Here is a Simple Training Drill to Solve Breathing Problems During the Front Squat
You may have noticed that it can be difficult to get a good deep breath in between reps of the front squat. Not everybody has this problem to the same extent, but almost everybody would have noticed that the front squat makes breathing a bit restricted. The position of the elbows, combined with the heavy load on the shoulders, restricts the chest. It is easy to simulate this effect right now as you read this: simply raise your arms up over your head and try to take a deep breath into your upper chest. You should notice that the chest wall is restricted and it is close to impossible to take a full breath this way.
Now, many of you should right now be saying, Eric, dammit, you’re not supposed to breathe into your upper chest. Bingo! This means that those trainees who are upper chest breathers will have more difficulty during the front squat than those who are diaphragmatic breathers. For the purpose of this explanation, we will assume two general groups of trainees:
- Habitual upper chest breathers (you breath this way all the time)
- Stress chest breathers (you breathe this was when your are out of breath, anxious, etc.)
Sure, even if you are an upper chest breather, you can still exercise. But during the front squat, the expansion of the upper chest is restricted even more than usual. So, Each group, to some extent, must be able to take proper diaphragmatic breaths during the front squat in order to get that precious air. This means each group may need to practice diaphragmatic breathing on a fundamental level. Therefore, the first thing to do to begin solving this problem is to read Paradoxical Versus Diaphragmatic Breathing, see where you stand and follow the steps in the article accordingly.
As you read on, remember that you will never be able to take as deep a breath during a front squat as during normal breathing. There will always be some restriction. You do not need to take an extra deep breath to get a proper brace, so don’t worry about that. This is more about being able to breathe at all, and being able to maintain a brace while breathing (yes, it’s possible).
Even some of us who a good diaphragmatic breathers during normal, quiet breathing may switch to upper chest breathing when we are exerting ourselves and are out of breath.
During the front squat itself, beyond the trouble getting a good breath between reps, there are a couple of other associated problems. When you front squat, your core is braced. Now, your core “braces” automatically in response to you loading a heavy bar on your shoulders and trying to maintain equilibrium. Also, you probably would have used an “abdominal brace” which is the conscious act of tightening the core muscles to get ready for a heavy lift, which would serve to reinforce the natural contraction that is already happening intermittently as you hold the bar, because you are about to initiate a rep. What some people may find is that they are unable to maintain this core brace while breathing, which may lead to breath-holding, either consciously or unconsciously. If you are a chest breather you will notice that this actually perturbs you and causes your upper body to actually move posteriorly and anteriorly. just slightly, but enough to cause further perturbation down the chain so that it is harder to maintain your front squat setup.
Also, some who do breathe correctly into through the diaphragm may find that they have a hard time maintaining a brace while using diaphragmatic breathing. In other words, they cannot maintain an abdominal brace without holding their breath. If you have this problem, and you have also been told that you have to suck in a big breath and hold it in order to brace the core, then you’ll have a hard time ever learning to breathe freely during front squats.
All that breath-holding, both during the lift itself and in between when you don’t know you’re doing it, can end up making you dizzy, subject to exertional headaches, or even brief but dangerous blackouts. Now, you know me, I am no fear monger. These things are possible, not likely. One thing is clear, though, if you can’t breathe you are going to be missing an essential ingredient in your lifting, so that’s enough reason to solve this problem. However, if you are subject to dizzy spells or exertional headaches, the ability to take diaphragmatic breaths without feeling like you need to dump the bar can help you a great deal. Many lifters take a series of short panting breaths between reps of a very heavy lift, and although some of them do it for no reason other than to get ready to take an even bigger breath, others due it to “clear the cobwebs” for lack of a better phrase. Breaths like this may help to regulate elevating blood pressure between repetitions of a lift.
The Front Squat Breathing Drill
The first thing to do, as mentioned above, is to learn about proper diaphragmatic breathing and then to learn to do it. Depending on the depth of your problem with chest breathing, this may take a long while or just a couple of days or weeks. There is no point in engaging in a breathing drill that uses diaphragmatic breathing if you have never taken a diaphragmatic breath! You have a more fundamental problem and it is quite important that you fix it, as the article will explain: Fix Your Upper Chest Breathing.
