Diaphragmatic breathing is one of the easiest ways to improve your strength in the time it takes to take a breath (pun intended).
But first, a story.
My daughter is 13 and in the seventh grade. Every day, I pick her up from school (except Wednesdays, which we call “Grandpa Wednesday” because my dad picks the kids up). Last week when I pulled up to the curb outside school I saw my girl standing with a group of her friends, talking, laughing, and…slouching. As Amelia walked over to the car, I kept half an eye on her friend group, noting their rounded postures as they huddled close together against the cold, most of them hunched over their phones.
When she got in the car, I’m certain it was not my own voice but my mom’s that launched into a diatribe about the impact good posture has on health and confidence. (It was a true Parent Moment.) It was an easy discussion for me to fall into because growing up, my mom consistently preached the importance of good posture as a mechanism for projecting confidence — especially when you weren’t feeling particularly confident — and because I grew up as a singer in the school choir, from elementary school through high school. (Side note: Did you know you can letter in choir?)
How Posture Affects Performance
Anyway, we mostly practiced our songs in choir while seated in chairs. Sitting up tall with your shoulders back and down and your head up because if you were slouching, you wouldn’t be able to inhale enough air to sing more than a bar or two or project your voice well. Thinking back on it, I credit the years I spent learning how to breathe into and sing from my diaphragm as the reason why breathing and bracing for heavy lifting came so naturally.
You probably almost never think about your breathing. It’s completely automated (hopefully) and when you think about your body and how it works in the context of exercise, the shape of your muscles, the amount of weight you can lift, and how your body feels when you work out is likely what first come to mind.
Good posture and diaphragmatic breathing, however, go hand in hand, and are important components of heavy lifting. It’s harder to execute a heavy squat or deadlift when the muscles of your upper back are lengthened and weakened from poor posture habits and it’s nearly impossible to draw in a deep breath when you’re slouching. As a consequence of both, you may have become habituated to breathing shallowly in your chest and may also have a hard time maintaining good posture when lifting (like keeping an upright torso in the squat, or a neutral spine off the floor in the deadlift or when pressing a weight overhead).
Humor me for a moment. Stop reading this post and take a short moment to breathe through two or three breath cycles. How far down does the air you inhale travel? Now purposely slouch — you can even grab your phone as a prop — and try to take a deep breath. Or, sit with your usual posture as if I weren’t here watching and try to breathe deeply. How easy it?
Probably not very.
Improve Breathing to Improve Your Strength
If you want to become a great lifter, it’s in your best interests to learn diaphragmatic breathing, too. The intercostal muscles that hold your ribcage together need to be able to expand in order for you to take big enough breath for you to brace well against heavy weight. If you spend a good amount of time sitting at a desk or on your phone while breathing shallowly, those muscles might have gotten a little sticky and resistant to expansion.
How to Improve Your Diaphragmatic Breathing
If, in your form-check videos you observe your torso falling forward in the ascent of the squat, or your spine overly flexing in the deadlift, you could potentially see major improvements in your lifting form (and as a consequence, how much weight you can lift) by incorporating this simple breathing drill I learned from Juggernaut Training Systems called 90/90 Breathing:
- Grab a mat and lie down on a patch of floor clear of any foot traffic.
- Place your feet on the wall hip-width apart and scoot forward so your knees and hips are bent to 90 degrees. Place a folded up towel or mat under your head if this position feels uncomfortable on your neck.
- Place your hands on your ribcage so that your thumbs are about directly under your pecs and your pinky fingers are on your bottom ribs.
- Inhale into the palms of your hands and try to bring your fingertips of your right and left hand closer to each other on each exhale.
- Repeat for 10 breaths.
With practice and over time, this breathing drill will train you to draw air into your diaphragm, a crucial step in creating trunk stability, and in generating and transferring force when lifting weights. Habitual diaphragmatic breathing also helps you maintain great posture, in and out of the gym.
I invite you to give this a try and report back. How did it feel? Was it easy? Did you feel different during your workout? As always, I want to hear everything so leave your experiences, comments, and questions in the comment section below!