Monday, February 13, 2017

Steve Maxwell - Integrated Breathing 11 Feb 2017

The Usual Suspects

The seminar was held at Higher Jiu Jitsu, at Woolloomooloo PCYC in Sydney.

The major problem most people have with breathing is that they tend to breathe using the top (clavicular) and middle (intercostal) chest muscles for the breath rather than breathing deep into the diaphragm.

This comes about from sitting for extended durations and staying still - like in a school classroom or at a desk job.

The muscles associated with breathing in the upper chest are designed for emergencies only - their overuse results in chronic stress, premature ageing, raised blood pressure, production of cortisol and under-oxygenation. Like a constant state of panic This results in poor health ... but also in poor performance and rapid gassing on the mat.

Proper breathing uses the diaphragm. The upper and middle chest should not move. On inhalation the belly should expand, but also the sides and back of the lower rib cage. Inhaling into the back this way allows for the creation of intra-abdominal pressure to form a sort of virtual weight belt to protect the lower spine during heavy exertion, like a standing guard pass or deadlift.

All inhalations should take place through the nose. Exhaling through the mouth or nose is OK, but mouth inhalation is a sign of poor breathing.

Clearing the Nasal Passages

Steve advocates a Neti Pot which allows you to rinse and cleanse your sinuses with warm, salty water. You need to follow care instructions to avoid possible infections or worse, though.

Another practice Steve advocates is massaging the inside of the nostrils by sticking two fingers up there. You can use sesame oil (Steve's favourite), coconut oil, even olive oil. It should be a natural vegateable oil, not supermarket cooking oil. Sesame oil is preferred due to its amino acid profile and compatibility with human biochemistry. Gently push the fingers up there aas far as you can to open up the nasal passages. Painful, but Steve says it really works well. He has broken his nose five times - not from doing this, but this has improved things significantly for him.

Learning to Breathe Diaphragmatically

Have a partner stand in front of you and place their fingers  on your collarbones. Breathe normally. If your partner feels your collarbones rise. you are breathing clavicularly, into the top lobes of the lungs, a practice we wish to avoid.

Keep breathing normally and have your partner place his fingers on your lower ribs at the sides. Intercostal breathing is indicated by your partner feeling the ribs move.

Have your partner stand beside you and place one hand on your abdomen near the belly button, the other hand on your back at about the same height. If you are breathing into the lower lobes of the lungs using the diaphragm, your partner will feel your stomach, and to a lesser extent your back, moving in and out with the breath.

We want to breathe from the diaphragm as much as possible, with as little involvement of the intercostal muscles and those of the upper chest as possible. I found my breathing was mostly diaphragmatic, with some intercostal. No movement of the clavicles or upper chest.
To practice correct breathing, lie prone (on your stomach). Put your elbows out to the side and rest your forehead on your hands, one hand atop the other. As you inhale, feel your stomach push into the mat.

Lie supine (face up), one hand on your stomach, one on your chest with the thumb and index finger resting lightly on your throat. As you breathe, you want the hand on the stomach to move a fair bit, the hand on the throat as little as possible.

The diaphragm should move out to the sides and back as well. Check this while standing by finding the iliac crests (bones at the top of the pelvis at your sides) with the ends of your index fingers. Find the bottom floating rib on each side with your thumbs. You should be able to feel the ribs expand with each inhalation. Move your fingers around toward the back and you should be able to feel the same movement.

Burst Breathing

This is the primary form of breathing for recovery. Fast inhalation through the nose and fast popping exhalation through the mouth, all done from the diaphragm. Best learned by standing against a wall an having a partner lightly punch you in the diaphragm (not solar plexus, but lower) repeatedly, forcing the exhalation, and going faster and faster, until you lose the rhythm, then starting over at a slower frequency.

Setting Benchmarks and Measuring Progress

Breaths per Minute

Set a timer for one minute. Breathe normally and count your breaths. I got 9.5. Below 10 is good, 20 or over you shouldn't do Jiu Jitsu and seek help. Rickson is reported to breathe 3-4 times per minute.

Control pause

Exhale completely. Pinch the nose with the thumb and index finger. Hold the exhale until you feel a strong urge to breathe.

