Originally published on August 12, 2009
I was thinking about proper breathing recently and it struck me that it’s a good example of how the nostalgia for old-time strongman stuff is sometimes just that…nostalgia. So much so people are actually selling material from the early 1900s over the internet.
The strength game, in the past, has been the source of a great deal of miseducation on breathing. More ancient breathing techniques, such as from Yoga, are much more in line with correct breathing patterns than the breathing programs touted by the strongmen of the twentieth century.
If you are wondering how the very ancient can be better, just consider that second-guessing nature is a hallmark of modernity. We tend to think of our bodies as broken and untrustworthy. Not many people will be able to observe the breathing patterns of a baby and realize that, just maybe, the baby “knows” how to breathe better than they do! Many ancient cultures of the East, however, recognized that we spend a lot of our lives “unlearning” things we new NATURALLY. That is things that we were built to do physiologically. This is not to say, of course, that any practice is valid by virtue of being ancient! Many things the “ancient new” were, of course, complete rubbish.
What the old time strongmen were very good at was coming up with creative methods and implements. This was before fancy squat racks and such. Physiological facts, however, were not necessarily their strong suit. They had the wisdom, however, to recognize the importance of breathing, which is more than can be said for many other disciplines. But the road to hell…
I’ll be “politically incorrect” and say that the breathing exercise programs of the old-time strongmen were INCORRECT. Not only were they incorrect but they were built on building BAD breathing patterns that could make you more prone to injury and make it harder for you to oxygenate your blood, not easier.
Big Ribs Equals Big Breathing?
The problem? CHEST breathing. The old-timers were really big on “expanding” the ribcage. Especially those of the late 19th and early 20th century. They wanted to have that very shallow abdominal region and very wide rib cage. You can still find modern articles talking about “breathing squats” and pullovers to expand the rib cage and all of that. And, yes, it is possible…for a youngster whose costal cartilages have not yet ossified. Any of the old-time bodybuilders who achieve a very expanded and flared rib cage would have started working on that in their early teen years. Otherwise, no go. Sometimes pullovers were incorporated in between breathing squat sets to “stretch the ribs” or something to that effect.
But some of the old-time strongmen (who evolved into “bodybuilders”) didn’t just want that because they liked how it looked in a side pose. They wanted to expand the ribcage to give more room for the lungs, a concept that may in itself have merit…
Where did they go wrong? Their focus on breathing into the chest rather than the diaphragm first and their misunderstanding as to how the intercostal muscles function to aid in expanding the area of lung expansion. That is, they contract, like any other muscle. A muscle can only produce movement by contraction. Trying to expand your lungs by widening your rib cage is a lot of work to do for the result of fostering labored breathing rather than easy breathing.
If you were taught to “pull in your stomach and stick out your chest” you were taught to screw with your breathing patterns. Go ahead and do it right now. Pull in your stomach, poke out your chest, and try to take a nice, deep, cleansing breath.
Seriously. Do it. Suck in that gut HARD and take the BIGGEST breath you can.
Sucks doesn’t it? In the end, some of us may even find it a bit painful.
Why is it so hard to breathe that way?
I’ll keep it simple. Think of your ribs as a fairly rigid box that contains your lungs. The lungs themselves have no muscles – they can only expand due to changes in pressure. There is only so much room for them to expand within the confining space of your ribs. However, you can also think of your ribs as doors with hinges. Thus, the door can be opened a bit to make more room.
Below your ribs and lungs is a sheet of muscle called the diaphragm. Below the diaphragm is a compartment. That is your abdominal cavity where you keep your guts. You also keep a lot of space there. During proper breathing, the diaphragm muscle moves down into this cavity thus expanding the space your lungs have to expand into.
Now, if you suck in your gut you push the diaphragm up into the rib cage. This SQUEEZES the lungs cutting down their expansion space. The lungs are forced to expand in a smaller space and against the rigid rib box. The result should be obvious. It’s hard to get enough air. Your lungs cannot fully expand.
