Two weeks ago I started this post, and people have really seemed to enjoy it. If you missed Part 1 (find it here) I covered some basics about breathing, some concepts related to core stability, and the influence of breathing on movement. In Part 2 (find it here) I talked about how breathing patterns can give a valuable look into the state of nervous system, and also my thoughts on how breathing can effect mobility. Today in the final Part 3 I’m going to talk about how proper breathing can improve cardiovascular abilities during gymnastics routines, share when I use breathing drills during our gymnast’s workouts, and then offer a ton of drills I think are useful.
Also, if this is interesting to you, make sure you download my free e-book, “The Gymnastics Cardio Guide” which breaks down the practical applications, workouts, and exercises I use with gymnasts.
- Outlines the why and how for training cardio in gymnastics
- Explains the basic energy systems, how to train them, and why it's crucial to prepare gymnasts for routines
- Gives sample workouts for summer, fall and in season to use
Here we go,
5. Breathing To Enhance Cardio In Routines
The feeling you get in your lungs when your at the end of a long floor routine, or just before swinging for a dismount can be pretty terrible. Believe me, I’ve been there many times before. It’s even worse when your in pre-season and have just started to train up for full sets. I’ve had more than one moment of standing in the corner for the last pass in a floor routine saying to myself “I think my lungs are catching on fire”. I’m just making jokes, but in all seriousness proper breathing patterns can have a huge impact when it comes to managing fatigue in routines. Watch out we’re going nerd mode for a paragraph.
When someone performs a lot of work, muscular tissue produces C02 as a bi-product and demands more oxygen (O2). C02 produced from cells is converted to carbonic acid so it can be transported through the blood, travel to the lungs, and ultimately be exhaled from the body. The accumulation of Co2 shifts the acidity level and pH of blood, which if not kept in an ideal small window (7.35 – 7.45) can be very problematic. Increased levels of C02 have an impact on chemosensitive receptors to change breathing patterns, in an effort to clear Co2, regulate the acidity, and stabilize pH levels back to the narrow window the body needs for ideal function.
The more bodily activity and work going on, the more C02 produced that needs to be expelled from the body to maintain pH balance. This build up of C02 is one factor that triggers perceived fatigue and the “oh man I’m dying” feeling when going about a strenuous activity like a floor routine. As Leon Chaitow points out “it’s not really oxygen deficiency that we are feeling but the accumulation of Co2, we are exquisitely sensitive to it’s build up in the blood stream”
Who cares right? The practical gymnastics and breathing application here is that during intense times of effort, like a floor or ring routine, the high force/power movements will quickly cause a build up of C02 and metabolite biproduct. The brain and areas like the brainstem receives info about the blood pH levels and acidity, leading to a changes in breathing. The untrained gymnast will let their breathing pattern spiral into whatever happens automatically. This most often than not is a rapid, upper chest dominated, mouth biased breathing pattern with very little exhale time. The last part of that sentence is key, very little exhale time.
As noted above, the ability to exhale and clear the C02 bi-product that is building up in tissues is very important. A huge aspect to breathing training I do with my gymnasts is first be sure they know proper nasal, diaphragm, and rib breathing while maintaining core tension. Then, I make sure that they are aware of using this strategy whenever possible during routines to combat fatigue.
Obviously, I don’t want them thinking about it during complex skills and during times they need to focus on their movement for safety/performance. There is an important safety and priority balance you have to be aware of. I more so teach them to add it in during the resting periods of recovery like basic choreography, basic giants used as spacers, the down time transition between skills, or when holding a static handstand to get ready for a skill like on pbars/rings. With ongoing work inevitably proper breathing will be hard to maintain, but being aware of it can make quite a difference in endurance.
Being able to use proper diaphragm breathing and also maximize exhalation under control at these points in my mind is crucial. I have a personal opinion that this concept of poor breathing and defaulting into chest based /hyper extended lower back postures may have a lot to do with “jarring” of lower backs in blind tumbling like 1 1/2 punches or front bounding. Still just a theory in the works though. The take away of all of this is to make sure breathing is thought about and trained to help maximize endurance and cardio during routines.
Another side note that I haven’t mentioned before on the site is that I think we need to start really diving into proper Energy Systems Development training in gymnastics. There are a ton of fantastic coaches out there who already do this (props to them) but I think there is still a lot of room to grow on education for this topic. There is a boat load of great science and literature on these concepts.
When I was growing up in gymnastics getting ready for routines was a mix between a few wind sprints outside at the end of practice, and then just starting with 1/2 sets to full sets to back to back sets for endurance. Although this does get you ready for being able to do your skills under fatigue, I think there is a huge amount that can be done to bridge the gap and up train the energy systems of a gymnast way before introducing endurance routines. I know personally this is going to be a big area of continuing education in the year to come.
Yes, I do think there are plenty of times when you just need to dig deep and get after it being confident for your last pass. But, it is crucial for a gymnast’s safety that we are properly developing their energy system to handle demanding routines. This is especially true when we talk about doing new dismounts and final passes under extreme fatigue. Remember that central fatigue can greatly affect lower body landing capabilities, which is where I think many traumatic knee/ankle problems come from. This area of physiology isn’t my forte, but I have been trying to learn a lot from the local strength and conditioning coaches on the subject. I plan on doing quite a bit of continuing education in this area and will try to do a pretty progressive 6-8 week energy system cycle of our training next year before we introduce routines.
When Should I Add It During Practice?
