Improving Breathing And Performance (Part 3): How To Breathe And Brace Without Loss Of Mechanics During High-Rep Movements

In Part 1 of this series, I discussed how mouth breathing can alter head-neck control. In Part 2, we talked breathing during max effort. And as we discussed, holding your breath (with appropriate mechanics) is a natural, physiologic method for maximizing spinal stiffness and force output under very heavy loads.

 However, holding your breath during repetitive movements is not only metabolically costly, it is also mechanically inefficient - and most of our daily movements involve the need to breathe under sub-maximal load and for more than one repetition. So for Part 3, we need to establish how to breathe during high-repetition, serial movements without loss of mechanics.

Ever see someone take a huge breath of air to pick their shoe up off the ground? Or to rep out pull-ups - only to gasp for air midway thru and totally over-extend their spine? We see it all the time but, assuming the weight of the shoe isn't their one-rep max, this is not normal. As I mentioned last week, those with low back pain have been found to hold more air in their lungs during sub-maximal lifting. Why? It's likely they are unable to dissociate diaphragmatic breathing (belly breathing in which the diaphragm descends into the abdominal cavity) with movement thus making every movement a max effort one as they lack a proper global bracing strategy.

The diaphragm has a dual role during movement as it not only drives respiration, but also assists in spinal control. In movements that require breathing while still under load, the diaphragm is often underused as a stabilizer due to it's mechanical attachments to the thoracolumbar spine and by increasing intra-abdominal pressure. This may work for max efforts but as soon as we have to take a breath, neutral spine position is lost and mechanics break down. Athletes will attempt to combat this when they need to breathe by inconsistently using their diaphragm as a stabilizer and instead gulp air into their chest and neck. This is highly inefficient as demonstrated in those with asthma - heavy chest/neck breathers - who have markedly higher levels of work associated with breathing.
Some hallmarks of faulty bracing: the athlete inhales with an apical breath → traps the air in the upper chest → performs a few repetitions then gasps for air → loss of neutral spine then occurs while still under load commonly into overextension  → unable to reconstitute spinal stiffness while still under load (pathologic neutral)
Proper diaphragmatic breathing. Courtesy: (obviously a great site)
To move more efficiently we need to have a global bracing strategy during high-rep movements (which, face it, submax repetitive movements are what make up daily life and most athletic movements) in which spinal control is never lost and efficiency is high. Here's a simple and effective breathing/bracing strategy
  • Take a diaphragmatic breath (belly breath) - this takes practice (see Part 1) as many athletes, especially those with history of asthma, LBP, etc. really struggle with this. *Diaphragm is accessed
  • Near the end of inspiration, increase abdominal muscle tension. As you exhale, think about squeezing the air out and crushing the toothpick (see Part 2) or wringing out the air with your abs (this is when abdominal and glute tension is the highest). *Canister on max tension - this is when the majority of the movement is performed
  • Take one or two small breaths into the diaphragm by slightly reducing abdominal tension, allowing the diaphragm to descend while still in a compressed system. This will increase intra-abdominal pressure and allow the diaphragm to assist in stabilization while the abdominals are at slightly reduced tension. *Spinal stiffness maintained during the next breath
Note that a correct breathing/bracing strategy maintains spinal stiffness at all times while allowing contributions from abdominal tension and the diaphragm. The abdominals and glutes (canister) never come off tension completely.
Think about breathing into a steel canister - this will allow breathing to occur where it's most effective (the diaphragm) without having to reconstitute spinal stiffness after each breath. The goal is to never lose position nor stiffness, while still being able to breathe under load. Chest breathing will accompany this when demand requires it - and that's okay to supplement the diaphragmatic breathing - but a proper bracing strategy will always apply. This will take some time and mental energy to master during training but will pay dividends in terms of injury prevention and performance (which are synonymous in my opinion).

There a ton of advanced breathing assessments and techniques out there but we can lop off a lot of dysfunction if we follow this basic principle of an appropriate and reproducible breathing/bracing strategy.

Contributed by Dr. Seth Oberst


  1. Very interesting set of articles. I was wondering if you can guide me to the references that you used for part 3. I would like to do some further reading.



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