To Breathe or Not to Breathe: There are Usually Questions

Breathing during exercise for most trainees rarely gets more specific than inhale on the negative portion of the lift and exhale on the positive portion of the lift. While this is generally true, it is just too general. In the case of KB training, it just won’t do.  In fact, addressing breathing is often the missing piece for many movement coaches. Read on to learn what to do…

Kettlebell training is grouped into two basic movement types known as Ballistics and Grinds.  Ballistic kettlebell training revolves around swinging the weights (ballistics) as well as lifting the bells in a traditional manner (grinds). Ballistic movements are “fast and loose” while grinds are tension filled and slow.














Goblet Squat

Front Squats


Turkish Get Ups

There are differences in the breathing for these very different types of movements. Breathing mechanics must mirror the speed of the movement. Be mindful of your breathing at all times. If your breathing breaks down (i.e. you hold your breath or fail to sequence your breathing with movement) so will your bracing and form. Breathing during a ballistic movement is characterized by:

  • SNATCH ARC_cropQuick and rhythmic breaths
  • In through the nose and out through the mouth
  • A rapid and powerful exhale synched with a maximal muscular contraction
  • A rapid inhale during the negative portion of the movement


Breathing during a grinding movement is characterized by:

  • maxresdefaultDeliberate, drawn out, and even held breaths
  • In through the nose and out through the mouth
  • A forceful, but slow exhale through pursed lips through the entirety of the positive portion of the movement
  • A forceful, but slow inhale throughout the entirety of the negative portion of the movement

Breathing Basics

Addressing breathing with your clients, especially those new to intense anaerobic training, is an absolute must.  If a client does not have good “breathing habits” they will not be successful in performing most exercises requiring good posture or intense bursts of “work”. Obvious examples include doing a high volume of swings, cleans, or snatches. Breathing issues must be assessed and addressed to set clients up for success and more importantly prevent injury. Imagine attempting to perform a very high level, exhausting task repeatedly (and for a prolonged period of time) with a plastic bag on your head. Think about doing sprints to exhaustion and then performing a full ROM Pistol Squat with good form. How successful would most of us be? This analogy isn’t too far off from some client’s early experience with kettlebells when training on their own or with SOME fitness professionals. I am talking about the professional who either isn’t well versed in kettlebell instruction/coaching or who intentionally pushes their clients way beyond their breaking point. It’s your job to make sure this doesn’t occur! Poor breathing and high-intensity kettlebell training are a recipe for disaster. The real issue with this concept as it relates to kettlebell training (especially the swing, clean,and snatch) is that you literally are rapidly and forcefully swinging a cannonball with a handle. It’s very important one thinks straight when performing such a task. If you aren’t supplying the brain with enough Oxygen you won’t think straight, so maintaining quality form will be all but impossible. This section is dedicated to the basics of breathing anatomy, physiology, and strategies to “fix” chest breathers.

Respiration Basics

Breathing consists of two phases,inspiration and expiration. During inspiration the diaphragm and the external intercostal muscles contract. The diaphragm moves downward increasing the volume of the “chest”, and the external intercostal muscles pull the ribs up and outward. This expands the ribcage, further increasing “chest” volume. This increase of volume lowers the air pressure in the lungs as compared to atmospheric pressure. Since air flows from a region of high pressure to lower, it travels in through the body’s conducting airway (nostrils, throat, larynx and trachea) and into the alveoli of the lungs. Here oxygen binds to hemoglobin on red blood cells. During a resting expiration the diaphragm and external intercostal muscles relax, restoring the thoracic cavity to its original (smaller) volume, and forcing air out of the lungs into the atmosphere.

How Your Body Controls Breathing:

Introducing Behavioral Control

Breathing is unique compared to other visceral (e.g. digestion) functions in that itcan also be regulated voluntarily. Speaking, singing and playing some instruments (i.e. saxophone, trumpet, etc.) are good examples of the behavioral control of breathing and are short-lived interventions (Guz, 1997). The behavioral control of breathing encompasses accommodating changes in breathing such as those changes from stress and emotional stimuli. The differentiation between voluntary and automatic (metabolic) breathing is that automatic breathing requires no attention to maintain, whereas voluntary breathing involves a given amount of focus (Gallego, Nsegbe,& Durand, 2001).

Activating the Diaphragm

1113_The_DiaphragmThe everyday experiences of breathing for most untrained individuals is much more inconsistent than one would assume. Practices in yoga often first teach individuals to observe their own breathing to ultimately familiarize the student with the sensations of respiration. Thus, one meaningful aspect in learning breathing techniques is the awareness in the difference in smooth, even breathing to erratic breathing. Modifications in respiratory patterns come naturally to some individuals after one lesson, however, it may take up to six months to replace bad habits, and ultimately change the way one breathes (Sovik, 2000).

UnknownAlthough the diaphragm is one of the primary organs responsible for respiration,it is believed by many practitioners to be under functioning in many people (Sovik, 2000). As a result, there is often emphasis placed upon diaphragmatic breathing, rather than the use of the overactive chest muscles (i.e. Pectoralis Minor). The diaphragm sits beneath the lungs and is above the organs of the abdomen. It is attached at the base of the ribs, the spine, and the sternum. As described earlier, when the diaphragm contracts the middle fibers (which are formed in a dome shape) descend into the abdomen causing thoracic volume to increase (and pressure to fall) drawing air into the lungs. The practice of proper breathing techniques is aimed at eliminating misused accessory muscles, with more emphasis on diaphragmatic breathing.

The Importance of Diaphragmatic Breathing

DSC_0112With diaphragmatic breathing, the initial focus of attention is on the expansion of the abdomen, sometimes referred to as abdominal or belly breathing. Have a client place one hand on the abdomen above the navel to feel it being pushed outward during inhalations. Next, the breathing focus includes the expansion of the rib cage during the inhalation. To help a student learn this, try placing the edge of the hands alongside the rib cage (at the level of the sternum); correct diaphragmatic breathing will elicit a noticeable lateral expansion of the rib cage. Diaphragmatic breathing should be practiced in the supine, prone and erect positions. We have already established that kettlebell training is typically a high intensity endeavor that significantly challenges the cardiorespiratory system due to its high oxygen demand. Therefore, it is logical that when doing such training it is critical to take in the most oxygen possible to sustain the activity. This is only achieved when consistently performing diaphragmatic breathing throughout the training session. Consistently performing Diaphragmatic Breathing will likely take practice and good coaching.

The takehome point from all this is that breathing especially during exercise is often compromised in the majority of the population. You need to take a few steps as a movement coach to ensure safety.

  1. Learn to identify and correct dysfunction breathing patterns.
    1. FYI: Fit EDU offers an 8-hour Breathing and Postural Control Seminar on this topic
  2. Teach how to breather in grinds and ballistic exercises
  3. Incorporate those techniques into your session and make it a focus

For more information about breathing, Fit EDU, or any of our 8+ seminar read some of our other blog posts on this topic or us at

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