Jiu Jitsu and Breathing: Is it really that big of a deal?

OpenMatRadio is pleased to release this article by Björn Friedreich. Björn is one of Germany’s few Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belts. He has written for Men’s Health and operates his gym Fighter Fitness Academy in Germany. He has also received excellent reviews on his Position Brabo DVD. 

Jiu Jitsu and breathing
Is it really that big of a deal?

As a healthy average person who is not interested in Martial Arts or Yoga you do not  think much about your breathing. You know you have to breath but even that isn´t really important since your autonomic nervous system takes care of it and always let you breath, even when you are sleeping.

In Martial Arts the power of breathing is an age old topic. It seems very esoterical at times and not many people really can explain what happens or what it means to control your breathing.

Yet many of the worlds greatest fighters like Rickson Gracie for example are always talking about the importance of controlling your breathing. I recently talked to Steve Maxwell a world class S&C Coach and 4th degree Blackbelt in BJJ and he told me that Rickson always was fanatic about his breathing training.

Also in Russian Martial Arts you have many styles who strongly focused on the mastery of breathing and of course you have Aikido, Tai Chi and other Asian styles who teach different methods of breathing for training and combat.

My own journey into the understanding of breathing started with very practical reasons. I’m doing BJJ and MMA training for around 15 years and I was always observing my own training.

Some days were good, others bad and sometimes my body was completely in Flow and I was just moving without knowing what I was doing. It was just pure feeling. I’m sure most of you know all three kind of days but for me I wanted to understand what was causing such differences in my ability. I was not accepting that I just had a bad or good day.

I noticed whenever my breathing was free and natural while fighting, my moves were more efficient and I could apply much more of my skills without using too much force.

On the other hand when I was holding my breath, I was starting to tense up my movements became jerky and I got aggressive, even when I was rolling against smaller guys or beginners I could feel how bad my techniques were and that it was only willpower and conditioning that pulled me through in these days.

This must be around 8-10 years ago and at that time I started to read everything about breathing that I could get my hands on. I learned from Yoga, old books about physical culture and other stuff but even it was very interesting it doesn’t seem to have any connection to fighting. It was more about meditation than about Combat.

A few years later I had the chance to study Russian Martial Arts, bioenergetical Therapy and many other resources. I practiced many hours the different drills and breathing patterns.

That´s how I slowly got the picture of how everything works together and why breathing is so important if you want to be the best athlete you can be.

In this article I try to explain you how breathing is influencing your physical ability and why you should work on your breathing on a regular base. I try to use simple language and not too much esoterical words.

Breathing to create power

Have you ever tried Olympic lifting? Do you think it is a good idea to exhale deeply while having a heavy barbell over your head? The answer is obvious and by watching Olympic lifting you can clearly observe how much strength and stability you get from inhaling and holding your breath.

Whenever you inhale deeply and tense up your core muscles you can raise your intra-abdominal pressure which can help you to generate up to 10% more strength in the chosen movement.

If you inhale quick and hard you create more tension in your body and when you keep the air in your core, your back and upper body will be much more stable.

Power breathing as it is called from some coaches is very important if you are lifting heavy weights or doing difficult bodyweight exercises like one arm push ups and stuff like that.

To summarize it, inhalation and breath holding after an inhalation is increasing tension in your body and gives you stability in your core.

On the other side it blocks spontaneous movement and „body intelligence“.

Exhale to relax

If you are a Jiu Jitsu or MMA athlete you know the feeling of a good fight. You are always ahead of your opponents movements you are quick on your feet and you have perfect timing.

Maybe your opponent blocks your Triangle Choke attempt you don´t care and move to an Omo Plata and if this doesn’t work you sweep and mount the guy and go for another submission.

You get the picture. In fighting you never know what happens in the next moment so you need to be able to adapt constantly, adjust and improvise your movement.

Breath holding is in this case the worst thing you can do because it let your body tense up too much and doesn’t allow you to move quickly.

A weight lifter exactly knows what he will doing technically and there are no distractions from the outside so breath holding is perfect for his needs. In fighting you need „body intelligence“, the ability to coordinate the movements of your core and limbs with the unexpected attacks of your opponent and therefore you can´t hold your breath or you will be tensed up and rigid unable to move quickly.

Exhalation is always relaxing your body. If you have ever done Yoga or any kind of meditation you know how a deep exhale help you to let go your body and mind.

