Coach’s Corner: Breathing Basics

If you’re reading this now, you’re obviously breathing—but what if I told you there’s a good chance you’re doing it wrong—or in better words, inefficiently—no matter if you’re reasonably fit or otherwise? A good majority of people chest-breathe, which is shallow and doesn’t maximize oxygen intake. We might do this because our breathing style is tied to how we respond to stress (think, short and panicked) or it’s because we hardly ever let our bellies relax, lest someone sees how much belly we actually got going on…(I know I do this). When our breathing is shallow, it means we’re under-utilizing our diaphragm—the muscle designed for the purpose of filling our lungs with air when it contracts. But just like with our other muscles, we can train ourselves to be better, more efficient breathers.

Try this: Inhale as slowly as you can, filling your belly then your chest, and see how much oxygen you can take in before you have to exhale, then let the air out just as slowly. Repeat this 8-10 times. Feeling relaxed? Awesome. Practice this breathing anytime you feel like you could use a break from the stress and chaos of life, or maybe right before you go to bed.

At the end of kickboxing class, when I ask you to take a few deep breaths, this is what we’re doing. Those sweeping arm movements up and down are meant to get you to slow down your inhalation/exhalation and calm your body down from the excitement of a high-intensity training session. Slowing your breathing is a good strategy to calm your heart rate during exercise as well, in those moments you feel like your lungs are about to give out. Increasing your heart rate to a “fat burning zone” is important, but just as important and rarely discussed is the recovery from a high heart rate so that you can peak again a few more times in your workout. That recovery depends on the quality of every breath you take, so fill those bellies!

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The other night, Stephanie was showing one of the new kickboxers how to exhale during a punch by pushing air through her teeth—to which the kickboxer responded, “this is stupid,” and basically refused to do it or understand it, probably because she felt self-conscious making noise. I have no patience for this kind of attitude on my mat, btw, but that’s beside the point. Indeed, it may seem stupid if you don’t understand why it’s actually important.

If you pay attention at all during class, you hear me yelling constantly about tightening “your core.” With everything we do, it’s the one thing I always say—and it’s not because I’m just trying to help you get a flat stomach. The true core encompasses your entire torso, from shoulders to hips, and bracing your stomach is the first part in an important process of stabilizing your core to support your spine and pelvis before you can perform powerful movements that bridge across your upper body and lower body with good control.

How does this tie into breathing during exercise? Instead of letting air out slowly as in recovery breathing, you should quickly and forcibly exhale when you exert yourself—like on your way up in a push-up or squat, or when you throw a punch or kick. This forceful exhale tightens your core to stabilize it in the moment that you perform a specific movement. As fatigue sets in during training and your breath becomes more challenging to control, this is when an audible exhale or grunt really helps to connect breath to movement. Studies have shown that grunting actually gets your muscles to generate more power than without (think, Serena Williams). Not to mention, it puts you in the right mindset for intense training and makes you more intimidating to your opponents. Martial arts and grunting go hand-in-hand to increase strength, speed, and accuracy.

And if you’re still thinking, “core stabil-blahblahblah—gimme abs!” then just know that it’s not crunches that will magically give you the six-pack you crave. The more you use them properly during training, the stronger they get, and the more consistent you are with your workout schedule and clean eating, the closer you’ll get to looking like the fighter you are.