About a year ago, we talked about optimal arousal. To give you a quick refresher, the article centered on the concept that there is a zone where you will be able to get optimal results. It works like an inverted U.

If you aren’t pumped up enough, then you won’t have the gusto to get the lift. On the other hand, if you are overly psyched, you will lose precision and technique, consequently leading you to miss the lift by doing something stupid. It varies for each person and for each exercise. For instance, during an LTT7 interview, Steve Colescott asked me about how Ed Coan and Kirk Kirkowski approached their lifts. Ed Coan has a very calm and focused approach—almost monk-like. Kirkowski, on the other hand, is famous for being psyched up and seeming like an enraged, on the brink of losing control bull. However, during their time, both athletes were at the top of their game, and they reached reputations of near mythic proportions. It seems that these two athletes found exactly their zone and means of optimal arousal. So who can argue with their results?

Yet, since we have already talked about what this zone is and where it is, it is now time that we talk about how to get there. One of the major ways to get to that zone is with breath control. Breath control has long been a goal of those who participate in yoga and practice meditation. By focusing on their breathing, they allow themselves to come into a more relaxed state by engaging their parasympathetic nervous system.

As an aside, we need to talk about the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is basically a sort of autopilot for your body to keep you alive and healthy. To break it down further, there is the sympathetic and the parasympathetic branches of the ANS. The sympathetic branch is where the "fight or flight" response is given. It is the get-up-and-go branch of the ANS. The sympathetic branch is responsible for the Four F’s—fight, flight, fear and fornication. This is the branch that you tap into to get psyched up. It is where the adrenaline rush is derived. On the other hand, the parasympathetic branch of the ANS is responsible for rest, repair, and recovery. The parasympathetic branch is what ensures that you stay healthy and are ready for the next time the Four F’s are needed.

bmann breath control graph 042214

Another brief aside...On meet day, lifters want to feel invincible—ready to run through walls. Realize that the sympathetic branch is like nitrous oxide in a race car. It is something that is fast and can only be used in short bursts. If you run nitrous for too long, you risk burning out the engine. You only need nitrous during the race, not during the idle. Therefore, you want to be nice and relaxed between events and between attempts so that you will be ready and recovered when the attempt comes up. Always remember: only need to turn on the nitrous when it’s needed. 

Now back to the point of the article—breathing and nervous system control. At one point in my career, I thought this was all a bunch of bunk. How can breathing be linked to the nervous system? I thought that each thing was separate, but the body is truly an integrated system. In his book “Why Zebra’s don’t get Ulcers,” Robert Sapulski discussed the role of breathing and autonomic nerve function. He stated that the vagus nerve which is in charge of autonomic function also regulates breathing (and many other things). Therefore, I soon went from thinking that it was a bunch of bunk to understanding how it’s interrelated. It wasn’t just new age B-S, it was legit. Think for a second about your computer...There’s hard drive, RAM, processors, video cards, and a bunch of other things in there. When we’re looking to buy a computer, we look at each individual component in order to find the one that serves us best. After we have been using it for some time and one thing goes wrong or bad, say the fan goes out, the whole thing begins to shut down (or at least it doesn't function as well). Everything is inter-related. The nerve that regulates the autonomic (fight or flight) response also regulates breathing. So, while the parasympathetic and sympathetic states from the autonomic nervous system are on autopilot, breathing can in fact encourage or affect what state the meter tips toward.

When breathing through the nose, the meter tips toward the parasympathetic state. When breathing through the mouth, the sympathetic state is engaged. However, the speed and depth of the breath has an impact as well. Long, deep breaths will engage the parasympathetic state, while rapid, short, shallow breaths with engage the sympathetic state. Therefore, to get the greatest parasympathetic engagement, one must breathe with long slow deep breaths through the nose, and to get the greatest sympathetic response, one must breathe with short, shallow breaths through the mouth.

So, how does this help in powerlifting? Well, you already know what it feels like to be in your zone of optimal arousal, and you know whether you are too high or too low on your psyched up scale. This gives you a tool to get you back where you need to be.

steve goggins breath control bryan mann meet powerlifting 080714

If you are too low, work with the short, shallow breaths to enact the sympathetic nervous system to help bring you up. Think of seeing someone who is hyperventilating...No one has ever done that when they’re nice and calm. Recreating that will ramp you up.

If you are overly excited (maybe from stimulants or the sounds of the crowd), take long, deep breaths through your nose. Think about breathing during yoga or meditation. It’s exactly like that. Focus on your breath and shut out all of the external factors, whatever they may be. Maybe it’s someone talking trash, the crowd is huge, or this is an all-time PR. If you’re overly amped, bring it back down.

Now, how does this look and how is it done? Personally, when I was about five lifters out, I would notice where I was on my arousal and start using my breathing to get me there. If I was overly amped up or if took too many stimulants, I sat back and focused all of my attention on deep breathing. I would pay attention to how it felt coming in through my nose, going down my wind pipe, and filling my longs. On the exhalation, I would feel my diaphragm come up and the rush of air back through my wind pipe and over my tongue, teeth, and lips. By do this, I was able to bring myself back down to where I needed to be. The only thing I would allow myself to hear or be affected by was my handler. And even then, it was off in the distance...my focus was on my breath. My handler would get done what needed to get done. All I needed to do was get myself where I needed to be to lift. Thankfully, at most of my meets I was fortunate to have a fantastic handler in Keith Caton, who is now a strength and conditioning coach at Baylor. He knew me and I knew him, and we knew what the other needed during the competition.

However, sometimes I just didn’t have it. For whatever reason, I was down. Maybe I had missed a lift, or maybe I was beat to hell from training and work. Yet, whatever the reason, it didn’t matter. It was go time. It was meet day and I had to show up. These days, I may do fewer overall attempts, but in those attempts, I’d make sure to give it my all. If I was down, I’d listen to music that would get me fired up (for me Marilyn Manson's “The Beautiful People” always did the trick), and I’d have my partners try to get me fired up. I’d also use ammonia and jump around, and as I approached the bar, I would take rapid, shallow breaths. I wouldn’t pull the bar out until I felt that I was in the zone (or at least the best I could be for that day).

On some days, the stars, planets, and moon seemed to align just right, and I was on. I didn’t need to do anything. I just needed to ride the wave. I was feeling what Mihali Chikzentmihali had referred to as "flow" in his book of the same name, but flow can be an article of its own, so we won’t discuss that here.

You know what it feels like to be in the zone. Do what you need to do to get yourself there. It does not have to be a zone that happens from chance or happenstance. You can control your arousal state. With practicing breath control, you can help get into that zone every time. It takes time and effort to do to this, but if you do, you get a strong(er) mind.