Almost all of my breath work, both studies and teaching, over the past years has focused on the diaphragm during the inhale. The diaphragmatic inhale helps both activate the parasympathetic system, for relaxation and pain reduction, and it is our best spinal support for lifting heavy weights.
My main exhale focus has been through my years as an amateur boxer, and then as a coach: that crisp, sharp, 30% exhale upon impact creates stiffness in the core, then afterwards it acts like a bellows system to bring the air back in passively.
But there are other situations when a strong exhale is useful to seriously crank on the abs. That strong exhale really does contract all of the abs, internal and external. Here’s the tricky bit, though: you must still maintain good posture and not be pulled forward into excessive spinal flexion (rounding).
Speaking of Spinal Flexion
There are some contraindications to working with this approach. Top of the list are high blood pressure and any heart conditions…but the third, being “spinal flexion intolerant,” while definitely worth heeding (truly!), is something that I’ve personally found could sometimes be replaced by “manifesting weakness in the core.”
Which means that this may possibly be more a “proceed with caution” point than an absolute contraindication. Do you put yourself in this category? If so, and you want to play with the concept, it would be worthwhile contacting a physio or an experienced trainer for guidance.
Getting Going with This
First thing to know: You may get a little light-headed as you play with this. The next post will discuss this in more detail when I talk about carbon dioxide tolerance. For now, just be ready to take a break and sit down quickly if necessary.
I got permission from Miami-based trainer Ian Markow to share part of his breathing routine. I found that the bit between 4:30 – 8:30 in particular was great in preparation for strength work.
For example, now that I can’t bench press due to COVID equipment restrictions, I’m doing weighted pushups. The difference between a set where I was flagging at the end and the subsequent set (after doing his routine in between the two) was remarkable.
Pre-Activation vs. During the Lift
That activation drill is done supine (face up), though, and we need another element once we are standing upright. That’s where Pavel’s contribution comes in…and yes, he is one of the few people who really can get away with using just one name.
Still based on the exhale, a more targeted strength approach is laid out in Pavel’s classic Hardstyle Abs. His minimalist approach entails first practising the forced exhale breathing as a freestanding exercise. It’s then incorporated into midsection strength training within a “hollow hold” body position for low reps, such as a hanging leg raise. This carries over well to most strength work, including barbell or low-rep calisthenics, except for a few moves such as the chest press or an old-time bent press.
One extremely important element is to pull up your sphincters, as he says, “as if you are trying to restrain yourself from making both kinds of nature’s calls.” An additional cue is to bring your tailbone and your navel close together. The tricky and subtle part is, it’s not the gross movement of a posterior pelvic tilt, but a “counternutation of the sacrum.”
After preparing the exhale in this manner, then we’re ready to squeeze the glutes and apply that diaphragmatic brace.
Putting This into Practice
Here is an example of how I’ve brought this into my own lifting, in this case with an overhead bar press. My low back was happier with the addition!
What I really like about this addition to my personal brace/setup sequence is that it seems to finally bridge the internal with the external core and have them work together. As a powerlifter who competes beltless, I feel much more secure now that this is in my toolkit.
And for Yourself?
A reminder that high blood pressure or a heart condition means that you should not be using this approach at this time.
And again, if you feel that your low back is “touchy” and may not tolerate flexion/rounding well, please contact me to discuss it first… Honestly, please contact me to discuss it anyway! I hope to hear the reflections of everyone from total beginners to seasoned, record-breaking powerlifters.