Today’s post is part 4 of a 5-part series (click here if you missed part 1, here for part 2, and here for part 3). Here’s a quick recap: Master instructor Mark Reifkind recently retired from StrongFirst and was asked to summarize his decades of coaching experience. Instead of writing an entire novel, he boiled it down to just 5 bullet points. Here they are…
- We stand on the shoulders of giants. Study the greats that came before you.
- N=1. What works for you? We don’t need to discover the training “theory of everything.” Just what makes you progress.
- Consistency trumps intensity, and intensity is born from consistency.
- Control the breath, control the body.
- Feed-forward tension is the master key to strength.
In an effort to honor him and everything he’s done for us, I’m writing a post on each of these topics discussing what I’ve learned from Rif in the context of each.
Lesson 4: Control the breath, control the body.
On the surface, this lesson may seem weird to be included here… especially when a guy is summarizing 50+ years of training/coaching into just 5 things. Isn’t breath work something that should be reserved for a guided meditation? Or a yoga class? Aren’t there more important things to worry about?
NO, there aren’t.
As a matter of fact, breath is so important that he dedicated two of the five bullet points to it (the last one is also about breath… more about that next month). In our facility, breath work is the single most important thing we teach. About half of the time spent in our initial session/evaluation (that we require every new student to go through) is spent on this critically important subject matter. I typically preface this teaching section with the following statement…
“The next thing I’m going to talk to you about is the MOST important thing I have to show you inside these four walls. If you never do another session in this gym, you will have walked away with the most important thing I have to teach you.”
Breath work also transcends modality. Let’s say kettlebells and powerlifting aren’t your thing. And you decide to go back to a globo-gym and do bicep curls while gazing at yourself in the mirror (lame). Learning this critical training skill will improve your bro workouts too!
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The Breathing Continuum – “It’s a dimmer, not a light switch”
Our ability to generate mechanical tension (AKA the ability to lift something heavy without injury) is reliant solely on our ability to trap air, under pressure, inside our abdomen. There is no second way. However, this not a light switch that only has two positions… on or off. It’s more like a dimmer switch that goes from zero to ten.
Imagine zero being deep relaxation, almost to the point of falling asleep. And ten being maximum tension… an effort that can only be sustained for maybe 5 to 8 seconds (ex. a one-rep max deadlift). There are nine other settings on this dimmer that must also be mastered in order to,
“Control the breath, control the body.”
Let’s take the simple example of squatting: If you loaded a barbell with a weight that you could barely squat for 3 reps, let’s say three wheels (315 pounds for the non-lifters reading this). You would need to use a very high-tension breathing technique to pull this set off (dimmer set to 10).
Now, let’s say we drop the weight down to 135 and ask you to perform a single set of 25 reps. If the same breathing style were used as the 315 for 3, you would start getting gassed early. Instead, you would need to dial your breath dimmer down to about a 5 if you wanted to be successful in this set. If you were asked to do a set of 100 air squats in a row without stopping, the dimmer may drop down to a one.
The moral to this story: Your breathing techniques are tools, and it is imperative that you reach into the toolbox and pull out the right one for the job.
My Pet Peeve…
The most common example of seeing this done poorly by novices is doing the whole thing backwards. When I go to the park to walk my dog, I see folks at the park getting ready to go on their run and doing their pre-run “stretching” routine which consists of kicking their leg back and grabbing their shoe, pressing the heel back to the butt, leaning their upper body forward, and “stretching” their quad for 10 seconds while making an ugly face. Rinse and repeat on the other side, then go run. These are the same people I see in the gym lifting baby weight with no physical signs of exertion while conversing with their friends.
This is exactly backwards. In order for a muscle to lengthen, it needs relaxation and time: No ugly faces, no noises, just hang out in that position for 3 to 5 minutes (preferably after training when the body has generated some heat). Save the high-tension faces for the iron… and for goodness sakes find some weight that’s challenging enough to make you shut your pie hole in the middle of the set.
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One of the biggest things that I admire about Rif is the fact that, despite being one of the top names in coaching, he still spends most of his time training/working with general populations through his local fitness business. Most of the big-name speakers spend all their time traveling and teaching workshops. In other words, they only see/work with trainers and freaks of nature. When one spends too much time doing this, they tend to sound very different than the people who are actually in the trenches working with ordinary folks.
As far as I know, Rif still wakes up before the roosters and makes most of his income training Silicon Valley desk jockeys. This has a huge impact on how he lectures to high-level coaches and athletes. There is a certain sense of realism to how he explains things. In the example of breath work, there have been times where the training manual calls for specific types of breathing for certain types of exercises… regardless of the volume. Rif would pull me aside and say, “Look man… if someone is an absolute cyborg, they’ll be able to breathe like this regardless of how long the set is. But for gen pop, this is totally unrealistic.”
Since most of us don’t exclusively train cyborgs, this type of in-the-trenches advice is critical.
It’s difficult to unpack this information in the short format of this blog post. I highly recommend diving deeper into the subject through books and online resources. “Breath” by James Nestor is a great book, and Coach Matt recommends the work of Brian Mackenzie. Of course, hiring a skilled coach to work with you is also great. The one big thing the latter can do that the books and blogs cannot is: the authors cannot jump off the page, look at you, and verify what you’re doing is, in fact, correct.
If your facility/coaching program doesn’t cover breath work in great detail, I would encourage you to find a place that does.
Until next time,
Jerry Trubman is a coach, clinician, author, blogger, and powerlifting state champion. With over two decades of lifting experience, he has devoted himself to seeking out better answers, and distilling them into practical programs that produce great results. Jerry has coached “Team Protocol” to 4 National Powerlifting Championships in the 100% Raw federation. He writes the internationally-read blog, “The Healthy Addiction” and lives in Tucson, Arizona with his wife, Marie, and dog, Asher.