While exhaling the body is in a more relaxed state and can adjust his position more quickly.

Basically you can say inhalation and breath holding creates tension and  exhalation creates relaxation and you need both parts of the breath cycle to nurture your body with oxygen.

Therefore it is very important to keep this cycle going. If you don´t properly exhale you cannot completely inhale and so you will run more and more out of breath.

Have you ever gasp for air? Mostly it happens because you were too much focused on your inhalation and don´t exhale completely. You did not get rid of the used air and couldn´t supply your body with enough oxygen.

Whenever you train focus more on the exhalation because after a full exhalation your body inhales by himself you don´t even have to do anything.

Try it right now. Stand up, exhale deeply through your mouth and quickly close it after your exhalation. Your automatically inhale through your nose.

However if you tense up your diaphragm and core too much your complete breathing cycle will be messed up and your performance will go downwards.

Breathing and emotions

You maybe like it or not but breathing is deeply connected with our emotions. In fact there are breathing techniques that could cause an emotional release within minutes. We all suppress emotions in our daily live and you maybe know the feeling of having anger in your belly and could not let it go. I have seen people crying, laughing and getting angry after just a few minutes of doing certain breathing exercises and I’m talking about fighters not the average housewife. I experienced myself and it is really that powerful

Maybe you have rolled with this new guy in your gym who is not even your belt level or weight class yet the guy is playing a defense game and you can´t get the tap. You feel the anger coming up in your stomach and you really try hard use all your strength and willpower and throw your technique out of the window just to teach the guy a lesson. Silly but it happens since we are all sometimes prone to out own ego.

Whenever we want something badly or we get angry we usually hold our breath. We maybe inhale a little before we stop breathing but we will definitely not exhale deeply.

Also when we don´t want to feel certain emotions we tend to not breath deeply and avoid our feelings. These tensions built up in our body and can transform into chronic tensions which restrict you especially in your ability to move and breath freely.

Maybe you always wondered why the cultures of the past had warrior dances where they were singing, shouting, dancing and moving like crazy, well maybe it was their way of getting rid of all the tensions and restrictions and preparing their warriors for war.

When you are fighting especially in MMA you are constantly under pressure. Any attack can be painful which could lead to an emotional reaction of any kind. You know the fighters who smile and waving at their opponent after they got hit. That´s one way to deal with this emotional reactions you may have after you gut punched hard or barely escaped from a submission.

If you are able to control your breathing after such an attack and not hold your breath and be angry you will have the advantage physically and mental.

In this case breath control means to let the breath lead your movements. Your focus is on your rhythmical and steady breathing and from this state of body and mind you are dealing with the outside circumstances.

In other words instead of reacting to an attack emotionally and allowing your breath to stop. You focus on your breathing and let the physical or emotional impact leaving your body.

Don´t get me wrong here. I don´t say you can avoid a knockout punch by focusing on your breathing. What I say is that you can keep a more balanced mental and physical state and so you can deal much better with whatever comes to you.

Breathing and movement

Ask any high level dancer or piano player if he can perform perfectly while holding his breath and he will tell you that it is not possible.

If your hold your breath you tense up your diaphragm and core and that will strongly mess up your ability to move. Since you keep tension you cannot exhale properly and so you try to inhale even more without cleaning your lungs before. In other words you try to gasp for fresh air while you do not have breathed completely out your used air and that is a problem.

You will be out of breath in a very short period of time and you heart rate goes up over the „red line“ and at this point your coordination and feeling is gone.

You trigger the fight or flight response in your body which gives you a short burst of strength and energy but completely mess up your fine motor skills you need for Jiu Jitsu.

There is also another aspect which is difficult to explain since it can only be experienced. If you are able to coordinate your movements with your breathing into a rhythmical pattern you will recognize what I call body intelligence.

Your body is moving on his own by instinct and is doing the exact right movements in the right moment. Sometimes it even feels that your body is creating a movement just out of an inner knowledge.

I know this sounds crazy if you never have experienced that kind of stuff but it is really true. If you lead your physical actions with your breath it can drive you into a state where things happen automatically and you don´t have to think about. It´s  like a „Fighting Trance“

Personally I strive for this goal. I want always or as much as I can work in this state and being able to do things which I don´t even understand on an intellectual level but that´s a personal decision I understand if someone likes a more scientific approach to Jiu Jitsu.