You can easily add breathing into all parts of practice without taking up too much time. Here are some times I have found useful,
- Before Workouts as Pre-Warm Ups/Warm Ups
- Help prep nervous system and enhance mobility
- During Mobility Work and Stretching
- Enhance mobility
- During All Conditioning Work
- Dual core/respiration role of diaphragm and optimal gymnastics shaping
- During Energy Systems Training
- Teach fatigue strategies and recovery breathing
- After Workout’s For Recovery
- Promote post workout parasympathetic shift and assist recovery
What Breathing Drills Can I use?
There are about a hundred and your limited by your knowledge and creativity, but here are a handful of the ones I seem to use the most.
Basic Assessments / Drills (Pre-Workout or Post Work Out)
The way to start is by simply watching an athlete breathe laying on their back. I have them put one hand on their belly and one hand on their chest, then breathe in deep. I ask them which hand moved, and most say the top or chest hand. I then say try again but make your belly move, then I put my hands on the side/back of their ribs and say “breath into my hands”. They can also self assess their rib movement by wrapping their hands around their own ribs. A combination of the belly breath cue and the tactile rib cue usually gets them on the right track. From here I have them practice some breath cycles, as well as working full exhalation, and then I have them work it into a core activation strategies.
The full exhale part is good to help them cue into oblique recruitment and understand what it feels like for endurance concepts noted above. You can also elevate their feet to the 90/90 position on mats that helps to better align the hips/spine/diaphragm/ribs. I will have them perform a proper 360 brace , then learn how to take the same types of belly diaphragmatic breaths on top of it (“breath through the shield” as some say). This is the basic idea, then it can be built into a bunch of different avenues like this.
Wall Hip Lift Breathing
There’s a rabbit hole behind the usages of wall hip lift breathing with further movement based variations. For me with gymnasts I use it to integrate the basic breathing pattern into core control, and also teach them how to lift their arms separately from extending their trunk. I see many gymnasts that have “false” shoulder mobility and hinge at their lower back, so I like this drill to teach how to prevent it. I have them put their feet up, work on proper breathing as noted above maintaining a low grade brace, then have them lift their hips and reach overhead, then cycle another breath at end range. I think this is very effective to build core control plus breathing and also teach dissociating the arms overhead. The focus is to not cheating by over extended lower back position like many athletes have issues with.
Curled Up Breathing and Bretzel Breathing for Thoracic Spine Mobility
For the first drill from Sue Falsone they curl up in a ball, hands overhead, and then work on taking deep belly / nasal / rib breathing. Theoretically curling up in a ball prevents motion into extension and the breathing helps to mobilize the ribs and thoracic spine. The second drill is a super common one created by Gray Cook to help thoracic rotation and again breathing helps to mobilize the ribs. Please be very careful with these and make sure you consult a healthcare provider to be sure these are needed, and also there should be absolutely no pain with these. Also, the curled up breathing can sometimes make people freakout if they haven’t used their ribs to breath before so be weary of that.
Bear Crawling and Walk Walk Ups with Breathing
These are just two examples of more dynamic movements I like to have our gymnasts work to further challenge the core/breathing dual role. Slow bear crawling is one of my favorite exercises, and making them do breathing cycles during slow steps can really work control across the body. I use the wall walk up drill so the gymnast can further challenge their anterior core and still maintain breathing. I think learning how to balance handstands with the same proper breathing is very important as thats where a lot of gymnasts need to be comfortable.
Concluding Thoughts and More Resources
These are just a few of my favorites, and like I mentioned ideally this should be thought about with all skill work/training. If you want more info past this on breathing check out Dr. Aaron Swanson’s 2 Part series on breathing here and here, and old post from Dr. E on some breathing tips, a fantastic lecture by Brandon Marcello on breathing, a piece by Chris Barnes called “Breathing To Win“, a great article by Boyle et al called “The Value Of Blowing Up A Balloon” and a great audio lecture by Sue Falsone which talks about the thoracic spine and breathing. So this concludes the 3 part articles series on breathing. I really hope this has brought some light to a crucial concept I feel all of gymnastics should embrace. Coming in the next few weeks there is some really great guest content, and also some posts about our Gymnastics rEvolution Seminars going down this week! Take care,
- Chaitow L. Breathing pattern disorders, motor control, and low back pain. Journal of Osteopathic Medicine, 2004; 7(1): 34-41
- Marchello, B. Breathing: Is It That Impactful To Performance or Just A Bunch of Hot Air? Functional Movement Summit Lecture
- Bordoni B., Zanier E. Anatomic Connections of The Diaphragm: Influence of Respiration on the Body System. Journal of Multidisciplinary Healthcare; 2013 (281 – 292)
- Kolar, P. et al Postural Function of the Diaphragm in Persons With and Without CHRONIC LOW BACK PAIN. JOSPT; April 2012 (352 – 353
- Oscar E. Corrective Exercise Solutions to Common Hip and Shoulder Dysfunction. Lotus Publishing: California; 2012
- Somerset, D. Ruthless Mobility: Cutting Edge Techniques for Improved Performance, Explosive Strength, Resolving Pain, and Preventing Injury. (http://ruthlessmobility.com/)
- Caine D., et al. The Handbook of Sports Medicine In Gymnastics. First Edition. John Wiley and Sons, 2013
- Boyle, et al. The Value in Blowing Up A Balloon. N Am J Sports Phys Ther. 2010 Sep; 5(3): 179–188.
- Cook G. Movement: Functional Movement Systems: Screening, Assessment, and Corrective Strategies. Aptos, CA: On TARGET Publications, 2010.
- Weingroff, C – Lateralizations and Regressions DVD. 2014
- Leibinson, C. The Functional Training Handbook. Wolters Kluwer Health 2014
- Falsone, S. The Thoracic Spine Audio Lecture (http://www.movementlectures.com/MEG03121-35.html)