An Article from the Catalyst Athletics Performance Menu
by Chad Seltzer, M.S., USAW2, PES, CES, Pn1
There is so much information about breathing technique online. You may have come across it an article by your favorite weightlifting authority, a post by someone you follow on Instagram, or a friend who heard it from a guy at the gym whose coach said he can have a better squat, deadlift or Olympic lift if he follows various steps to brace his core.
What is the best way to brace your core, though? Everyone learns and feels cues differently, so let’s start with theory and then move on to the practice of breathing technique and bracing your core for better lifts.
First, here is a little background about the anatomy and physiology of the abdominal cavity (from the hips to the bottom of the ribs) and the thoracic cavity (from the bottom of the ribs to the throat).
The Abdominal Cavity
The abdominal cavity exists within the walls of the abdominal muscles (rectus abdominus, obliques, and transverse abdominus), the spine, the pelvic floor (the horizontal membrane lining at the bottom of your hip bones), and the diaphragm (the breathing muscle at the bottom of the ribs).
This space contains a lot of vital organs that are unprotected by bone structures except for the spine running vertically. These vital organs are contained within what is commonly known as a “fluid ball.” Pressure is created in this “ball” by activity in the abdominal cavity. We’ll discuss the fluid ball later in this article when we get into the practice of bracing your core.
The Thoracic Cavity
The thoracic cavity is made up entirely of bone on all sides but one. The ribcage makes up the entirety of the thoracic cavity, and is connected to the spine on the back of the body, with the diaphragm closing up the bottom as it stacks on top of the abdominal cavity.
Let’s address the physiology of the abdominal and thoracic cavities. In order to do this, I am going to use an example I call The Two Balloon Theory. I’ll use you as a test subject so you can not only learn, but also feel what is occurring when you breathe in different ways.
Ready? Take a deep breath. Did you breathe in through your mouth or your nose? Inhaling through the nose will cause the diaphragm to drop, causing an efficient vacuum effect for the lungs to inflate. Due to the diaphragm dropping, intra-abdominal pressure (the pressure created in your abdominal cavity) will increase. Inhaling through your mouth will cause the intercostal muscles to engage and expand the rib cage. This is an increase in intra-thoracic pressure.
Let’s try again with a different cue this time. Take a controlled deep breath in your nose and try to get your belly to “inflate” like a balloon. Feel that? If not, you may need to practice to recalibrate your diaphragm to properly engage when breathing. Now, take a deep breath through your mouth. Feel your chest rise and inflate this time? There are different ways to “inflate” these cavities and increase pressure. With the increase in pressure by holding your breath during a squat, deadlift, snatch, etc., you can imagine that your lifts will become easier with the weight sitting on or supported by two indestructible balloons, as long as you don’t let that breath go.
So here it is. The Two Balloon Theory. Imagine you have two un-inflated balloons. Take one of the balloons and hang it in the abdominal cavity, (Figure 2) opening of the balloon upwards and the rounded portion hanging down. Are you with me so far? The other balloon is in the thoracic cavity hanging down from the top of the ribs. (Figure 2) This is where you practice along with me. Read this next segment first. Then read it again and follow along as you read.
Take a deep breath in your nose to get the balloon in the abdominal cavity to inflate, and exhale through your mouth. Then, take a deep breath through your mouth to get the balloon hanging from the top of the thoracic cavity to inflate. Next, in one continuous breath, breathe in through your nose to get the abdominal balloon to inflate, and then continue to breathe in through your mouth to inflate the thoracic balloon. Hold your breath and feel the pressure your just created from the bottom of the hips all the way to the top of the chest. For the last step, tighten your core muscles as if someone is about to punch you in the gut so you can solidify the air pressure against the wall of your abdominals.
Feel that pressure pushing from the inside out? This is what you should be feeling before descending into a squat, pulling a bar off the ground during a deadlift, pushing through your feet to perform the first pull of a snatch or clean, or before your initial descent of the power, push, or split jerk dip. See this video for an example of the Two Balloon Theory.
