We’ve all been there.
Hunched over, looking down at your barbell, wanting to complete that next rep, while at the same time wishing you could breathe.
For those of you who have been around CrossFit or any kind of sport for some time know that this is the fundamental skill that separates novice athletes from elite athletes: the ability to continue to work and still breathe. Sounds so simple right? Work and breathe.
So let’s take a moment to talk about CrossFit specifically, and why this simple concept of work and breath is so important to being successful in the sport of fitness. There are a few contributing factors that can limit a person from becoming more advanced in CrossFit, and we will look at three specifically.
The first is raw strength. Sometimes athletes just have to get stronger and become more comfortable moving a barbell. From a coaches perspective, we always stress the importance of a well designed strength program, patience on the part of the athlete, and a good amount of extra food. At some point, the reality has to set in that more does not necessarily equal better. Despite your best efforts, you won’t get stronger by working out four hours a day and completing three WODs and going to class. It doesn’t work that way. It's actually more likely that you'll get injured before you see any significant improvement and then all of that extra time, extra work, extra food has gone to waste. We need to train smarter, not harder, to get stronger.
The second possible limiting factor is gymnastic proficiency. Athletes need time to develop the ability to control their body in space when it comes to highly skilled movements. This means that they have to commit to basic drills that will lead them to being able to perform more advanced movements. Unfortunately, chest to bar pull ups don’t come in a box, and you can’t buy your first muscle up.
The third possible limiting factor is aerobic capacity. Generally, this be will labeled as one’s ability to continue to work for prolonged periods of time (we will discuss in a later post the oversight in labeling it simply as one’s ability to work for long periods of time, but for now we will roll with it). Athletes who are new to CrossFit need time to develop and understand how and when to push in a workout. Almost all of us got our stripes in CrossFit by coming out the gates hot at some point, only to find ourselves either short of our intended goal, or helplessly out of breath on the floor.
So when looking at performance as it relates to these three areas together, we have to ask what do these three have in common with one another as it relates to breath work. The simple answer is that proficiency in all three will increase and advance exponentially if they are able to breathe while working. As coaches, we want to shift the conversation from how much work can you complete in the beginning, to how well can you breathe in the position you want to work in.
Ask yourself this: can you actually breathe when you are completing a high number of push press repetitions, or are you holding your breath until you drop the bar? Are you actually breathing while you are completing toes to bar, or are you so focused on getting through your reps, that you forgot about breathing all together? Do you focus on the right time to inhale and exhale while rowing, or are you just trying to pull the chain as hard as you can so you get done faster?
I can only speak from personal experience, but it was a harsh reality for me when I began think about movement in this way. I tend to be someone who relies on on my strength and athleticism when it comes to CrossFit. I would hit a workout as hard as possible, kneel on the floor until I caught my breath, stand up and repeat the process. It was only until recently that I began to think about how my breath was limited because of my position.
Let’s take everyones favorite movement and look at it objectively: the thruster. If my thoracic spine is so tight that I roll my shoulders in when I am in the front rack, I will almost certainly fold over my diaphragm in the bottom of the squat, in effect rendering it useless for the remainder of the set. I will then be forced to only breath into my chest, limiting the amount of oxygen that I can inhale and slowly increasing the carbon dioxide in my lungs and bloodstream. This results in an elevated heart rate and gasping for air. The only solution is to drop the barbell, step away, and catch my breath. Sounds familiar right? But what if you could continue to breath throughout all 21 reps of your thrusters? You would be able to walk away with a mildly elevated heart rate, still focused and ready to push on.
The moral of the story is this: the next time you find yourself getting ready to workout, ask yourself the simple question “Can I breathe? Can I breathe in this movement or that?” If you find that you cannot, take time to begin improving that. Position is everything and it should always be our first priority.
We will continue to discuss breathing and breath work on Tuesday’s blog up until the Open. Just before we reach the Open, we are excited to announce that we will be hosting Brian Mackenzie and Rob Wilson’s Art of Breath seminar in February. Stay tuned for dates, times and registration information!