As background, I’ve been teaching diaphragmatic breathing for years now. I’ve always focused, however, on the diaphragmatic inhale, or the concentric contraction of the diaphragm muscle. Recently, the exhale side of the equation has come more onto my radar.
Exhaling to Calm Down: Great On Paper
COVID clicking-around time brought me to a great article in Psychology Today that talked about longer exhales being an easy way to “hack” your vagus nerve, which is connected to the diaphragm. Someone’s “Eureka” moment in a dream led to a discovery: a tranquilizing substance squirted directly out of the vagus nerve actually caused a frog’s heart rate to slow down immediately.
The same article references a study’s findings that just two minutes of deep breathing with longer exhalations is an easy way to calm the nervous system, engage the vagus nerve, and increase heart rate variability (which is a good thing). It even improves decision-making in business cases.
…vs My Own Experience So far
But, but… my own personal, lived experience with spending time in the exhale portion of breathing has been one of heightening my stress level, not reducing it. What gives?
Fast forward a few weeks, and some more time at the computer has widened my focus. Short version: turns out that many of us are actually overbreathing. Yep, it’s a thing.
Overbreathing and The Oxygen Advantage
I became especially intrigued by Patrick McKeown’s Oxygen Advantage system. Benefits touted include: improved sleep and energy, reduced breathlessness with exercise, naturally and legally increasing the production of erythropoietin (EPO) and red blood cells, reduction of lactic acid buildup and fatigue, improved VO2 max… And the crazy thing is: it all makes so much sense, the way he presents the science of it!
Holding Breath: In vs Out
One side note, and an eye opener for me, is that for some people, breath holding can mean maintaining an exhale.
An example of this — and support for McKeown’s claims — is found in this study about athletes who greatly improved their sprint times with a similar method.
What’s With the Overbreathing Bit?
From McKeown’s book, with permission: “The rate and volume of breathing is determined by receptors in the brain that work in a way similar to a thermostat regulating the heating system in a home. However, instead of monitoring fluctuations in temperature, these receptors monitor the concentration of carbon dioxide and oxygen in your blood, along with the acidity or pH level. When levels of carbon dioxide increase above a certain amount, these sensitive receptors stimulate breathing in order to get rid of the excess gas. In other words, the primary stimulus to breathe is to eliminate excess carbon dioxide from the body.”
Huh. And here I felt I’ve been needing to fill up on oxygen, needing to get that air in, but I’m not actually doing my body as much as good as I thought. Essentially, overbreathing simply means the habit of taking in more air than what our bodies require.
So Does That Mean We Should Be Underbreathing?
The goal is that all breathing occurs through the nose (yes, including the exhale — except during extremely intense activity), and is “effortless, calm, gentle, quiet, soft, and minimal.”
Give Me an Objective Test and a Baseline!
McKeown’s BOLT (Body Oxygen Level Test) is fast and easy to take. It’s an objective way to check the match between breathing volume and metabolic requirements. Poor results mean not only poor sports performance, but a huge variety of negative implications for your health.
As a competitive athlete, I still find that my own performance is not where I want it. I took his BOLT test to see if it might be one of the keys to improving. My own results were a real shocker to me, especially as someone who preaches the power of diaphragm breathing all week long. What’s more, while I can attain a diaphragm breath quickly and efficiently, further attention revealed my habit of breathing through my mouth fairly constantly through the day.
How Do We Improve our Results?
A brief guide to the three steps to increasing BOLT score: 1) stop CO2 losses (by nasal breathing, day and night; avoiding big breaths and sighs); 2) improve tolerance of CO2 (by creating a “tolerable” air hunger to reset the brain’s receptors); 3) Simulate high-altitude training to condition the body to tolerate a higher concentration of CO2; subjecting the body to a reduced concentration of oxygen and helping it to use that oxygen better.
His correctives are incredibly low-tech and accessible, more than vaguely ridiculous-looking in some ways, but eminently practical and fully based in science.
(Spoiler alert: in the video course, he’s changed the method of mouth taping to something better than what was in the book.)
The Road to Optimal Breathing
Another author helped direct my focus. She stated that a controlled inhale can actually place unhealthy pressure on the diaphragm, often tensing neck and chest muscles that do not need to be overly involved in breathing.
As Betsy Polatin, author of Humanual writes in HuffPost: “Without exhaling completely, excess carbon dioxide […] may remain in your lungs. The system detects that there is too much carbon dioxide and not enough oxygen. Then, it does the only thing it knows how to do: ask for more oxygen, causing another inhale. […] A cycle is set in motion and you keep inhaling for more oxygen, but can’t get enough because the lungs have not been properly emptied. […]
However, when you exhale completely, your body is designed to take a “reflex” inhale. By releasing your ribs and expelling all air in the lungs, you engage the spring-like action of your ribs to expand and create a partial vacuum, and the air comes in as a neurological reflex. This is what I call an optimal breath.”