Utilizing this technique during your lifts will inflate the theoretical balloons inside your abdominal and thoracic cavities. If you aren’t doing this already, you’re relying on your musculature and skeleton to support a weight that is likely much more than your body weight. Anything over 1.5-2x body weight is going to take more than muscle tissue to hold and move through the range of motion.
Here is a deeper dive into the technique. We’ll use the squat for this example. I have had a lot of athletes tell me they can only squat X amount of weight and can’t seem to break through the barrier of a certain weight. The problem lies either in their brain (mental ability to break this barrier), technical breakdown during the movement, or in their breathing technique.
Here is how I attempt to fix the mental aspect and breath work all at the same time. I’ll have the athlete load a heavy weight on the bar (something that would be an 8 or 9/10 difficulty). Then I have them un-rack the bar and gauge how heavy it is on a 1-10 scale. Most will give an answer in the high 8s. Then we try it again with the same weight. This time, before un-racking the heavy barbell, they utilize the aforementioned breathing technique and hold their breath. They get under the bar with their breath still held, gauge how heavy it is again, and re-rack.
With 99% of the athletes I have worked with, they tell me the barbell is now a 6 or 7/10 in terms of weight. Ninety-nine percent said that the 8 or 9/10 weight magically became a 6 or 7. How can this be? Air pressure from the intra-abdominal and thoracic cavities is pushing out against all muscular and bony structures. This increases the body’s rigidity and ability to maintain proper posture through the lift.
Now let’s apply this technique to the dynamic exercise of squatting. As mentioned, before you un-rack the barbell, you want to breathe in your nose, then in your mouth in one continuous breath and hold. Get under the bar and un-rack. Now, imagine the balloon in the abdominal cavity is tied and cannot lose any air. The top balloon in the thoracic cavity, however, can only lose a little air at a time. Let a tiny bit of air out of your mouth and step back from the rack into your squatting position. Next, since the air pressure and core musculature of the abdominal cavity are still holding steady, take a large deep breath in the mouth to top off the thoracic cavity and hold your breath. Descend into your squat and maintain the held breath when ascending back to your full starting position.
With the heaviest of lifts, it is ok to let a little bit of air out of the top balloon during the ascent, usually in the form of a grunt, “psst,” or some other noise. Be sure not to let too much air out during the ascent or you will start to lose the pressure and rigidity of your form, as well as muscular contractibility. Next repetition, repeat the breath work, until you get through all repetitions.
With all other lifts, you want to start this breathing technique before the initial movement occurs and reset your breath before the next repetition. Some athletes are able to hold their breath through multiple reps without resetting, but heed caution, as this technique will increase your blood pressure, especially under heavy loads, even more than it does for single reps.
The body is a structured organism meant to move. The muscles and bones alone are not optimal structures to hold significant weight during strength training exercises such as a squat 1RM or heavy clean and jerk. Therefore, the Two Balloon Theory needs to be used during near-maximal to maximal lifts in order to increase intra-abdominal and thoracic pressure. This will create an outward pressure on the musculature and give your body an edge when battling through training sessions. Perfect breathing technique should be practiced, as this is just another tool in your arsenal of training exercises. The more you practice this technique, the more it clicks during your lifts rep after rep, and will work as the ultimate tool to get you to the next level of athletics.
Chad Seltzer (M.S., USAW, PES, CES, Pn1) is the owner of Top My Workout, a weightlifting gym in Long Beach, CA. He has competed and coached Olympic Weightlifting for four years and loves the extremely technical aspects of the lifts as well as the additional strength components that go into an athlete’s success in the sport. As a personal trainer and coach for 15 years, his main focus is on body mechanics, proper technique, and sound program design. Chad has participated in a variety of sports but none have caught his eye as much as weightlifting and the amazing community that surrounds the sport. For more information and additional educational topics, check out his Instagram @TopMyWorkout or the Top My Workout website.