Guest Post: Biomechanical vs. Anatomical Breathing
By Cameron Yuen
This post was inspired by a discussion I had with Aaron about the StrongFirst snatch test. This test, which basically involves snatching a 24kg kettlebell 100 times within 5 minutes, is well known for it’s ability to leave even the most conditioned athletes gasping for air.
Training for this test usually involves working on technique, strength, and endurance. However, training to improve breathing efficiency is often overlooked. After all, we breathe automatically for the most part, and when we do become conscious of our breath during exercise, we generally just default to breathing harder and faster. But this doesn’t have to be the case; changing your breathing pattern is one of the easiest approaches to improving performance.
This article will highlight two of these strategies. Biomechanical breathing, which is ideal for short and intense exercise, and anatomical breathing, which is best suited for exercise requiring endurance and efficiency. These breathing styles follow the idea that just as there are different movement strategies depending on the type and goal of exercise, there are multiple ways to breathe depending on the demands of exercise.
Learning to use your diaphragm is key for maintaining tension in biomechanical breathing, and relaxation in anatomical breathing. So before getting into the nuances of each strategy, I highly recommend you check out Aaron’s articles on breathing here and here. He does a great job breaking down the anatomy and mechanics of the diaphragm, and how to start implementing diaphragmatic breathing in treatment/training sessions.
To get comfortable with diaphragmatic breathing, try this quick and easy supine breathing drill:
Try to breathe down into your stomach so that your bottom hand rises and falls with each breath. The top hand will rise automatically as the ribs expand. After you get comfortable with this, place your hands around your waist, and try to make your breath expand laterally and posteriorly to push out against your hands. Ideally, your abdomen should be expanding from all sides as you breathe in.
If you have ever lifted weights, you have probably used biomechanical breathing. Inhaling is matched with the eccentric phase of a movement, and exhalation is matched with the concentric phase. In biomechanical breathing, breath is used to increase intra-abdominal pressure (IAP), and optimize force production and transfer by creating a rigid core. This strategy works well with ballistic movements, when external loads are high, and when a lot of tension is needed for a short amount of time.
Here is an example of biomechanical breathing used during an overhead press:
Similarly, for a barbell back squat, you would begin the descent (eccentric) by bracing your trunk in a neutral position, followed by a large diaphragmatic breath. Co-contracting the muscles of the core, and then pressurizing the compartment with the diaphragm increases IAP, and creates a very stable trunk. As you ascend from of the bottom of the squat (concentric) you exhale slowly. This lifts the diaphragm and decreases IAP.
By breathing in this manner, you increase IAP as you flex your hips, which protects your spine by buffering the large flexion moment created by the weight. However, this strategy can be very fatiguing since you are using your diaphragm to create core stability and breathe at the same time. Therefore, biomechanical breathing should be reserved for anaerobic exercises requiring a large amount of core stability and tension.
Anatomical breathing on the other hand, matches breath with movement to decrease the amount of work needed for breathing. This approach is commonly used in yoga, pilates, and some martial arts, but can really be used for any type of movement with a high endurance component and lower external loads.
Simply put, any time a movement compresses the rib cage and lungs, you exhale, and naturally let the pressure exerted on your lungs drive the air out. Whenever a movement causes your rib cage and lungs to expand, or when the ribs spring back from being compressed, you inhale. This strategy takes advantage of the passive elasticity and compliance of the rib cage to drive air in and out of the lungs, and decreases the workload on the respiratory muscles.
For example, if you were to do kettlebell swings for high repetitions, you would exhale as you flex your hips and swing the bell between your legs. In this position, you would be compressing your ribs and abdomen with your arms, which naturally forces some of the air out of your lungs. As you swing the bell forward and your arms float to the front of your body, you inhale. Your ribs spring back and expand as you extend your hips, allowing some air to flow into your lungs. Of course, your respiratory muscles still have to work with this strategy, but they are assisted by passive movement of the ribs, and don’t have to fight against external compression.
In this video, I take a relaxed inhale as the kettlebell floats up, then exhale as my arms compress my ribs during hip flexion. As you progress from swings to snatches, there are quite a few different ways to implement anatomical breathing:
In addition to lower intensity exercise, anatomical breathing can be used to facilitate mobility drills, especially those involving the rib cage and thoracic spine. Take for example a side lying windmill movement. By taking in a large breath as you begin the movement, the rib cage expands and drives thoracic rotation as you continue reaching. This can be repeated with each inhale driving more thoracic rotation and shoulder flexion.
In this video, I inhale as I begin the movement, then exhale as I come back to the hands together position. I then take larger and larger breaths as my ribs and thoracic spine open with each repetition.
These breathing strategies can feel foreign at first, but give them a shot during your next training session. If you are lifting heavy weights and require a lot of tension, biomechanical breathing is a good choice. If you need more relaxation and endurance, try out anatomical breathing. It may take a bit of concentration at first, but learning to breathe differently depending on your activity can have a profound impact on your performance.
About Cameron Yuen
Cameron is currently a PT student at New York University, and research assistant at the Human Performance Lab at Lehman College. Before moving to New York, he was a strength and conditioning coach in San Diego, California. Outside of school, Cameron enjoys reading, practicing martial arts, and spending time with his two dogs. More of his writing can be found at his website: www.CameronYuen.com