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Breathing To Maximize Your Workout

Updated: Feb 5, 2023

Oxygen, Breathing and Unicorns.

Breathing, we all do it, but most of us…kinda suck at it!  I am not saying that to be a dick, I just really want you to read through this post and put some thought into some of my points.

Breathing – We take oxygen into our lungs and then expel carbon dioxide.  Yes, this is probably middle school science but stay with me.

What is the main purpose of OXYGEN??   Thank you for asking.  Oxygen is needed to burn fuel!!!  Simple as that.  If you have a match, gas and no oxygen…you have nothing.  Oxygen (number 8 on the periodic table, in case you were curious) is the catalyst to all life on the planet.

Let’s do a quick thought experiment.  If you have a small fire and want to make it burn hotter, what do you do?  You break out the bellows of course and add fuel(air) to the fire!  This is the exact principle with regards to us humans.  As we start working harder, our bodies require more oxygen to burn more fuel.  If we take shallow, short breaths in and out through our mouth, we will restrict the amount of oxygen brought in, thus limiting our output.  If we fully exhale emptying our lunges of carbon dioxide, then take full deep breaths in through our nose taking in oxygen, we will be able to amplify the fuel being burnt and maximize our output.

During exercise, especially high intensity exercise, your body will hit a point where there isn’t enough oxygen to use for creating energy.  At this point your body will start to create lactate(commonly known as lactic acid).  Despite what most people think, this isn’t the cause for fatigue…initially.  Our bodies adapt to burn lactate as energy through high intensity exercise, but only for a little bit.  At a certain point our bodies won’t be able to rid the lactate faster than creating it, which forces us to slow down…sometimes nausea can be a side effect. That point is what is known as your lactic threshold.  There is a lot more going on in the body during this process, but that is the quick of it.

What the heck is your point, you are wondering?  Basically, the more oxygen you can suck in means the longer and harder you can push and the more time until you hit your lactic threshold….meaning the more energy you can burn!  The more you breathe out means the more CO2 you can expel, Giving room for more oxygen to take in…see the circle(again, until you hit your lactic threshold)?

Let’s use kickboxing's two minute rounds as an example.  The goal of the two minute round is to start to physically fatigue right around the two minute mark.  If you are hitting/kicking the bag with enough power, taking 5-7 seconds to take a deep breath, you should have to mentally push yourself through the last 30 seconds when things get tough, breathing gets labored and muscles start to burn.  If you hit the 60 second mark and are spent, then you aren’t taking long enough in between and are not taking in enough oxygen.  If you get to the end of two minutes and breathing normally…you aren’t working hard enough!!  The goal is to find that happy medium…trying to find the balance between output on the bag, and rest off.  My goal is always power first.  Every time I punch or kick the bag, I am envisioning punching/kicking someone(Joe Grady, Big Bird, Michelle Tanner, etc..?) and I only get one shot at it.  I take a deep breath in through the nose and hit the combo again.  The last 30 seconds of those two minute rounds, I try to turn the tempo up a little so when I am done, I am having a hard time controlling my breathing.

Sprint sets are just that, a sprint.  The goal is to push as hard and as fast as you can for a short time, then get air after.  Let’s use “Burnout Jabs and One Push Up” as an example.  If I push as fast as I can, I know that I am going to slam into that wall at around 30-35 seconds, with the last ten seconds being a physical(mental) struggle.  I then need at least that whole next minute to catch my breath.  If I hit 45 seconds on that sprint set and I can control my breathing, I know I didn’t push hard enough.

Here’s another takeaway.  You can feel physically tired at the end of the set but really only gave around 50% of potential physical output.  I am not saying someone is lazy…I am saying that person might not be getting the oxygen their body needs, thus having a low threshold for fatigue.  Along with mental fortitude, breathing is going to be one of the main limiting factors on how hard you can push your body and determine what you can get out of your workouts.

Breath work carries over into other aspects of life…stress control and sleep are the two most important that come to mind.

Sleep – There are many physical factors that can lead to poor sleep which we won’t go over right now.  But if you struggle at breathing during the day, why would you be good at it when you go to sleep?   Your diaphragm (the muscle that keeps you alive by inflating and deflating your lunges) is a muscle at the bottom of the rib cage and can be trained to be used correctly.  Quick physical test (feel free to Google for more examples).

Lay on your back, pull your feet up a little so your knees are relaxed at around 98 degrees.  Put your left hand on your tummy (yes, tummy…I have little kids, this is how I talk) and your right hand on your chest.  Take a couple deeps breaths in through your nose…the majority of the movement should be through your left hand(tummy)…that is your diaphragm pulling open your lunges.  If you only feel your right hand moving up, your chest and neck muscles are doing the work which means you are not utilizing your lunges efficiently.   Stay in this position and keep practicing.  You will need to do this several times daily until you can make it a habit.  Remember, practice makes permanent.

Stress – I mentioned stress above, so lets go over it quickly.  Have you ever shot a gun, shot a free throw or were given a thirty second warning before the start of a race, or were probably a bit jittery before walking through the doors at Reveal for the first time?  The most important thing in either of those positions would be your breathing.  One, to fill your body with O2.  Two, to calm your nerves.  The best way to mitigate stress is to suck in as much oxygen as you can, and exhale as much carbon dioxide as possible.  This is our bodies oldest weapon to control our fight or flight response.  There are a ton of breathing exercises on the inter-web, feel free to browse…but here is what I do.

In Through the Nose, Out Through the Mouth

Lying(laying?) down is best to let the body relax, BUT this should also be done periodically when staring into the abyss of your computer monitor.   Breathe in as deep as you can, 4-5 counts…hold it in for 2-3 counts (if your chest doesn’t burn a little, you aren’t breathing in deep enough), then exhale for 6-8 counts with a slight hold all the way out…repeat for a minute or two.

Wait..WTF? That math doesn’t work?   So now you are an expert on first grade arithmetic? 

Here’s the deal…most people don’t breathe in deep enough…BUT EVEN MORE don’t breathe out enough.  It’s a two way street and you need to work on both taking in air, and then exhaling and emptying your lunges.

You were promised unicorns at the top of the email, what gives?  Okay…just keep sucking at breathing, have your brain become hypoxic(lack of oxygen), thus inducing a slight DMT like trip…and you will see unicorns!!

Or work on your breathing, have way less stress, burn more calories and sleep like a baby!! 

That was a lot of rambling on my part so please feel free to ask questions.

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