How Poor Breathing Can Stunt Your Muscle Growth (And How To Avoid It)

Written By: Todd Kuslikis
February 24, 2013

“The lungs are reservoirs of air, and the air is the lord of strength. Whoever speaks of strength must know of air.” —Jui Meng, a Shaolin monk, 1692


Notice how you are breathing.

Is it slow and rhythmic or is it fast and broken?

Are you breathing from your lower belly or from your upper chest?

Chances are that you are limiting your strength gains by how you are breathing both during your workouts and while you are resting.

When most fitness people talk about muscle growth this is their equation….

Hard Workouts + Adequate Rest + Good Nutrition = Muscle Growth

But could they be leaving out one of the most important elements? Let’s pull out our microscopes and examine things at a cellular level. After a hard workout, the fibers in your muscles are torn. After repairing them, they grow bigger. You probably already know that. What you may NOT realize is the fact that ATP is an essential component of protein synthesis along with a host of other cellular processes such as removal of waste products.  Here’s a great article where Dr. Casey Butt goes into full detail about what happens.




What’s Wrong With The Way I Breathe?

The majority of people are chest breathers. When they inhale they fill only the upper portions of their lungs. You can check yourself right now to see if this is you. Breathe in and notice if your shoulders and chest rise. If they are… than you are a chest breather and not breathing as efficiently as you could.

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Why is this a problem? Each breath you take in is approximately 20% oxygen. This oxygen goes into the lungs and is filtered down to the aveoli (small sacks in the lungs) and put into the blood stream. The oxygen is then transported to the cells in the body for many different functions including ATP (needed for muscle growth). The more oxygen you have flowing in your system, the more it is available to support ATP and other cell functions.

Below is a video of my 7 week old baby named Emma (Isn’t she cute?!) Notice closely how she is breathing.

You can see that she is breathing deep from her lower belly which is how we all started out. Over time, we have allowed stress to enter into our life and affect our natural way of breathing. Our shoulders tense up. Our breathing rises up into the chest. I have worked in several nursing homes in my day and have seen elderly people that have had extremely difficult lives and their breathing comes almost from their throat. It’s crazy.

We have to calm our breathing down and drop it to our lower belly. This is not just a suggestion for people that want to be monks and live in a cave. This is for us bodyweight exercise fanatics that want to get bigger. If you are breathing shallow, you are doing yourself a HUGE disservice.

The diaphragm is the muscle just below your lungs that is used for inhalation and expiration.  When we tighten this muscle it pulls air into our lungs. When we relax it we exhale air out of our lungs. You can see in the pictures below exactly what happens in the lungs when this happens:

The inhalation is when we pull air into our lungs and the exhalation is when we release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

See the image below of total volume that we inhale on a deep breath compared to a shallow breath.

One of the major goals of relaxed, calm breathing is to bring as much oxygen into our tissues. The next image shows tissue profusion of a brain from someone that is breathing naturally versus breathing shallow and fast through hyperventilation.

You can see that there is a huge difference in oxygen levels in our body when we breathe calmly versus breathing erratically.

So Should I Be Taking Deep Breaths All The Time?

Actually no. Believe it or not this could be harmful for your goals of muscle growth. The goal is natural, calm diaphragmatic breathing that is naturally deep. Every day breathing should be relaxed and gentle from the lower belly.

It is known that when we forcefully deep breathe or hyperventilate it does not increase oxygen levels in our blood stream (which is usually around 98%) but it does reduce our carbon dioxide levels which constricts blood vessels leading to less blood flow to the tissues which amounts to less oxygenation.

Here’s a video that describes this in more detail…

So… for general health and an increase in tissue oxygen levels you need to let your diaphragm breath calmly and naturally. Keep your body relaxed so that the blood vessels are not constricted and don’t worry about breathing out every last liter of CO2.

So How Do I Do It Todd?

“Breathing control gives man strength, vitality, inspiration, and magic powers.” – Chuang Tzu

Here is an exercise I used to teach in my Tai Chi class. Its a great way to show you exactly how you should be breathing during every day activities.

1. Stand up with your feet shoulder width apart. Make sure your head is erect and your spine is straight. Bend your knees slightly.

2. Place your left thumb in your belly button and rest your left palm on your lower belly. Let your belly relax (don’t try to show off your six pack by flexing… it will be counter productive for this exercise).

3. Place your right hand over your left hand and gently rest them there.

4. Close your mouth. You will be breathing in and out through your nose.

5. Visualize air (you can associate a color to the air if it helps you with the visualization) flow into your nose, down your torso and into your lower belly and hands. Relax while you breath in. You will feel your hands expand outward. Your shoulders and chest should not be rising while you do this exercise.

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6. Relax and breathe out letting your hands and belly come back in.

That’s it! Deep belly breathing is a fantastic way to calm yourself down after a stressful day or even a good cool down exercise after a hard workout. I will sometimes do this exercise after one of my intense cardio workouts.


How Should I Breathe During Exercise?

This is a great question. Let’s talk anaerobic exercise first. Anaerobic exercises do not rely on the same processes as in aerobic exercise. The muscle stores high energy phosphates (ATP and CP-creatine phosphate) to be used during short bursts of energy such as in strength training exercises. During these exercises ATP is needed at rates faster than what aerobic metabolism can provide so it uses glucose as the fuel. The result of the rapid breakdown of glucose is lactic acid built up in the muscle. That is why your muscles hurt after lifting heavy weights or doing a difficult body weight exercise.

