How Important Is Breath Work?
I get asked that time and again, and it makes my laugh to myself a bit. I’ll usually respond with something like, “Why don’t you hold your breath for a while during your running today and let me know.”
Typically most people understand that breathing is important, especially when it comes to exercise and efficiency, but most people don’t know where to start in developing effective breathing patterns.
The Challenge of Breathing in Mixed Modal Settings
The traditional strength and conditioning training model minimizes the need for breath work. You can easily avoid breathing at all during low rep strength work, and most people don’t experience breathing challenges during low intensity conditioning or “cardio” when compared to a mixed modal setting.
Then CrossFit came along and ‘messed’ everything up. Now there is heavy lifting and barbells combined with cyclical movements like running and rowing and everything in between all mashed into one workout. This mixed modal activity is much more challenging on the breath.
And here is the reason why: Every movement in CrossFit requires its own breathing demands.
The demands on the breath for a front squat are not the same as the power clean are not the same the assault bike are not the same as pull-ups.
Listen: Nasal Breathing [The Fitness Movement podcast #004]
Unique Breathing Demands Movement-By-Movement
It is very easy to let the sheer number of exercises in CrossFit overwhelm you in the moment you realize each has their own unique breath requirements.
Understand that positioning, mobility, comfort, speed and load will all have an impact on the way a person breaths during any giving movement.
Let’s look at speed. The speed at which you execute a movement usually changes based on the duration of a workout.
Cyclical or monostructural exercises will change speed based on the duration of the workout: biking, running, rowing, skiing, burpees, double unders, swimming, sleds, etc.
Gymnastic and weightlifting exercises will have very little speed change based on the duration of the workout (however the time between reps may get longer the actual rep speed should not slow dramatically): pull-ups, chest-to-bar, toes-to-bar, muscle-ups, cleans, snatches, deadlifts, squatting, box jumps, thrusters, etc.
Notice that speed can easily and dramatically be changed during cyclical activities where gymnastics and weightlifting cannot be slowed dramatically.
If you try to dramatically slow down a pull-up, muscle-up, clean, snatch or box jump you will only make the movement more difficult, if not impossible.
Rather you must take longer rest between reps or rest in a position of high stability (top of bar muscle-up, lockout of thruster, top of box jump).
Read: Breathe & Move | The Dual Roles of Respiratory Musculature
Making Things Simpler with Breath Ratios
Understanding how to make each movement more efficient and sustainable will allow you express your capacity to a greater extent. The easiest way to do that in my experience is through an understanding of breath ratios.
Breath ratios are simply the number of breaths you take per movement.
For example, a common movement-to-breath ratio on pull-ups is 1:1. That is 1 pull-up per breath (inhale on descent & exhale on ascent).
Many movements have multiple options for breath ratios. For example, the dumbbell snatch can be 1:1 or 1:2. The video below shows both 1:1 and 1:2 breath ratios. Listen with the sound on!
Breath Ratios on Weightlifting and Gymnastics Movements
Breathing is often more difficult on gymnastic and weightlifting movements because they are complex and often require more aggressive mobility, tension and bracing. Anyone who has ever deadlifted heavy in the middle breathing heavy understands this thoroughly.
However, for breath ratios gymnastics and weightlifting movements are actually much simpler than cyclical activities because they have less options for speed of execution.
Because weightlifting and gymnastics movements cannot be easily slowed down they will almost always have breath ratio of 1:1. This is even true for cycling many barbell movements.
The only exception is when a pause is added in a position of high support. Think about breathing between the clean and the jerk in weightlifting.
An easy illustration of this is the thruster. Taking more than one breath during the moving part of a thruster will almost always cause movement breakdown.
Therefore, as pacing or fatigue play a larger role an athlete is best served by breathing in the support position locked out overhead (versus the front rack).
High-level athletes during fatigue/pacing will increase the breath ratio in the thruster by taking an extra full breath cycle (inhale & exhale) at lockout and then another inhale during the lower, followed by the exhale on the raise. The moving part of the thruster is executed with a similar speed yet twice as many breaths are taken.
Now, let’s take the bar muscle-up. The only logical places for extra breaths in the muscle-up are locked out in the support position or on the ground. Both would have there place in a workout depending on the length of workout, total muscle-up volume and athlete experience level.
Read: Mastering the Bar Muscle-Up
Breath Ratios on Cyclical Movements
Cyclical movements have the ability to be sped or slowed dramatically so there are almost endless options for breath ratios.
While it is less complicated to be proficient at these movements, they allow a higher percentage of the exercising population to express their power output on them…making them have a unique challenge to the breath.
Although there are lots of breath ratio options in order to express power (work) optimally there will always be a set cadence to the breath.
For example, on a bike the power phase of the stroke (1 O’Clock to 4 O’Clock) is where you want to initiate an exhale. Initiation of an exhale at any other point in the movement will result in a loss of rhythm, efficiency and power. However, even following these guidelines there a lots of options.
