By Laurence Griffiths, BJJ Black Belt and Host of BJJ Strength Podcast
Did you know that the #1 most important factor of energy production, in our bodies, is oxygen?
So why do we focus so much on hydration and nutrition, but not breathing?
Yet, with the application of good breathing we can; reduce fatigue, improve focus, improve recovery, increase tolerance to C02, improve sleep, to name just a few benefits.
Maybe you’re not aware of the benefits, or maybe you just don’t know how to train to breathe?
What constitutes good breathing?
At its most basic, good breathing is through the nose and pulling from the diaphragm, as opposed to breathing through the mouth and pulling from the chest.
First, let’s look at nose breathing.
When we breathe through the nose, the air we bring into our lungs is warmed, cleaned, moistened and also infused with nitrous oxide.
Nitrous Oxide increases the amount of oxygen the body takes on from the blood and this infusion only occurs during nose breathing.
The other factor with nose breathing is that it acts as a natural restrictor to our breathing, meaning we can’t take in too much oxygen.
But wait! Isn’t more oxygen good?
Yes, oxygen is critical. But so is C02. I learned this after extensively reading the work of, and also interviewing, world-leading breathing expert Patrick McKeown.
C02 is not just a waste product when we breathe. It also plays a critical role in our bodies ability to uptake oxygen from the blood into the tissue, where we need it for energy production.
So, when we breathe in and out too much (which is much easier to fall foul of when breathing through the mouth) we flush out too much C02 and our body is less able to take on the oxygen we need.
Keep this in mind as we walk through the rest of the article, it’s a critical point.
Breathing from the diaphragm VS the chest
Two key reasons we want to breathe from the diaphragm as opposed to pulling from the chest; spinal stability and unwanted tension.
When we pull up from the chest (you can try this out right now!) your rib cage rises up, and the spine overextends.
When the spine overextends we are taking the tension away from the core and pulling our head and spine out their ideal stable position.
As subtle as this may be, the overextension of the spine can make a huge difference in our athletic performance and everyday life.
Try this example:
Lie on your back, put your knees up in the air forming a right angle between the upper leg and torso. Now, keeping your core really tight and while tilting your pelvis up and ribcage down, push down on your knees with your hands.
Now do the same thing while opening your ribcage up, breathing in from the chest. You should feel a huge difference in the tension you can withstand when the ribcage is pulled up. You should feel weaker.
We want to maintain core tension and stability during sports like BJJ, it makes training much more effective.
Second, unwanted tension is caused when we pull from the chest. It tightens up the surrounding musculature of the neck and shoulders makes the neck, shoulders. When unnecessarily tight, they’re using extra energy and also inhibiting our movement.
Unwanted tension during training is something that we want to avoid.
Why is breathing so important for BJJ?
Let’s focus first on the unwanted tension.
When we carry too much tension in the shoulders, neck, and chest, it has a knock-on the psychological effect...it puts us into fight or flight mode.
Now, that can have some advantages and depending on the BJJ situation you’re in (training vs competition), that “alert” state of mind is something that you want a little of. But not too much.
The Inverted-U Model and Stress (Yerkes-Dodson's Law) proposes that an increased level of arousal can improve focus and performance of a task, although only up until a certain point.
After that point, too much arousal inhibits your ability to perform that task, you can’t focus on it anymore. It also proposes that the more complex the task, the lower the arousal needs to be to inhibit the stress.
BJJ is a very complex sport, where there are dozens of steps involved in executing a technique effectively.
I have found that when I focus too much on “winning” versus “following the process” and ignoring the result, my BJJ is so much better when I just “follow the process”.
I’m no longer in a fight or flight mode, I’m just flowing, yes with the objective of winning, but it's not my focus.
I’m more aware of what’s going on around me, I’m more aware of the opportunities that present themselves during a fight and I’m better able to react to them quickly….and do you know what helps take you out of the fight or flight response?
Nose breathing reduces stress, helps us relax and remain more focused. While you don’t want to be “lying down on the beach” relaxed when fighting BJJ, in my opinion, you don’t want too much tension and arousal.
Now, quickly before I share with you some of my favorite techniques for improving breathing, I want to come back to the C02.
Why You're Gassing Out During Training
I have worked with so many people who complain about “gassing out” when they roll and who say they are “unfit”.
Yet, when I measure their resting heart rates, they are borderline in the athlete category in terms of their beats per minute. So, why do they “gas out”?
My theory is twofold.
First, carrying too much tension and what that can mean in terms of movement efficiency. Tension requires energy, energy requires oxygen, the need for oxygen means you feel “gassed out”.
You want to use the minimum amount of tension required to perform the task at hand, anything more is just wasted energy. No need for death grips all the time!
Second, too much breathing through the mouth (I see this with nearly everyone I roll with) means the body is getting rid of too much C02 and is not as effective at taking on the oxygen it needs.
