Breathing For Relaxation And Strength

by Kilo on July 13, 2010

Bottoms up kettlebell pressThis is a guest post By Jordan Vezina, RKC Team Leader

“Failure to master breath control and you can do nothing…” -Mas Oyama

I first read the above quote in Pavel Tsatsouline’s ‘Naked Warrior’. As I advance in my training and general knowledge this quote gains greater and greater depth. Being committed to the pursuit of strength, it is easy for us to forget the other side of the coin- relaxation.

For those of you who are trainers, how often have you had to battle with clients to make them understand the importance of off days, and why they cannot go one hundred percent all the time? It is easy to forget that without relaxation, without proper recovery our efforts in strength training can become damaging versus healing and moving us toward our goals.

This brings us to the combination of breathing and relaxation. Many of you will be familiar with breathing for performance, such as power breathing as outlined in Naked Warrior. It is easy to understand the importance of this, and to be willing to practice it. Not as many understand the relationship between breath and relaxation, and that this must be practiced just as any other skill.

Relax into stretchLet’s use the example of stretching. How often have you seen someone stretching, and from the look on their face you would think they are being tortured? The name of the book is ‘Relax into Stretch’. Many seem to miss the ‘relax’ part.

There are not many people out there (Read: None) who can completely relax their bodies while clenching their teeth and contracting every muscle in their neck. Your face will be a reflection of what is going on in the rest of your body. So we know we want to relax the face. What is the key to this? Of course it is breathing.

Step one

Taking deep inhalations, preferably through the nose, and deep down into your belly. Chest breathing will tend to cause contractions in the traps, neck, etc. as well as raise the shoulders, which for many stretches or mobility exercises is not going to be optimal.

Preferably my shoulders will be down in my hips, particularly if I am doing thoracic mobility work. Many people are effectively ‘living in their shoulders’ and using the shoulder girdle for much of the daily workload that should be assigned to the core. Just the act of breathing more deeply and keeping the shoulders low will rid many a man and woman of several issues that they may think are ‘just part of life’.

Step Two

Don’t be afraid of holding your breath to a comfortable depth. I’m not talking about holding your breath for thirty seconds, but perhaps just a three count. Lt. Colonel Bill Grossman, Director of the Warrior Science Group and author of the Pulitzer Prize nominated ‘On Killing’ has prescribed a survival breathing technique for slowing the heart rate which consists of a three count inhalation, hold for three, exhale for three, and hold again for three before repeating the cycle.

I have used this in high stress situations as well as during training and it does the trick. One man reported having used this technique to slow his heart rate during an auto accident, and the effect this had made the difference between his survival and death as were it not for remaining calm and lowering his BPM he would have bled out before help arrived.

Step three

Understanding and implementing the true nature of exhalation. Your mouth should be relaxed and open. Tight lips and a small opening do not make for a healthy exhalation. A good exhalation should also be drawn out when used for the purpose of exhalation. Dragondoor forum member Pesce has given the cue of ‘Darth Vader’ to explain the type of exhalation he is looking for.

You will find as you practice this your exhalation takes longer, and longer, and longer. It will not be labored or stressful, it will be nice and relaxing. Like a kitten.

When I work on these aspects of breathing with clients it is not unsual for them to gain inches on a toe touch, or many degrees of mobility in their thoracic spine. If you practice your relaxation the way you do your strength, you will do the same.

About The Author:

Jordan Vezina is an RKC Team Leader in the Hardstyle Kettlebell System. Visit him at Average To Elite, where he writes about strength, nutrition, kettlebells, and more.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Steven Rice Fitness July 14, 2010 at 10:13 am

I have to credit yoga with teaching me these things. Yoga isn’t always well regarded in the strength world, but if you want to improve your breath, it’s a great way to learn.


Kilo July 14, 2010 at 11:08 am

Steven, as a complete yoga novice, is there a starting point you’d recommend for anyone looking to jump in?


Steven Rice Fitness July 14, 2010 at 1:10 pm

Like strength training, yoga has many variations, and a wide range of teachers. The general name for the physical practice is Hatha Yoga, and my preferred variety is Anusara. Try more than one class, although I wouldn’t suggest either Bikram or Ashtanga to start. The quality of instruction is usually higher in a studio than gym, but of course not always, and the gym may be less touchy-feely.

Yoga classes are usually rated as level 1, 2, or 3, definitely go to the easiest(1) first, although it might be educational in a humbling way to try a mixed level class. Don’t try to keep up with people who have done this for years!

Besides breath, I have also found yoga to be very useful in developing body awareness and control, which means being able to do weight lifting with good form. In general, I think the two complement each other very well.


Ryan J Pitts July 15, 2010 at 7:12 am

Good post Jordan! Your half-tire is on the way. Breath is a huge piece of the health puzzle. Breathing is one of those things we take for granted, simply because we can do it without thinking. But when you focus on it and use it for strength or relaxation it’s so powerful. As a massive fan of martial arts, Tai chi has always intrigued me, as well as Chi-kung or qi gong. Breath is life and I would say most people do not know how to breath properly. There are quite a few books on qi-gong and tai chi. Once you understand breathing, you can then apply it to your training as well as your life.


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