In my last column, I argued for a connection between periodization and breathing techniques based on three ideas:

  1. It is probably better to have a not so good program that is properly instructed and perfectly executed than it is to have a “perfect” program that is poorly instructed and poorly executed.
  2. Optimal exercise technique is intimately linked with exercise instruction. An absolute key aspect of exercise technique is an optimal breathing pattern.
  3. If you know how to teach proper breathing, you can choose to teach it to the athletes who need to be taught how to breathe optimally, and you can keep your mouth shut when you work with the athletes who already know how to breathe.

The article went on to discuss the physiology behind so called “French press diaphragmatic breathing” (FPDB) as well as the first two steps of a seven-step progression that is used to build up a young athlete to this style of breathing. In Part 2, you'll learn steps three to seven of how to build up a young athlete to perform FPDB.

Step 3: Practice breathing with two shoes to learn how to control the position of the abdominal wall.

(This exercise has been featured in previous columns, so you might have already seen this video.)

The athlete/client can place his hands on the abdomen and ribcage instead of the shoes. As the strength coach, look for the characteristics of diaphragmatic breathing—no movement of the collarbones and no expansion of the ribcage. The only movement should be an expansion of the abdominal wall.

When you watch the athlete perform diaphragmatic breathing, ask, “Can you lift the shoe more on the inhalation? Can you pull the shoe down further on the exhalation?” Watch the athlete’s response to those questions to learn if he is using his full capacity.

An alternative way to teach the diaphragmatic breathing technique is the “four-point TVA exercise” (1):

  1. The athlete kneels on the floor with four points of support (knees and hands) and his weight equally distributed between these points.
  2. The elbows are slightly bent to create a horizontal torso, and the spine is held in the neutral curves. Use a dowel rod placed on the athlete or client’s back as feedback on the spinal curvatures.
  3. Place yourself next to the athlete and ask permission to place your flat hand on his abdominal wall. Give the instruction to “push my hand toward the ground on the inhalation” and “pull your abdominal wall away from my hand on the exhalation.” Check that the spinal curvatures remain in neutral.

A side benefit of the four-point TVA exercise is that the load through the hands and arms naturally prepares the beginning athlete for push-ups, crawling patterns, and other pushing exercises. Regardless of which of the two exercises you use, 1–2 sets of three minutes is recommended. Once the athlete can perform either exercise for three minutes straight with good form, it is time to move on to step four. Practice this exercise as a part of the main training program or give the exercise to the athlete as “homework.”

Step 4: Practice the four-point TVA with isometric hold to create optimal tone of the abdominal wall (see Section 4) as a part of the main training program or give this exercise to the athlete as "homework."

I wrote in Part I of this series that, "Early on, I made an empirically based decision to make sure that the tone of the abdominal wall is optimal before engaging in exercises that require the abdominal wall to stay flat.”

  1. The four-point TVA with isometric hold is executed similar to the regular four-point TVA with the exception that upon the exhalation, the abdominal wall is held in the drawn in position on the next inhalation-exhalation cycle (should be about eight seconds total).
  2. After an eight-second hold, inhale (four seconds) and exhale (four seconds) again and repeat. Work up to one continuous set of five minutes.
  3. Once one continuous set of five minutes can be performed, it is time to move to step five.

While the exercise in step three develops control of the abdominal wall, the exercise in step four develops optimal tone of the abdominal wall. The “drawn in position” is not what we seek in subsequent exercises. You can consider the “drawn in” position an exaggerated contraction of the muscles that control the abdominal wall. Through this initial practice in the exaggerated position, the abdominal wall tends to stay flat in subsequent exercises without conscious attempts to keep it flat.

Step 5: Trace your own “weight belt” and perform a second exercise with two shoes. (Perform these exercises as part of the main training program.)

Instruct the athlete to maintain good posture in the following exercises with the lats contracted and the shoulders down. Instruct the athlete/client to have the “consciousness of the core muscles (the natural weight belt) as the equilibrium point of their attention” (if the attention goes anywhere else, bring it back to the core).

Perform the exercises below facing a mirror. Check that there isn't any element of clavicle or chest breathing. In other words, make sure that the athlete or client doesn't lift the shoulders or expand his chest. Emphasize to the athlete that "the only muscle that should be moving is the diaphragm inside the thoracic cavity."

Watch the French press diaphragmatic breathing video to see the above sequence:

Have the athlete feel the contraction of the diaphragm and abdominal muscles on you (hand positions 1–4 below) as you inhale diaphragmatically.

