Learning to Master Your Breathing Can Improve Your Performance 

by Guest Contributor - Wally Holem

I’d like to discuss breathing and its importance to improving your game. Although you hear it mentioned from time to time on the mat, you may not fully understand the implications or benefits that are available to those who learn how to breathe correctly. Let me try and clear up some of the complexity and mystery that surrounds breathing.

At first look, breathing is something we do involuntarily: This means our bodies are designed to breathe on their own automatically. As a result, we don’t need our brain telling our lungs and diaphragm to accelerate, or our heart to beat 200 times per minute while sparring. It just happens due to pressure exchanges and metabolic needs.

So why then do we tell each other to breathe as if it’s something we should be deliberate about? Part of the explanation comes from a basic understanding that when we contract our muscles we tend to hold our breath in the process. Think about it. Every time you lift a heavy object don’t you hold your breath to focus and feel stronger? Holding your breath tightens the core musculature and stabilizes our bodies to withstand external forces.

This is a good thing, but presents a challenge when the duration of a movement, like sparring in BJJ, lasts more than several seconds. When we hold our breath, we induce premature fatigue on our bodies. Our muscles need oxygen to work long and hard, the longest they can go without it is about 3 seconds. Holding your breath might get your core prepped for that submission escape, but it won’t help your working muscles continue long enough for many more subsequent moves.

At times, we need a reminder to breathe. One way to keep yourself breathing is to follow this simple technique. Inhale through the nose, and exhale through the mouth. There is good scientific rationale for using this technique. Breathing in through your nose warms and humidifies the air entering your body. This makes consumption and oxygen extraction easier and more efficient for the cardio/pulmonary system. Less work for the lungs helps maintain a steady state that will prevent early fatigue. In addition, inhaling through the nose causes a reaction which produces nitric oxide (NO) in the nasal air passages.. NO helps improve oxygen uptake in the muscles. That means you can spar longer and fight harder. And in the end that’s what it is all about - performance the gentle way.

So let’s recap:

  1. Breathing is good
  2. Premature fatigue/tapout is bad
  3. Inhale through the nose & exhale through the mouth for best results

Wally is a BJJ blackbelt and teaches at the Carlson Gracie Jiu Jitsu Club in Mishawaka, Indiana. He is also a Strength and Conditioning Coach at Bethel College and holds a Masters Degree in Exercise Science. He can be contacted at: wallybjj@aol.com