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by Evan Yoak

It recently has come to my attention that many folks are breathing incorrectly in their lifting. I was going to write about something else this week, but I consider this topic very important because I like to avoid spinal injuries, and also because I like lifting more weight (plus it relates to the other topic anyway). So read on if you like those things too.

I could write a lot on this topic, but I won’t because it’s important, so I want people to actually read about it, and because it’s simple. Trainers who think balance boards are better than barbells will tell you to suck your abs in; people who actually lift heavy weights will invariably tell you to push your abs out. Yes, you look more shredded with your abs sucked in – who cares. If you expand your abdomen, however, you get better intra-abdominal pressure, meaning that you have a more “locked out” space surrounding your spine. In other words, you get better tension in your body and a more stable spine: more tension means more weight lifted, and a more stable spine means less back injuries. So the breathing process looks like this for, say, a Front Squat:

  1. Breathe in deeply. Your chest should NOT rise because you shouldn’t be breathing into your upper lungs – breathe deeply into the diaphragm in your midsection.
  2. Expand your abs, whilst tightening the abs, the glutes, and the upper back
  3. Hold your breath during the lift. If doesn’t take long to complete, you can do 2 (or sometimes 3) reps with one breath; if it’s a long rep, you can hiss, grunt, growl, scream, etc., while you rise out of the hole, as this, (a) prevents you from passing out, and (b) gives you extra tension for a brief second to break through a sticking point in the squat. At no point release all your air, as you’ll instantly get loose.
  4. Repeat at the top of every rep if they’re heavy reps, or every other rep if they’re lighter reps, as per (3)

And that’s it. By the way, when you use a belt, it’s meant to facilitate this process. It’s NOT meant to physically hold your back in place; rather, you should tighten the belt somewhat less than totally so you can breathe out against it, which, again, lets you generate more tension. It’s a physical reminder to breathe out and get tight, and if you do it right, you will indeed feel more solid (and not because some crappy plastic is strapped to your torso).

A final point. Sometimes doctors who know nothing about training or lifting weights will tell you that you’ll have a brain aneurysm if you hold your breath (which I suppose is where that whole ridiculous exaggerated-overexhalation-on-every-rep in Globo Gym comes from). So I was going to be all diligent and research this on Pubmed, but I actually think one quote suffices to sum up the problem: ” Aneurysmal subarachnoid hemorrhage associated with weight training: three case reports.” I laughed so hard when I read that the dog got excited and thought we were going to play. Three cases?? I mean, I might get struck by lightning too, but I’m still going to keep going outside. And this is the point: I’ve seen many many people lose their backs training, and some of those got injured; I’ve never see anyone have a stroke or a cerebral hemorrhage. And I’ll reiterate, if it’s a longish rep, you do forcefully exhale via your hiss or grunt or caveman growl, which keeps you from keeling over in a pool of your own cerebral fluid just in case and lets you stand up that new PR.

On the other hand, I suspect a lot of people don’t expand their abdomens because they don’t know how – it’s not actually easy/trivial to do if you’re not aware of your breathing. So we’ll add that into the homework this week:

Tarea #4:

  1. Breath Drill (courtesy of Ani Whizz) – lying face up, put a bowl or a small change plate (2.5 or 5#) on your abdomen. Breathe in deeply whilst tightening your entire body and expanding your diaphragm, which will make the bowl/plate rise. If the implement doesn’t rise and/or your chest rises, you’re doing it wrong – keep practicing. 1 set of 10 reps, 3x week (preferably before lifting)
  2. Breathe Out When Lifting – i.e., in your Front Squats, Deadlifts, Olympic weightlifting movements, presses, etc. actually put into practice what you worked on in (1) and breathe with an outwardly expanded abdomen. Think about it before each set so it becomes habit.
  3. Quadriceps Roll with Barbell – 2 min./quad, 3x/week
  4. 3 x 1:15 Superman Hold, alternated with 3 x 20 Glute Bridges (hold the superman for a minute and fifteen, perform 20 controlled glute bridges during the rest, and repeat twice more)
  5. No sitting on couches or chairs while watching TV, with minimum *10* minutes of squatting. You can lay, you can mobilize, you can sit Indian style or in lotus (with a neutral spine!), you can and should try all sorts of different positions, but you must squat for at least 10 minutes total. Should be a relaxed squat, the back can round here in the squat since it’s not under load and will decompress in that position. 7x/week (i.e., any time you watch TV or movies or whatever).

Lots of squatting and lunges this weekend, so get those quads loose for efficient moving with the rolling and the squatting. Keep getting your back and posterior chain strong as well. And breathe for performance. Merry WODding!


by Evan Yoak

Happy Wednesday everyone! Time for this week’s homework. I’ll try to blab a bit less this time around. (In retrospect this was only sort of successful).

Nonetheless, I want to extend last week’s conversation a bit so people have a better understanding of why they’re mobilizing and when it works (or doesn’t). In Tarea #2, I lambasted lazy stretching, “stretching to stretch” without creating a notable change in flexibility. I should point out that this isn’t totally accurate: there are really two classes of stretching, one for improved mobility, the other for relaxation. If you’re stretching to cool down, relax a bit, feel better, etc., go for it – as long as you’re aware of what you’re doing and the inherent limitations of what you’re doing. For example, sometimes I’ll perform some yoga poses/transitions, or do the splits, because it helps to reset everything a bit and relaxes me. What I don’t do is perform those stretches and expect my overhead squat to drop a few inches in depth.