Once you have become somewhat “adept” at correct breathing, you can begin to use the front squat breathing drill. The first part uses a concept invented by Stuart McGill, which he calls developing and “athletic diaphragm.” For this purpose, he tells us to get ourselves good and out of breath, in some way, and then do front planks for time. The front planks force you to brace your core, through co-contraction of the abdominal, back, and glute muscles, and being out of breath forces you to have to breathe while maintaining that core brace. For McGill, the purpose of this was not heavy lifting, but dynamic and multi-directional athletic movements that require core activation while continually breathing. As you can see, certain lifts cause similar needs, as they force us to maintain an activated core while still being able to catch our breath, and the front squat makes breathing more difficult for chest breathers.
So, the front planks are very useful for this, and I use them in this drill, but while they make diaphragmatic breathing more likely to be the breathing pattern used, they do not absolutely force you not to breathe correctly. This makes the front planks a good fit for those who are already habitual diaphragmatic breathers and just need to learn to maintain a core brace while breathing but not as useful for those that are having trouble during the front squat because they are chest breathers. Remember, you should have already learned about diaphragmatic breathing before starting this drill, but I do not expect you to be a master and do it under periods of stress.
For that reason, I have also included supine or ‘glute’ bridges. Bridges actually force you to breathe through the abdomen much better than planks. You will find, although you may have never noticed, that they restrict the chest in a similar way to the front squat. Once you combine that with being short of breath, it is a good trainer and reinforcer for maintaining correct breathing under stress. Still, the bridge does not require the core to be braced as vigorously as the front plank, so we use both. The bridge comes first, to remind us, activate, and reinforce proper breathing, and the front plank comes second to train it more effectively. So the first phase of this drill should last for several weeks, as long as you need it to feel thoroughly masterful of breathing in this way. Here are the steps, although they are so simple, listing them out is probably overkill.
1. Do some kind of vigorous movement to get out of breath. You want to be panting and needing to “catch your breath.” Hint: Larger muscle groups used through a large ROM will work quicker than something like the treadmill. Do bodyweight squats or something like that for very quick repetitions. It is really your choice though, as long as you get the job done.
2. As soon as you are out of breath, get into a supine bridge position, and hold it for 15 to 30 seconds.
3. If you need to, get out of breath again.
4. Do another supine bridge, hold for 15 to 30 seconds.
5. If you need to, get out of breath again.
6. Get into a front plank position. If you are very tired you can do it on your elbows. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds.
7. Repeat. (I shouldn’t have to tell you to get out of breath again if you need to, right.)
Continue phase one for at least three weeks or as long as you feel you need to. Then go to phase two. Phase two will involve Heavy Barbell Walkouts. A walkout is nothing more than loading a heavy bar on your shoulders and “walking out” as if you are about to do squats, but instead you only stand there with the bar for a while, forcing you to maintain position.
1. Set up the squat rack for a front squat and load the bar with your about ten pounds below your current heaviest working weight, or UP TO 10 to 20 lbs beyond it, if you are comfortable supporting it. Remember, you are going to be compromised and having trouble catching your breath, so act accordingly.
2. Get out of breath, just like in phase one.
3. Load the bar onto your shoulders in a front squat position and perform a front squat walkout. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds. You should be forced to catch your breath by breathing through your belly instead of your chest while also needed to maintain enough core brace to keep steady.
4. Put the bar back on the rack (I can’t believe I wrote that out).
5. Rest a little then get out of breath again and repeat steps two and three.
6. Repeat step four.
As you move along, you can load the bar heavier and heavier. Normally you should always be able to do a heavy bar walkout with a heavier weight than you actually squat with but you do not normally do aerobics and get all panty before a walkout, so tread carefully and build up when you feel comfortable with it. Continue practice should make breathing during front squats second nature to you.
Breathing for Overhead Press (Military Press)
The same breathing difficulties are common during the overhead press, if not even more so. More intrathoracic pressure is created during the press. The drill is used in the same way for the press as the beginning position for the press is similar to the front squat.