Zen and the Art of Breathing

Breath 2Whether you’re lifting your child, a piece of living room furniture or a Kettlebell, it’s probably your natural inclination to hold your breath. There is nothing natural about holding your breath, unless of course, if you’re keen on trying to set a new world record or impress your friends.

We are hardwired to breath. Right from our first breath to our very last, we don’t have to think about, it just happens, but sometimes when we’re under stress, physical and mental, it can disrupt our natural breathing rhythms, this is when we have to consciously get it back on track.

When it comes to higher levels of Kettlebell training, sport or fitness the ability to synchronize your breathing to the movement of the bell is paramount to attaining ones sport or fitness goals.

Even though breathing is perhaps the single most important ingredient to all athletic / fitness performance & success, many trainers and coaches rarely mention it or give it it’s due.

When it comes to Kettlebell lifting proper breathing and relaxation go hand in hand. Try holding your breath for a moment and see what happens, your body tenses, your blood pressure shoots up, your muscles fatigue, your lactic acid builds up and then panic sets in… Not exactly a perfect relaxation scenario.

When lifting a Kettlebell, breathing always precedes movement. Breathing should always be done through the nose and out through the mouth. Here’s why; Inhaling through nose reduces upper body tension and lowers blood pressure, inhaling through the mouth creates upper body tension and raises blood pressure.

Too Much Tension = Loss of Endurance, Speed & Strength.

As a practicing Taekwondoist for the last 40 years, proper and relaxed breathing has always been the cornerstone of any integrated movement in my Martial Arts training… It was my first lesson on the mat.

Here’s a great example of what happens when you breathe with tension and breathe with relaxation while lifting a Kettlebell.

Both charts below were recorded using my Polar H7 Heart Rate Monitor, during a 10:00 minute (6 – R, 4 – L) Snatch set with a 24 kg, Pro Grade Kettlebell at an average rep speed of 20 rpm, under the exact same lifting and rest conditions (60 minutes between sets).

The only conditions that were dissimilar between the sets was the type of breathing (mouth & mouth, nose & mouth).

Lift 1

The breathing was done primarily through the mouth during all phases of the movement over the course of the 10 minute set.

Breathing 2

Lift 1 Synopsis:

  1. The heart rate was erratic and choppy.
  2. Time in the optimal heart rate zone (red) was limited to only 3:55.
  3. The lift itself felt laboured and tense.
  4. It was difficult to get mentally into the zone (see definition below). This was most likely due to the unmatched breathing and additional tension.
  5. Very little was left in the tank towards the end to either increase the cadence or extend the lift.
  6. Spending more time in the white target zone (90% – 100% maximum heart rate) than in the red (80% – 90% maximum heart rate) is an indicator of over training which ultimately leads to increased fatigue and decreased performance. All of which were experienced.

The Zone: Also known as flow, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, the zone is characterized by complete absorption in the process.

Lift 2

The breathing matched the movement of the Bell during roughly 95% of the set. Inhaling through the nose on the drop & exiting the backswing and exhaling through the mouth at fixation and into the backswing.

Breathing 1

Lift 2 Synopsis:

  1. The heart rate rise was smooth and mostly clean.
  2. Time in the optimal heart rate zone (red) was more ideal at 6:39.
  3. The lift itself felt easy and relaxed.
  4. Focusing on each individual rep and it’s corresponding breaths made it easier to get into the zone, mentally & physically.
  5. During the end of the lift plenty was left in the tank to either increase the cadence past 20 rpm or extend the lift.
  6. Spending more time in the red heart rate zone than the white will exponentially help improve performance and conditioning over the long term and decrease fatigue.

 In Conclusion:

On the surface this may not seem or look like a lot, but when you’re talking about caloric burn per minute in the red zone (on average 23), not to mention the after burn hours later… That’s HUGE!

Kettlebell Sport is a game of numbers (along with a good dose of mental toughness and physical ability), so if you are able to increase yours by just dialing in and fine tuning your breathing and relaxation it could be the difference between hitting Master of Sport or Rank 1…  That’s GINORMAS!

Now, when I’m talking about relaxation, it’s not the limp like a noodle kind, it’s just enough muscle tension to get the work done, no more, no less. As a matter of fact, you can actually lift more and lift longer by being relaxed and matching your breathing to the movement, than by generating high tension throughout the lift. High tension lifting impedes the way you breathe, it also creates erratic movement which allows power to leak rather than flow.

Speaking of flow here’s a great quote by Bruce Lee on just that;

“You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.”

When your breathing is in sync and flows with life, so will you.

Now stop holding your breath!

By; Coach Tim Bell

OKC / IKSFA Kettlebell Sport Coach and Competitor



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