So if you widen your rib-cage, say by a maximum of two or three inches (the extreme of what can be accomplished..but not likely) you give your lungs more room to expand but to do that you must learn to push your diaphragm up into your ribcage thus making less room…are you doing the math here? It’s dumb. Your lungs wanted your diaphragm to move down not your ribs to widen. Even if you wanted to widen your rib cage you’d need to do it before around the age of 18.
All that is a simplified layman’s version of it that doesn’t even begin to touch on the difficulties with this type of breathing but it should be enough to make the point.
And yet, this was exactly what some of the old-timers were going for and the ideal “physical specimen” of the time may well have given rise to the sucking in the gut instruction which found it’s way into the military and maybe even your father’s house. I don’t know…I’m not that well versed on the history. But this was the look many of the old-timers cultivated.
Strongman and Bodybuilding
Remember, strongman and bodybuilding were not always separate entities. People trained to enhance physical ability and part of that was to build muscle mass. Eugen Sandow (aka Friederich Wilhelm Mueller) was a strongman who is often credited with “starting” bodybuilding. He would end his strength shows by doing various poses to show off his physique. The credit is probably valid since he actually staged one of the first pure bodybuilding contests. This happened as early as the 1890s. Bodybuilding became more and more popular as an attraction unto itself until in the 1940s was born the “Mr. America” contest. In those days, most of the great bodybuilders were still professional strongmen.
The ideal look for a bodybuilding pose was holding a deep abdominal vacuum and thrusting out the rib cage. This helped the poser “control” his breathing also. Sucking in your gut and expanding your rib cage to create an abdominal vacuum is the EXACT OPPOSITE of proper physiological breathing. The early bodybuilders’ fascination with ribcage expansion was inherited from the strongman days.
You would never see a modern strongman trying to suck in his gut! With the almost superhuman strength endurance needed by today’s strongmen, such action would result in collapse due to oxygen deprivation! It’s ridiculous.
OK, so I exaggerate.
Or DO I?
High Chest Breathing Sucks
High chest breathing is pretty much the worst way to breathe. Have I hammered this point home yet? This is sometimes called clavicular breathing or collarbone breathing and although I’m not sure that all the old-timers believed in this, many of them advocated deliberately pulling in and forcing the diaphragm up. The exact opposite of the way human beings normally breathe.
This simply forces the shoulders and sternum up and the breath is concentrated in the upper part of the lungs which are the smallest (see image below). Another simple way to test the effect of this upper chest breathing is to put your arms in the air and try to take a complete, deep breath. You will notice that your shoulder and sternum must rise excessively and your breathing feels very restricted.
In times of stress or when we are out of breath, we tend to naturally gravitate toward this upper chest breathing pattern. The breaths are shallow and quick and the extra muscular effort combined with less room for expansion means that breathing is in itself a costly (oxygen consuming) process. During normal breathing, on the other hand, breathing is quite automatic requiring a minimum of muscular effort (although many muscles affect breathing).
Listen to the REAL Old-Timers
The much more ancient tradition of Yogic Breathing or Pranayama shows a much greater understanding of natural breathing patterns. Have you noticed that many ancient traditions end up being more correct than “modern” ones? Perhaps, as I hinted before, this is because we are so busy second-guessing nature instead of OBSERVING it.
So here is a great example of how we can learn from other disciplines.
I know what you’re thinking. What about the CHEK style or Australian practice of “engaging the transverse abdominis” by, gulp, holding in the gut? Well, that may “work” for a lift or two. But try doing a strenuous weight circuit or, even better, a barbell complex while holding in your gut. Go ahead, I’ll wait. 10 minutes for the complex and an hour to catch your breath when you’re done…
No, really it’s two different subjects.
Learning to engage and strengthening the transverse abdominis is one thing. Saying that abdominal vacuuming (which is a way to help strengthen it) is the key to proper breathing is quite another!
The stretched rib cage and hollowed abdomen is not so much a part of modern bodybuilding. Bodybuilding has gone to the extreme opposite and much has been made of the distended abdomens that many professionals display. And many think that these huge protruding abdomens are caused by a lack of abdominal vacuum exercises and thus a weak transverse abdominis. It is true that a weak TA can be a contributor to a “poofy” gut in the absence of fat but I doubt very much it’s the sole cause of these unnatural looking midsections.