Say athlete #1 is pedaling at a fast cadence (>100 spm), a slow pace (8-10 mph) and a low effort (30%). She could easily maintain a movement-to-breath ratio well over 6:1 (6 pedals for a single breath).
Say athlete #2 is pedaling at a slow cadence (<60 spm), a fast pace (25-30 mph) and a high effort (95%). He could struggle to maintain a movement-to-breath ratio of 1:2.
The two athletes on the same movement expressed breathing ratios 12x apart. Keep in mind this goes for cyclical movements only.
During cyclical activities it is likely that at some point during your activity you will have to transition to a different breath ratio.
For example, I typically can hold a 3:1 breath ratio comfortably for an 8:00/mile on flat ground. When I begin to ascend an incline, I will typically have to shift to 2:1 to keep up with the metabolic demands. Once I crest the hill and begin to recover as I descend the other side, I will transition back to 3:1.
For running, you’ll notice that odd breath ratios (like 3 or 5) require you either inhale or exhale longer, since three can be split evenly in whole numbers. I recommend elongated the exhale rather than the inhale because a longer exhale will promote parasympathetic nervous system activity. This means a lower stress response, less recovery demands and more sustainable exercise.
Other cyclical movements, like rowing and double unders have less breath ratio options.
When rowing, the really only options are 1:1 or 1:2 movement-to-breath ratios. At sustainable paces, it is almost always going to be 1:1 (an inhale during the recovery and an exhale during the drive). Only under high metabolic fatigue will an athlete need to transition to 1:2 (a full breath cycle during the recovery and another full cycle in the drive).
Read: A Guide to Running for CrossFit Athletes
Principles Applied | Movement Mastery
The end goal of understanding breath ratios is to make mastery of any movement easier. If you understand the principles applied then when you learn to do a new movement, say handstand walks, then you can keep the same ‘script’ and ‘run a new program.’
In the case of a handstand walk you will remind yourself, “Every time my right hand hits the floor I must initiate an exhale.” This rhythm your breath creates will make mastering the new movement easier. Once you have mastered the movement, you can play around with changing the breath ratio away from the 1:1 described.
Basically the idea of breath ratios is to understand how to program the breath. Once you learn to program breath ratios, running the program makes everything else strategic and accelerates the learning process.
Read: Should I Nasal Breathe During High Intensity Exercise?
Movement to Breath Ratios | Listed By Movement
Written as Slowest Sustainable Breath Rate to Fastest Rate at Maximal Effort
Running 6:1 to 1:1 (1 rep being per right foot strike)
Cycling 6:1 to 1:2 (1 rep being per right foot stroke)
Rowing 1:1 to 1:2 (1:2 only in highly fatigued settings)
Swimming 4:1 to 1:2 (1 rep being each time right hand enters the water)
Double Unders 4:1 to 2:1 (any slower means hyperventilation)
Ski Erg 1:1 (per initiation of pull) (1:2 only when clearing high levels of fatigue slow pace)
Burpees 2:1 to 1:1 (anything slower typically means resting between reps)
Wall-ball 1:1 to 1:2 (if you slow more than 1:2 it means you are better served dropping it and resting)
Box Jumps 1:1 (unless resting on top of box, then 1:2 or more)
Pull-ups & Chest-to-Bar 1:1 (As demands of movement increase, increase tidal volume rather than breath ratio)
Toes-to-Bar 1:1 (As demands of movement increase, increase tidal volume rather than breath ratio)
Muscle-ups 1:1 (unless rest in support, only advisable on bar muscle-up, not ring)
Handstand Push-ups (1:1 if cycling quickly, 1:2 if resting in lockout)
Handstand Walks (2:1 or 1:1 per right hand strike)
Cleans (1:1 if cycling quickly, 1:2 if resting in front rack)
Clean & Jerk (1:1 if cycling quickly, 1:2 if resting in lockout or if breath between clean and the jerk)
Snatches (1:1 if cycling quickly, 1:2 if you take another breath cycle in the lockout)
Thrusters (1:1 if cycling quickly, 1:2 if you take another breath cycle in the lockout)
Shoulder-to-Overhead (1:1 if cycling quickly, 1:2 if you take another breath cycle in the lockout or in front rack)
Deadlift (1:1 if cycling quickly, 1:2 if you take another breath cycle in the lockout)
Squats (1:1 if cycling quickly, 1:2 or more if you take another breath cycle in the lockout)
Lunges (2:1 if you swing the foot through quickly, 1:2 or more if stopping with feet together during steps)
Want a “Cheat Sheet” of these Breath Ratios? Download the PDF here.
Breath Work for the Sport of Fitness
A Guide to Nervous System States, Tier II Skills & Optimal Arousal
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