And if you think about it, this idea makes sense. People often complain when they’re rolling their calves or doing a nasty couch stretch, “I thought stretching was supposed to be relaxing!” Well, it is, if the goal is to relax. But if the goal is to increase range of motion, it’s not going to feel good. It’s like the difference between a spa massage and a sports massage: you listen to chimes and Zen music at the spa and chill out, whereas you try not to cry while the masseuse get your tissues back in their proper places when you get a sports massage1. What I don’t like about stretching of the relaxing type is that people expect some sort of mobility improvement, which is deceptive. I don’t like deception. Stop tricking yourself. If you want to get better at CrossFit or sport in general, mobilize with intent.

With that distinction out of that way, let’s quickly talk about how to determine if you accomplished your intent or not. Kelly Starrett introduced the idea of “test and re-test,” which is simply trying out (testing) the movement you wish to improve, mobilizing, and then trying the movement again (re-testing) after mobilizing to see if you effected a meaningful improvement. People like to talk about Science these days, as if using Science means your argument is incontrovertible; these of course are the same people who can’t distinguish between causation and correlation and why that distinction nullifies a lot of “scientific” studies, but I digress. However, if you really want to be scientific, you can simply use scientific method sorts of processes in your life, such as your mobility, to get better results. For example, you set your hypothesis as, “The couch stretch will improve the range of motion and subjective ease of my squat.” You isolate the variable couch stretch by performing some air squats without having done the couch stretch, and then you do the stretch. Finally you repeat the squats and note the difference; either filming yourself or having someone check you doing the before and after squats is helpful if you yourself can’t feel the difference (though I think subjective ease or comfort of the movement is an important indicator of difference as well). That sequence is far better and more useful science than some silly correlative study funded by biased parties or whatever. If you haven’t noticed, one of the themes of these recent homework blogs has been that of taking responsibility for your body/life; instead of reading some sensational online article about “the 7 most important exercises to do!” or about “new study says to never eat salt!” or whatever, I hope people will take away from reading these blogs that they have to think critically and take personal responsibility for what they do in the gym, what postures they adopt throughout the day, what they put into their bodies. And of course, you don’t have to do all the work yourself: you have a fine team of coaches at PTY to guide you through the silly bullshit and maximize your results. So before someone says about your couch stretch experiment, “That’s not scientific! Your population is only one!” I would say, “Who cares?” The whole point is to figure out if couch stretch works for you or not. Therefore, if your squat improves after couch stretching, do it before and after squatting; if it doesn’t improve your squat, either you did the stretch wrong (likely), or it doesn’t improve your squat. In the case of something like couch stretch, that’s fairly easy to do wrong if you’re not careful (as we discussed last week) and nearly guaranteed to help your squat, I would definitely ask one of those coaches to check you out to make sure you’re getting the maximum benefit from the stretch and not cheating.

On that note, this week we’re going to employ some testing and re-testing to see if the mobility work is truly helping or not.

Tarea #3

  1. Roll anterior shoulder/biceps with partner, 2 min./side; test and re-test with 3-5 good pushups. 3x/week
  2. Partner froggy stretch, 2 min.; test and re-test with 5 air squats. 3x/week
  3. 3 rds. of 1 min. Superman hold, resting at most 1 min. between sets (Extra Credit: perform a 30 second Hollow Hold during your rest period). 3x/week
  4. No sitting on couches or chairs while watching TV, with minimum *8* minutes of squatting. You can lay, you can mobilize, you can sit Indian style or in lotus (with a neutral spine!), you can and should try all sorts of different positions, but you must squat for at least 5 minutes total. Should be a relaxed squat, the back can round here in the squat since it’s not under load and will decompress in that position. 7x/week (i.e., any time you watch TV or movies or whatever).

For the rolling, use a barbell to roll out your partner’s front should and more important biceps; partner should rotate the hand to various angles after forty-five seconds or a minute; communicate so it isn’t a massacre (see footnote).. Partner froggy stretch is with one person laying faceup with the legs up in the air and knees bent (like a squat); knees and feet should be aligned! (i.e., don’t let feet drift in towards center). Other partner should put pressure on the thigh just above the knee, pushing hard down and slightly up.

Superman is here because I’m seeing a lot of weak backs. As in, people couldn’t hold a superman for a minute (which I consider a low number), and I saw a lot of back rounding on the Back Squats at the Co-ed Comp. Yeah, not Deadlifts, Back Squats. That ain’t good. So while CrossFit is clearly an anterior-dominant sport, you must still have some kind of posterior chain strength if you want to succeed, get stronger, protect your joints, etc. (thus all the Reverse Lunges and Glute Bridges). Finally, same no-sitting policy as last week, only this week try to accumulate 8 minutes in a squat.

There you have it. Let us know how it goes, and if you manage to improve your squats and pushups. Happy WODding!

1 – A word of caution: far too many masseuses are far too aggressive. I think they look at massage as some sort of battle, in which they lose if they let the tight tissues survive. Look, you can’t just massage harder and longer to make that work; as discussed last week, it takes time, and the body responds with the opposite effect if it it hurts too much. So if you’re masseuse is giving you bruises, get a new masseuse. Just remember, it should hurt about a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10.