Breathing for CrossFit: 3 Things You’re Doing Wrong (Part 1)

By: Colin Jenkins (click the title above to link to his website)

The ability to breath properly is a critical component to achieving higher levels of performance. Most athletes I’ve worked with and spoken to within CrossFit seem to understand some general concepts of breathing, but typically these concepts are used in an inappropriate context. More appropriate methods to breathing are rarely, if ever, practiced.
This is the first of several articles in which I’d like to cover 3  things that I see CrossFitters commonly do wrong, and give you some insights in how to effectively work on breathing as a skill during your training sessions.

Breathing Fault #1: Holding Your Breath During CrossFit Workouts

Many CrossFitters are already familiar with the concept of the valsalva maneuver. The valsalva maneuver is basically the process of taking a big breath and holding it throughout most, if not all, of a heavy lift. But while the valsalva maneuver is very important to lifting heavy weights, it is counter-productive to performance in most CrossFit Workouts. The only exception to this would be if your workout had a load that was very high relative to your 1RM…but typically this is not the case.
Breath-holding during a CrossFit event causes blood pressure to rise, increases heart-rate, and reduces venous return (how quickly blood is pumped back to the heart). All of which are things you should be trying to avoid when seeking to maximize your power output and have the best performance possible.

Not only should you not be holding your breath during CrossFit workouts, you should also be timing your breathing so that you breath out during points of maximal tension for each movement. This is the exact opposite of what most people do! Most people don’t let air out at these critical moments because of what they’ve practiced when lifting heavy weights.

For example, when performing a heavy squat clean, it is most important to hold your breath and stay tight during the bottom of the catch when you are about to come out of the front squat. But when you’re NOT lifting as heavy a weight and are instead looking to minimize your blood pressure and heart rate, the bottom of the catch is where you should purposely be breathing out, not holding it in!
Breathing to lift a heavy weight and breathing to maximize our ability to get oxygen to our muscles not only require different strategies, but completely opposite strategies. When performing a CrossFit workout, you will typically do best with purposely breathing out where it would be LEAST appropriate during a maximal lift.

Here’s a lift of movements and when it is most appropriate to breath out during a CrossFit workout:
-Clean: breath out as you receive the bar
-Snatch: breath out as you receive the bar
-Wall Ball: breath out as you receive the ball
-Kettlebell Swing: breath out as the bell swings between your legs
-Burpee: breath out as your chest touches the found
-Push Press: breath out as you receive the bar on your shoulders
-GHD Sit-up: breath out as you are full extended reaching for the floor


How can you train this?

#1: “EMOTM”
The most effective way I’ve seen to train breathing out at the point of highest tension is by focusing on doing so during “EMOTM” training sessions. “EMOTM” stands for “Every Minute On The Minute”. This is where you do a set a of a movement on the top of each minute, resting for the remainder of the minute before doing your next set. Start by doing a set of 3-5 reps at a relatively light weight of a movement you’d like to focus on. These 3-5 reps should be light at first because you want to ensure you’re able to breath correctly on each rep. This may feel strange at first because it is likely the opposite of your typically breathing habits. Once you feel comfortable, you can begin adding weight. The goal over time is to be able to lift heavier weights relative to your 1RM and/or do more reps while keeping this breathing pattern.

Example 1: EMOTM for 10 minutes: 5 TnG Squat Cleans @ 45% 1RM

Example 2: EMOTM for 12 minutes: 3 TnG Squat Snatches @ 45% 1RM, 55% 1RM, 65% 1RM (waveload)

#2: “Sub-Maximal Interval Training”
Another way to train breathing patterns is to focus on them while completing sub-maximal interval training. This means performing a block of work at a moderate intensity (not going anywhere near 100%), taking some rest, and the continuing on with more intervals at moderate intensity. Just like with the “EMOTM”, you should keep the movement(s) at 3-5 reps with a relatively light load at first. As you get more comfortable with the breathing patterns, you can begin to include heavier loads and more repetitions to increase the difficulty.

Example 1:
10 minutes @ 85% aerobic effort:
Run 200m
5 Power Snatches @ 45% 1RM
5 Burpees
rest 5 minutes
10 minutes @ 85% aerobic effort:
Row 250m
5 Thrusters @ 95#/65#
5 CTB Pull-ups