So how the heck should I breathe during anaerobic activity?

Since your muscle tissue isn’t using oxygen directly in the performance of the movement you might think, does it really matter? Yes, it does. The rest of your body still needs oxygen so I still recommend belly breathing.

What about when doing cardio?

During cardio or aerobic (with oxygen) activity your heart is beating faster and you are relying on this oxygen to fuel needed energy requirements. As you heart beats faster it pumps more blood flow and more oxygen to the tissues to meet the demands of the activity. If you are not familiar with belly breathing than you will rely on huge heaves of the chest to get this needed oxygen.

I used to run track and after an intense long distance race I would have to put my hands on my head to expand my rib cage to allow more oxygen into my lungs. This was a very effective technique because my body needed the oxygen. Though remember the picture above. When you breathe from your lower belly you are able to pull in more air into your lungs thereby getting more oxygen. During intense cardio exercise I still recommend that you breathe from your lower belly so that you make use of the extra lung capacity.


What If I Have Nasal Congestion And It’s Hard For Me To Breath Naturally?

I include this section because I am one of the millions of people that suffer from chronic nasal congestion. I almost always have one nostril clogged. Its annoying to say the least.

For the most part, I have just lived with it but in preparation for this article have researched several ways of clearing your nasal cavities naturally. I have tried three out of the four techniques below and they almost instantly worked to some degree. I have not tried them for any length of time so I don’t know how well they will work but wanted to include them here for any of you suffering from this condition.

4 Techniques To Get Rid Of Nasal Congestion:

1. Nasal Irrigation:

This technique requires you to have a syringe or a bulb to shoot water up your nose. I actually did it by just placing salt water in a bowl and snorted the water up my congested nostril. The water goes up your nasal passage and down your throat so be warned that you will be swallowing salt water.

2. Head Bobbing Exercise

This is a somewhat bizarre exercise but after trying it I found that it does work somewhat. My nasal congestion was gone for a little bit and then came back so not sure how it works long term but certainly something to try. Please be careful of it because it could cause you to pass out.

3. Sutra Neti

This is a much more extreme method of clearing nasal passages. I have not tried this one yet so if you want to be the guinea pig, be my guest! Not sure how you would do that without throwing up.

4. Shower Nasal Irrigation

While I was in the shower the other day I decided to put my congested nostril up to the shower head and let the water shoot up it. Guess what? It actually worked very well to clear the air passage way. Some people say that by using regular water for nasal irrigation it will sting your passageways however this was not my case at all. Feel free to try it next time you are in the shower. 😉

The Importance of Intra-Abdominal Pressure For Strength Gains

The stronger your
midsection and the more skilled you
are at maximizing the intra-abdominal
pressure, the stronger
you will get.” -Power Breathing

While studying up on this topic I was very surprised to see that many high level martial artists speak about the importance of intra-abdominal pressure to help with strength gains. Although I did not find any scientifically reputable research studies it is an interesting topic so I have decided to include it here.

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What is IAP?

Intra-abdominal pressure occurs when you breathe in as much air as you possibly can but you don’t let your belly expand to meet the demands of your lungs and diaphragm expanding. You basically contract your abs as tight as you can while you breathe in. The proponents of this technique state that the intense pressure on your internal organs help to stimulate the nervous system which helps to increase strength gains.

Just Give Me Your Thoughts In A Nutshell Todd….

There is a ton of information on proper breathing. Many people have different techniques such as tai chi breathing, yoga breathing, etc. If you were to remember just one thing from this article it would be this: learn to breathe from your lower belly. Relax your muscles while you breathe and focus on drawing in the breath from your belly button. Then as you exhale again relax your body. This applies to everyday activities and during sports. You will gain more oxygen in the blood stream and tissue, maintain proper CO2 levels so your blood vessels stay dilated (allowing for blood to flow more smoothly) and give your muscles the right amount of oxygen needed for protein synthesis and growth.

My Favorite Breathing Video Of All Time…

I couldn’t write an article without sharing my favorite breathing video of time. It is a video of one of the baddest fighters of all time… Rickson Gracie. Most people know Royce Gracie from the early days of the UFC. He totally dominated. When interviewed after a win against Ken Shamrock the interviewer stated that Royce was the best fighter in the world. Royce said, “No, my brother Rickson is way better than me.” There is an incredible video called “Choke” that goes through Rickson’s training. I have probably watched the video all the way through 10-15 times. The video below is a little snippet of his breathing exercises and workout routine. Let me know what you think…

Happy breathing!


Show/Hide Comments (2 comments)
  1. John

    Good research and article as usual Todd. The first exercise that Matt Furey teaches in his combat abs is based on the IAP. He gets this exercise from Farmer Burns where you breathe in deeply closed mouth and tongue to roof of mouth and tense stomach muscles for 5 seconds and slowly release. Matt quotes from Farmer Burns book back in 1914, “breathing exercises alone, if done right will make many a weak man strong and many a sick man well.”

    • Todd Kuslikis

      Hi John,

      Yeah, Furey is the man. He’s the one that got me interested in body weight exercises. I hadn’t heard of Farmer Burns before but will have to incorporate them into my workouts. Thanks for the comment bro!


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