inhale for extra reinforcement to your core and spine. When you deep breathe into your diaphragm, also known as belly breathing, you are introducing extra pressure within the otherwise hollow region between your diaphragm and pelvic floor. The space within holds an important grouping of organs, but behind your abdominal muscles, there is nothing to support extra loads. You need the added support given by bracing, through breath intake, when doing something like a barbell back squat.
The one possible downside to bracing is for women who are in the process of building strength in the pelvic floor. Bracing might not benefit your attempt to improve the rigor of your core during load-bearing exercises. The reason is simple: bracing puts extra pressure on the pelvic floor and if the pelvic floor is weak, extra pressure can cause a list of issues. (Enter pee jokes here.)
Recently, like in this decade, more women have become privy to the basic function of breath as it relates to the pelvic floor. Especially women who have birthed a baby. Men too can have a weakened pelvic floor from overtraining. And it’s very typical for women who have never been pregnant to experience pelvic floor dysfunction. Long distant runners, males, and females, are in this group. But, women are the most common gender to discuss pelvic floor challenges since women are the people responsible for carrying a baby cradled for nine months in the hammock-like muscle grouping known as the pelvic floor. Alright, so if bracing puts extra pressure on a compromised pelvic floor then what’s a lifter to do?
Don’t quit. There’s an alternative.
Piston breathing is slightly less intuitive in its labeling than bracing. Piston breathing was originated by Julie Wiebe, a physical therapist who trains women athletes to breathe for strength and conditioning. There’s a piston-like rhythm and balance to this type of breathing and, you guessed it, it’s like that of a piston.
Pistons work in this way…
Step 1: Pull in the air.
Step 2: Compress the air, causing pressure and that pressure pushes that air to a different location.
Step 3: Then a power stroke forces the piston down again.
Step 4: Finally, the exhaust stroke pushes the piston up and expels the fuel out.
Okay, that was confusing. I know. Mostly because you are not a mechanical part used for igniting an engine. You are so much more as a human.
So, with that said, piston breathing is a movement of air that enables a person to reinforce their core while displacing air pressure and strengthening the pelvic floor. Here is a great quick video, with Julie Wiebe, that gives a visual look at what happens when breathing while flexing your core. How breathing and the core influence the pelvic floor – Bing video
The difference between bracing and piston breathing is the internal pressure caused by the intake of breath. When bracing, your internal pressure is greater and forces pressure down onto your pelvic floor muscles. If you are one of the millions of people who have a weakened pelvic floor, then this extra pressure might not be wanted. In this case, you can choose piston breathing.
Piston breathing focuses on breathing into your diaphragm, then expanding it toward your lats. Imagine an umbrella opening up, and that’s the image you can visualize when breathing in and then expanding your rib cage. Piston breathing disperses air pressure away from your pelvic floor while supporting the hollow area where your organs reside. Piston breathing also recruits your pelvic floor in a way that strengthens and tones the hammock-shaped muscle grouping as you breathe. That’s because when you exhale you’re also flexing your pelvic floor to help expel the air up and out of your mouth. Imagine zipping up your hoodie, and that is the similar flex rotation starting at your pelvis and then zipping up toward your diaphragm.
There are many quality resources online to understand if bracing or piston breathing is best for your personal goals. If researching stresses you out, then maybe you need to learn about box breathing to calm your central nervous system.
Box breathing is another way to calm your central nervous system (CNS). It is an ancient form of breath control that has been adopted by Navy Seals in an extreme physical and emotional situations. The science-backed technique lowers your heart rate, calms your fight or flight response, and enables you to gain more mental focus in times of distress.
Box breathing got its name from the 4x4x4x4 rhythm of the breaths.
- Breath in through your nose for a count of four seconds
- Hold for four seconds
- Exhale through your nose for four seconds
- Hold for four seconds
Repeat this for a few rounds. Here is a visual to practice box breathing.
We have talked about bracing, piston breathing, and box breathing and before we go our separate ways, I’ll leave you with this gem…
THE TEN-SECOND PAUSE
You can do this in a long grocery line, or just before an important meeting, or maybe at 3 am when your fussy toddler won’t go back to bed. The ten-second pause is used to calm your thoughts, and thereby calm your CNS too. Which if you think about it, can all increase your ability to function better in life and at the gym.
So, here it is, breathing for 10 seconds to calm your mind, originated by Dr. Caroline Leaf.
- Relax your shoulders, and breathe into your diaphragm for three seconds. While breathing in say to yourself Think…Feel…
- Breathe out for seven seconds and while breathing out say to yourself Choose. Elongate that word so it takes a full seven seconds to say.
- Repeat for a few rounds.
Breathing is a big deal and usually, we aren’t even aware of the breath moving throughout our body, which is how it’s meant to be. However, there are times when conscience breathing is a reinforcer or a strengthener, or even a method for calming your central nervous system. With that said, breathe well today in every situation.
Here’s a list of resources to explore if you’d like to learn more about the breathing techniques discussed.
How to Brace Your Core During an Exercise – Bing video
How To Breathe & Brace When Lifting Heavy (SQUATS, DEADLIFTS, & OLYMPIC LIFTS) – Bing video
Pelvic Floor Health for Female Athletes with Julie Foucher – Julie Wiebe PT
Piston breath explained for males and females – in standing – Bing video
Piston and Bracing together
Barbell Back Squat – How To Barbell Back Squat – Bing video
Box Breathing: How To Use the Technique to Combat Stress | Well+Good (wellandgood.com)
Box Breathing and Meditation Technique w/ Mark Divine of SealFit – TechniqueWOD – Bing video