Putting Optimal Breathing into Practice
Polatin’s image of a spring-like reflex contrasted with my initial observation that my inhale reflex felt more like it was bouncing sharply off of an overly tight trampoline-type surface. With practice, if I use a full but measured exhale, I can set up for a better inhale. As with imagery that I’ve previously applied only to the inhale, I’m aiming for more of a tidal ebb and flow between the in and out breath.
I’ve also found now that if I stay completely relaxed, once I feel like I’m done exhaling, I can still do another three, maybe four gentle further exhales.
Polishing the Sphere
Local chiropractor Jeff Almon’s shoulder-specific reprogramming classes give another metaphor to work with. He instructs us to create pressure in the abdominal cavity, and as the diaphragm compresses the area, do a little cough to feel the pressure build up. Think of it as creating a chrome sphere in the abdominal area. When you inhale, the diaphragm lowers, but because the pressure is there now, it should feel like the diaphragm is a chamois/shammy cloth, polishing that sphere. As he says, really make it shine! Now that the pressure can’t go down into your diaphragm, it has to reach up into your rib cage to find space. The space we’re targeting is the upper mid back.
How Best to Avoid the Open Scissors Syndrome?
All right, this should come together with practice. And breathing practice is usually done most easily in a horizontal position. Supine at least, if I aim my inhale towards the back of my spine, about 2-3” either side of it, I am able to keep a nice neutral spine.
As I see it, the next functional requirement with all of this exhaling is to avoid our posture giving in and folding completely forward once we’re standing upright.
The big cue that’s relevant, which I really began to understand at a DNS/weightlifting course a few years ago, is to maintain our pelvic floor essentially parallel to our diaphragm.
So When We’re Standing Upright…
Should we assume a “piston” situation to keep the pelvic floor parallel to the diaphragm, or should the muscles simultaneously oppose each others’ actions? Ouch. My head hurts again.
The opposing muscle setup (diaphragm contracts and moves down; pelvic floor contracts and moves up) is what we need for a strong abdominal brace at least.
If we’re trying to train the nervous system, it usually works best to learn things slowly and under no load. This would match the “core breath” approach as taught in the hypopresives system.
My DNS weightlifting course notes say that balance is retained through co-contraction of the abdominal wall and the pelvic floor, but that it’s eccentric activation… Whoa. Okay, that would be another article entirely.
But one of my handwritten notes from the course is an incredibly easy test: Can you maintain your height as you inhale? (To which I would now add: and during the exhale as well.)
As I live it, anyway, the inhale must therefore reach toward inside the body to the back line, i.e. all the way back to the spine. This ties in for me with the posture cue of a piece of string on top of our head; I always say that the string must be tied somewhat toward the back of the head.
Matching Tension to Task
If you’re not in a therapeutic and hyper-aware retraining mode, I figure feel free to do whatever feels right when you’re not under load.
Focusing on kettlebell swings, which can be very challenging for many peoples’ backs due to the ballistic nature of the move, Brett Jones lays it out as clearly as always: Your breathing pattern should “match” your goal. For example, for stretching and relaxation, we use what is known as an anatomical breathing match. As the body gets compressed (think leaning forward to stretch the hamstrings), air is released or forced out. As the body extends, air is drawn in (think standing up from a toe touch and inhaling). For the strength, stability, and power of the swing, we use the biomechanical breathing match. A biomechanical breathing match means we inhale while getting compressed (creating intra-abdominal pressure) and exhale while extending (resulting in a more stable and braced finish).
He’s reminding us of the critical duality of tension and relaxation… and as Pavel reminds us in his classic HardStyle Abs, our “dear abbies” need stretching too. We need to counteract all this “exhale to train the mid-section” work.
Just Make This Simple for Me
You got it! First thing, keep it relaxed. Second, aim for the back and sides of your lungs, not so much toward the front. Third, eyeball yourself in the mirror to try and keep those collarbones low.
Going back to that initial Psychology Today article: One gadget-free way to track the timing of your breathing cycle is to use a ratio of four-second inhalations and eight-second exhalations. The math is easy: 12 seconds per cycle x 5 = one minute. Just count out each finger on one hand per cycle to get to the recommended two full minutes.
And finally, maybe even start working on improving your own CO2 tolerance and improve your oxygen usage.
Note Bene, when Starting the Oxygen Advantage System
As the system creator Patrick McKeown has confirmed for me via email, after I spent a night feeling as wired as if I had downed six espressos before bedtime: do yourself a favour, and don’t practise the breath holding before sleep. Breath holding is up-regulation (more firing of nerve cells along a nerve pathway). We practice before competition. It increases blood flow to the brain.
For sleep, instead practise slow breathing with air hunger for fifteen minutes. This is-down regulation. You should fall asleep more quickly.
Stay in Touch
As always, I would love your input on all this! So far, I’ve managed to smoothe my exhale and improve my own BOLT score by about 5-6 seconds. More importantly, I’m sleeping about 45-60 minutes longer most nights. Please give it a shot and let me know how it goes for you.