It will be too much to go into the mechanics of this, in this article, so I’d encourage you to listen to the podcast with Patrick McKeown if you want to learn more.
This is key because if we learn to build up a tolerance to C02 when we train, we will lose the urge to gasp for air, our breathing will become more efficient, we won’t dump all the C02 through over-breathing and our body will take on more oxygen into the tissue.
Let’s get into the exercises.
Exercise 1: Just Sit and Breathe
As basic as this sounds, trust me, it’s the best place to start. By practicing this exercise you’re going to get better control of your diaphragm, develop a better awareness of your breathing mechanics and start building a tolerance to C02.
All of this will help you breathe better on the mat and throughout the day.
The beauty of this exercise is that it places almost no load on the body. So, it can (and should) be done daily, several times a day if you wish.
This is very different from building C02 tolerance through high-intensity training. We can only train flat out so many times in a week before it starts to take its toll.
Here’s how to do it:
- Find a quiet, comfortable place where you sit in an upright position and where you won’t be disturbed.
- Sitting either upright or cross-legged, set a timer for 10 minutes and close your eyes and breathe only through the nose.
- Starting from the top of your head, slowly scan your forehead, face, neck, jaw, and shoulders for tension. Don’t try to relax. Instead, just pay attention to how you are feeling, take note of how it feels. Again, don’t try to relax, just take note of how it feels. Repeat this process working down the body until you get to the stomach.
- After a few minutes of scanning the body, place one hand on the chest just above the sternum with a very light amount of pressure. Do the same with the other hand, except place it just above the belly button.
- Notice where you are breathing, by taking note of where you feel the pressure in your hands.
- If you feel no pressure in the hand on your chest, great. If you do, slowly try to breathe from the diaphragm. You should feel no movement in the chest at all. Imagine pulling the diaphragm down towards the pelvis, rather than expanding the stomach out.
- Once you are breathing only from the diaphragm, consciously make your breaths smaller and smaller and smaller. You’re trying to make the movements with the diaphragm so small, that you almost can’t notice them.
- At the same time, you should feel a slight need to breathe. That’s good. It’s the level of C02 building up in your body and this is how we start building up a tolerance to C02.
- If the need to breathe becomes too strong and you feel your diaphragm twitching, that’s normal and OK. Just take a slightly deeper breath, recover slightly and slowly reduce the breathing again.
- The goal is to maintain a slight urge to breathe for the full 10 minutes.
Exercise 2: Walking Breath Holds
This is another great way to reap the same benefits as exercise 1, although by increasing the intensity through the use of breath reduction techniques while walking.
Yet, it still only places a very low load on the body, so should be done every day.
- Set out for a 20-30 minute walk.
- While only breathing through your nose, focus on any tension in your body in the same way you did for the sitting exercise.
- In the same way, slowly reduce the breathing, only breathing from the diaphragm, creating a slight urge to breathe. Do this for ~10 minutes.
- After 10 minutes, breathe normally for 30 to 60 seconds. Then, after a relaxed exhalation, hold your nose. It’s key that you hold your breath after an out-breath.
- Then, while staying relaxed, walk as many steps as you safely can until you feel a very strong urge to breathe. Let go of the nose and resume breathing through the nose (not the mouth) again.
- Breathe normally for 30 to 60 seconds, then repeat the walking breath-hold.
Take note of how many steps you can do without breathing and according to Patrick McKeown, an athlete should build up to 100 steps per breath-hold over time.
**PLEASE NOTE: it is very normal for the diaphragm to twitch and spasm. It’s the bodies natural reaction to the build-up of C02. If you feel dizzy at all, stop immediately and rest.**
Exercise 3: Stability Movement and Breathing
I am a huge fan of using stability balls to develop movement for BJJ.
You can replicate many of the movement patterns we use on the mat, particularly maintaining hip pressure as you move around an opponent.
So, I want you to use a stability ball, although the movement is secondary to breathing in this instance.
For 5 minutes...3 times a week... I want you to take a stability ball and move around it constantly for 5 minutes (example videos below).
For the entire time, focus on breathing through the nose and from the diaphragm, focusing in on the pointers picked up from exercises 1 & 2.
EX: Relaxed face, neck and shoulders and avoid over-breathing.
Then, when you do feel the urge to mouth breathe, slow your movement down and recover your breathing while moving slowly, before building up the intensity again.
This is a great way to replicate movements similar to BJJ and learning how to how nose breathe while rolling.
Over time, you’ll be able to increase the intensity of your movements as you become more efficient in your breathing and build up a tolerance to C02.
A quick note, I’m not recommending that you never mouth breathe when training BJJ.
Sometimes the demands are too great and the only way to get enough oxygen in is through the mouth.
But it should be reserved for very high-intensity moments.
Although for the purpose of these exercises, its all about nose breathing. That’s where you’ll get the benefit.
Comment with any questions and which of the 3 exercises provided the most benefit for your jiu-jitsu training?