This checks the efficiency of blood oxygenation at cellular level in the red blood cells. In my three trials I managed between 29 and 35 seconds. 30 is satisfactory, a minute or more is excellent. One guy went for about 1 minute 20 seconds.

Stress test

Walk in place, at 120 steps per minute for two minutes, lifting the feet at least six inches of the floor. Use a metronome app on your phone. Then exhale, pinch your nose as before, and see how long you can hold your breath. 30 seconds is satisfactory. I got about bang on.

This test evaauates your sensitivity to carbon dioxide buildup in the blood. Also a guide to the levels of Erythropoietin (EPO) in the blood, which governs redo blood cell production. THis type of breath training can positively affect your EPO levels resulting in greater endurance. EPO bacame infamous as a performance enhancing drug amongst professional cyclists, including Lance Armstrong.

The training can also affect Nitric Oxide levels, which will favorably increase nasal passage dilation and blood vessel dilation for endurance.

While training you wish to avoid the "Valsalva sync", usually betrayed by involuntary breaah holds, grunting and groaning while exerting oneself. The Valsalva sync and other involuntary breath holding spikes cortisol, blood pressure, and can result in premature ageing.

Holding one's breath voluntarily and mindfully can result in beneficial training effects. It is involuntary holding of the breath that we wish to avoid.

According to Steve, you shouldn't make much noise when training Jiu Jitsu. No snarls, screams, grunts, thumps, or slaps. Both the breathing and technique should be smooth and relaxed.

Breathing Drills

All the following can be lumped under the term "hypoxic training".

Breathing Ladders

Walk at a relaxed pace. Start by matching the breath with the steps:

Inhale - 1 step, exhale - 1 step. Do this for a specific interval or distance, then
Inhale - 2 steps, exhale 2 steps, for the same interval distance, then
Inhale - 3 steps, exhale 3 steps,
4, 5, 6 ... up to 10, 15, 20, ...

Keep good structure and relaxed posture. You should extend the inhalation and exhalation so that they last for the entire number of steps for that rung of the ladder. The hardest part is slowing down the inhalation rather than gulping the air in at the start. Think of taking little sniffs or sips of air.

If you lose control of the breath, do some burst breathing, and start over with a low number of steps per inhale/exhale.

Square Breathing

Similar to the above,  except the pattern is:

Inhale for 3 steps. Hold the inhalation for 3 steps. Breath out for 3 steps. Hold the exhalation for 3 steps. Repeat.

Then increase to 4 steps, 5, ...

There is also oblong breathing, where the length of the holds is different to the lengths of the inhale and exhale.

If you lose control of the breath, do some burst breathing, and start over with a low number of steps.

Breath hold ladders

From a fully relaxed state of breathing, breathe out and hold it while you walk for 10 steps. Recover the breath fully using burst breathing. Then go again, but this time for 20 steps. Recover fully. Then 25 steps, 30, 35, ...

When you can do no more with a held exhalation, try it by inhaling and holding the inhale as you walk. You should be able to go significantly further. I couldn't get past 40 steps on a held exhalation but got to 55 on a held inhalation.

You can do any of the above drills while running ... probably slow running.

Breathing to Overcome the Stretch Reflex

The stretch reflex occurs when you move toward the limits of your flexibility and your muscles automatically tighten to prevent injury. Sometimes the stretch reflex fires at times which can tear muscles, however, it is a blunt instrument.

Get into any stretch position you like, take it close to your limit until your muscles begin to tighten. Do burst breathing while tensing the muscle. Now relax and let all the air out with an audible sigh - Huuuh. You should find you fall a little deeper into the stretch. Tense and burst breathe in the increased stretch position and repeat. Keep going until you are unable to improve after three tense/relax cycles.

This mechanism can also be used to reduce the potential injury from jiu jitsu submissions.

Have a partner slowly put you in a gooseneck come along wrist lock. You will encounter a "startle" reflex when your limits are close and it becomes painful. Stay at the point and burst breathe to overcome the stretch reflex. The pain should reduce and the muscles relax.

This mechanism may be useful for giving that little bit of extra time to escape the submission ... or, more likely, to tap before you get injured.