Shortcut for fighters

I know what some of you think. O.k. enough talk just give us some ideas to train. So here is the shortcut for fighters or people who are to lazy to read the whole article.

First goal:
Never stop breathing. It doesn’t matter what you are doing on the mat in which position you are or what you are planning to do. Keep breathing focus on active exhalation and a short passive inhale.

You can train that while running, while doing technical drills and even when you are doing bodyweight exercises, don´t hold your breath but keep breathing. As more you train it with different activities as better it is.

Second goal:
Try to find your breathing rhythm. Lead with your breath and try to coordinate breathing and movement so it flows perfectly together. As more you can find a rhythm as better your body will work and find the right movements.

Third goal:
Breath smoothly. Don´t create tension in your body by breathing to jerky. You will move the way you breath so if you want to move fluid and relaxed, breath like that.

Fourth goal:
Breath through your nose. This is really important. As long as it is possible inhale and exhale through your nose. When you feel that this kind of breathing is creating too much tension because your heart rate is up, exhale through your mouth.

Fifth goal:
Focus the attention of your mind on the breathing. Try to stop your thoughts and just focus on the steady breathing rhythm. You will feel suddenly a stillness while you are in the battle and you will be able to react from a very clear state of mind.

Whenever you train hard, especially sparring or S&C training try to focus your mind on the breathing and calm the body down. You can´t control much in the chaos of the fight but you can control your breathing.

Sixth Goal:
Try to achieve all the above while being in bottom position and having a 200 pound guy in top of you trying to smash and control you.

That´s a real shortcut to breathing training. It will not solve all your problems but it can change your game so much that you will be motivated to learn more about breathing training.

Long Term breathing training

I think you will get the most benefit from breathing training if you use it constantly in your regimen like all your other training.

There are many drills like doing different bodyweight exercises with different breathing patterns. For example you can do push ups or squats and inhale while going down and exhale on your way up. After a few reps you can reverse the pattern.

These kinds of drills will help you to keep breathing no matter what. You are not conditioned to one specific movement you will breath according to the situation without holding your breath involuntary.

There are more specific drills where you work on your breathing while you get punch or crushed on the ground and there are many drills where you hold your breath voluntary and try to stay relaxed as possible while fighting panic and muscle failure.

Breath Holding

When you consciously hold your breath after an exhalation your body and mind will make some amazing changes. You will experience deep intense feelings. You will feel fear and panic but also humility and relief after you inhale again.

After a few rounds of consciously breath holding drills your body will be energized and deeply relaxed. I use this stuff very often at my active recovery days.

You can walk, exhale and hold your breath while walking until you can´t hold it anymore. But be careful you can easily pass out if you go to crazy with it.

Breathing for release

And of course you have exercises where you release suppressed emotions and completely let go of your control. Great stuff for fighters who are very often deal with physical and mental trauma while being in the cage.

I now it sounds maybe silly but we all have to deal with tons of negative experiences and pressure every day. Also tough training sessions will stay in our body for a while and can keep us in someway trapped.

By using breathing for release you can at least free yourself from the physical tensions that are stored in your body and that will often bring emotional release as well.

 Some more exercises you can try

Here is a short video I made last year which shows some Grappling specific drills. Try to apply all the principles from above when doing it. It´s a great exercises for both partners. The guy on bottom learn to breath under pressure while the guy on the top learn to breath freely while moving around. Don´t try it just once but for a few weeks and you will definitely feel the difference.

Basically there are tons of exercises mostly the training is based on walking, running or bodyweight exercises and specific Grappling drills. The key is to coordinate your movement with different breathing patterns.

Conclusion

Breathing training alone will not make you a better fighter but it can elevate your current skills up to 50% I would say. In my opinion there is no mastery in martial arts if you can´t master your breathing. Only then you can control your body, mind and emotions.

This training can give you a much better understanding of who you are and how you deal with physical stress and aggression.

It can free your body from underlying tensions and gives you creativity and  spontaneous movements. When things go crazy you will be able to keep a quiet mind and just observe the situation. Your movements jut happen and you don´t even care what you do since you feel it is the right thing.

From my experience along with correct movement and posture breathing is one of the core principles of Jiu Jitsu.

Breathing is a great tool to discover the inside of your body and mind and can help you to be a more complete fighter and human being.

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