Prebreathing – 1



What Makes Johnny Hold His Breath?

If you walk into any gym in the world, you’ll see the same sweaty scene: young Johnny, struggling to lift a heavy bar or set of dumbbells, red-faced, veins popping, holding his breath. Along comes an experienced trainer and instructs him to exhale on the exertion. This way, he won’t break blood vessels or otherwise hurt himself by excessive straining. So goes the conventional wisdom.


It’s good advice. But it doesn’t go far enough. Taken at face value, it implies that the young lifter can hold his breath at the “bottom” of his exercise. If he’s lying on his back doing a bench-press, for example, he will inhale as he lowers the bar to his chest, hold his breath as he works to get it moving upward, and exhale explosively as he pushes the bar away from him. This is surely better than holding his breath the entire time, but still dangerous in the aneurysm department and an inefficient use of Johnny’s potential power. If he wants to develop maximum power and optimal health, he should never hold his breath while training. Instead, by coordinating his breathing and movement in a fluid, non-stop pattern, he can teach himself to raise his level of performance in everything he does with his body.


Johnny doesn’t realize it, but while building his muscles he is also developing his ch’i. The subject is vast and an attempt to satisfactorily define ch’i is beyond the scope of this article. For our purposes here, ch’i can be described as intrinsic or internal energy that manifests as health, vitality, and physical as well as mental power.


If Johnny focused on cultivating his ch’i while he’s also building strength, he could develop far greater power in and out of the gym with considerably less effort. He would also teach his body to move with an integrity and fluidity that will surprise him. As his interest in raw strength diminishes with maturity, ch’i can be something he cultivates throughout his lifetime.


Muscular effort usually gets in the way of ch’i development in martial arts like t’ai chi ch’uan, but muscles and ch’i are not mutually exclusive. If they were, the most powerful practitioners would be the weakest muscularly. There is no evidence of that. All t’ai chi practitioners must develop tremendous strength in their legs as well as control, for example, if only to have a sound foundation or root. It is the misuse of muscular strength and the insensitivity to subtle energies that often accompany raw strength that divert us from the qi development path. Johnny can have both strong muscles and powerful ch’i. This article describes the use of breathing as a part of qi development, movement mechanics, and the cultivation of internal states specifically related to the practice of t’ai chi ch’uan, but the principles described here can be applied to any physical activity with solid results.


Before addressing how this can be accomplished, let’s look at why Johnny holds his breath in the first place. The most direct way to understand this mechanism, one that we share with Johnny, is to try a simple experiment. Before you read into the next paragraph, just stand up and sit back down. Maybe stand up and sit down twice. Pay attention to what you do, particularly to your breathing.


Compression: The Pneumatic Backstop

Did you, at any time in the movement, hold your breath? Why? I’ve asked dozens of people to try this experiment and find that 90% of them hold their breath. But what benefit do they gain from it? Why do people also hold their breath when opening up a tightly capped jar of peanut butter? Or lifting a heavy object? Or getting out of bed?


Consider the idea that we hold our breath at moments like these to create a brace, a pneumatic backstop for the torso. By holding our breath and tensing our muscles we change a loose torso into a single, solid unit against which we can push. Whether opening the jar, lifting the heavy object or standing up, the backstop provides a base.


The pneumatic backstop works on compression. Compressed air in our lungs presses against the abdomen and internal organs, and our tensed torso presses against the spine. When getting up, the tensed-torso unit acts like an automobile air bag, helping it to hold its natural position against the powerful forward pull acting on our lower or lumbar spine. We contract and compress while holding the breath, then exhale once we no longer need the support. And Voila! We are standing. It’s not elegant, but good enough for average humans who are still learning to stand erect.


By studying this primitive instinct to inhale, hold, and exhale for leveraged force against the spine we can learn how pneumatic/muscular compression works in our bodies and how it effects us. We will also find that we can improve our health and performance in everything we do by not using it when we don’t need it. My own study of compression during the past 17 years, which is incorporated into my much longer practice of t’ai chi ch’uan, has been pivotal in my personal wellness, overall fitness, and the satisfaction I derive from this marvelous art.


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