Dogpile - Staying Calm Under Pressure

Groups of five, all about the same weight. One guy lies on his back, arms in a defensive posture. The first guy gets on top with a side control, weight ideally on bottom guy's lower chest. Other three pile atop him at different angles. The guy on the bottom should burst breathe into the diaphragm, little sniffs if necessary, feel the urge to panic but damp it down, and slowly but deliberately "move to where the weight isn't" and eventually escape out from underneath the pile.

NB - the guy directly on top of the bottom guy is just lying as dead weight, not trying to hold the bottom guy down.

Quite interesting - you DO feel a moment of panic from the pressure, but you CAN get out if you just stay calm and work centimeter by centimeter out from under. (if the guy panics, let him up, maybe try later with fewer guys on top. Probably not a great drill if you have a rib injury either.)

Under pressure

Emil Zatopek, the famous Czechoslovakian runner of the mid-twentieth century, used breath hold training extensively. He won the 5000 meters, 10000 meters, and the marathon at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952. He could reportedly run 200 meters on a single breath.

More Ladders

Exhale, hold the exhale. Drop softly, one knee at a time, to a kneeling position. Do a soft front breakfall. Roll onto your back. Kick the legs to sit up and do a technical standup to regain your feet. Recover the breath . Now exhale and hold, and run through the entire sequence twice on the held exhale. Recover the breath, then go for three. Then 4, 5, ... I got to 3, but no further.

Exhale and hold. Drop and do 1 pushup. regain your feet. Recover the breath. Do 1 full squat. Recover. Exhale. 2 pushups. Recover, exhale, 2 squats. 3,4.5 ... I got to 11.

Lying down. Exhale and hold. Lift both legs up and over behind the head to a yoga plough, return, now sit up and back down. Recover. Then try 2, 3, 4, ... leg raise / sit ups on a single held exhale.

Stanley Tam demonstrating the leg raise / situp breath hold ladder

You could follow a similar ladder with kettlebell swings, pushups alone, etc.

When you get past 10 swings or pushups, you might be better holding the inhalation rather than the exhalation.


The massagee lies prone (face down) with head turned to one side arms by the sides, insteps flat. The masseur stands on the person's feet, then moves up to calves, thighs, buttocks, back, can put a careful foot on the trapezius muscles, then down the shoulders, triceps, forearms and hands. May be best done next to a wall so the masseur can hold on to it for balance. The subject should burst breathe through any painful spots and try not to fight it.

Not sure I am a huge fan of this. It may grow on me.

Owwww ... Massage


There is more on breathing in my notes on Steve's 2015 seminar. Including a link to a video on some of the breathing ladders.

Steve has a video on a Breathing Control Workout on his website, in which he demonstrates some options for hypoxic training. He also ha a video for sale on his website of a seminar very similar to the one described here undertaken in Melbourne.

End of another great seminar ... host John Smallios to Steve's right


Tony Earls said...

I made my own notes after Steve Maxwell’s seminars last Saturday, but nowhere near as good as yours Andrew. What a wonderful resource this blog is!

In relation to the breathing stress test, you may remember Steve mentioned in passing its origins in the U.S. Presidential Youth
Fitness Program, initiated under Eisenhower, and promoted by Kennedy. Steve recommended a doco about La Sierra High School. I found a trailer for it:

It was great to meet you Andrew. I was the newbie in the glasses you helped tie his belt. As a 50 something geezer the word of encouragement you gave me wasn’t wasted. I’ve committed to Gracie BJJ classes with John Smallios at Higher Health Jiu Jitsu.

Tony Earls

Andrew Nerlich said...

Thanks Tony. That's an interesting link, I'll check it out!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for post this amazing. I'm a long time reader but ive never commented till now.

Thanks again for the awesome post.

Anonymous said...

Hi there, just became aware of your blog through
Google, and found that it's truly informative.
I am going to watch out for brussels. I'll appreciate if you continue this in future.
Lots of people will be benefited from your writing. Cheers!

Anonymous said...

Hey there! I could have sworn I've been to this website before
but after reading through some of the post I realized it's new to me.

Anyways, I'm definitely glad I found it and I'll be book-marking
and checking back frequently!

Anonymous said...

I want to to thank you for this excellent
read!! I definitely loved every bit of it. I have
got you bookmarked to check out new things you post...