  1. Stand and place one hand on the back of the rib cage (palm of hand should be facing away from the body).
  2. Place the back of the hand on the low back. Inhale down into the low back and feel the fascia tighten and the muscles expand.
  3. Dig the thumbs into the waist (the internal obliques and transversus abdominis). Feel that these muscles contract on an inhalation and push the fingers out.
  4. Place three fingers from each hand on the abdominal wall below the belly button. Feel the abdominal wall “thickening” or tighten but stay flat on an inhalation.

Tell the athlete that the muscles and tissue that he has been feeling in the four positions are our natural weight belt.

  1. Have the athlete reproduce the feeling of the contractions in hand positions 1–4 on himself.
  2. Practice the second exercise of breathing with two shoes.

(The instruction for the two exercises of breathing with two shoes starts at one minute and 35 seconds into the video.)

Work up to five sets of five with optimal form (fifteen seconds between reps and one minute between sets) and then proceed to step seven.

Step 6: Have the athlete practice setting up for a lift. Include FPDB but don’t lift yet.

Practice this component as a technique sequence. Typically, the athlete is able to perform the full lift immediately after. Emphasize the following steps:

  1. Begin with the palms of your hands on your low back with the fingertips pointing down. Gradually turn your hands and slide them (touching the skin) along your internal obliques with the fingertips pointing forward. Finish with your fingertips on the area about one inch below the belly button. Repeat two times.
  2. Tap the same area with the palms of your hands. Repeat two times.
  3. Practice FPDB. Repeat two times.

Assume the correct position for the exercise that is about to be executed. This position is, of course, completely specific to the exercise but might include:

  • Secure optimal posture with chest slightly up and chin slightly retracted
  • The crown of the head reaching toward the ceiling and the tailbone reaching toward the floor to create axial extension
  • “Placement of your shoulders in your back pockets” (This maneuver engages the latissimus dorsi muscles who's contraction increases tension on the thora columbar fascia to increase spinal stabilization.)

Practice forced inhalation (the inhalation portion of FPDB) as the last step in the set up (the deadlift is a great exercise to use to practice this skill because the bar is just lying on the floor).

Because the purpose of the inhalation is to increase stabilization and strength, the inhalation must happen before the movement (for very heavy lifts) or the inhalation must initiate the eccentric phase of the lift (for submaximal lifts).

Give the following specific instruction to your athletes: “Place your awareness on the low back area. Feel the force (from the inhalation) coming down from the back of the ribcage filling the low back, instantaneously “wrapping around” to the lower abdominal wall, and increasing the tension below and behind the belly button as you…(place here the specific cue for initiating the eccentric phase of that exercise if the lift begins with the eccentric phase). (There isn't any cue given here if the lift begins with the concentric phase.)

Supplementary instruction: "Place your awareness on the downward movement (refer to hand position A in step 5) of the diaphragm as you inhale and forget about the air moving in through the nose. Make sure that the lower abdominal wall does not expand during the inhalation (refer to hand position D).”

Practicing forced exhalation, the inhalation with FPDB is often performed before or during the eccentric or lowering phase of the exercise. Thus, the exhalation coincides with the concentric phase of the lift. The concentric phase typically has a key movement cue (e.g. “push the floor away” in squats or deadlifts).

Here is an example of the specific instruction given to an athlete or client using the cue of pushing the floor away: “Push the floor away and simultaneously feel the pressure exponentially increase below and behind the belly button. Keep your awareness below and behind the belly button and attempt to exponentially increase the pressure in that area throughout the concentric phase. Notice how the pressure forces the air out with a “tsss" sound” like a pressure cooker."

Supplementary instruction: “Do not make a conscious attempt to exhale. A conscious attempt to exhale tends to shift body awareness to the mouth, a place where the awareness isn't needed. First and foremost, keep the awareness below and behind the belly button and make sure that the abdominal wall still does not expand. Keep the facial muscles relaxed, and focus your attention on the lower abdominal area.”

At the end of the concentric phase, the attention shifts to the low back and the process is repeated.

Step 7: Integrate FPDB into the lifts and exercises during the main training program.

In Part 2, we looked at steps three through seven in the progression to build up a young athlete to optimally integrate FPDB in lifting. It is a very challenging skill to instruct and execute as well as to supervise. About a year ago, a varsity team football player at the University of Toronto told me that the way he learned the Olympic lifts in my classes (he was referring to the demands of focused attention on the body required during FPDB plus other techniques) was the most intense thing he had ever tried. I thought that was an interesting comment. I mean no one is trying to push you over and take your barbell when you're setting up for a snatch!