Hitting PR’s through mindful breathing

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One of my first meditation teachers taught me that I should never underestimate the importance of the breath because it was one of the two natural ways that we can connect to the immediate moment. 

The first way was pain. When we feel pain it’s very hard to think of anything else, even if we enjoy the feeling. You don’t care about whether or not you left a light on at home when there is a 500 pound deadlift in your hands, you know?

The first way is our constant companion and our giver of life: breathing. Not to get too sentimental, but when was the last time you just sat back and thanked your lungs or your heart for working without rest to keep you alive day in and day out? Fortunately, those of us in the strength game have the benefit of being in sports that provide both pain and the opportunity to know our breath! Therefore, we are built for mindfulness.

We should take the time to give proper breathing its due, and also work to learn a little about ourselves as lifters. I’m not talking about techniques for holding or not holding the breath during a lift. Rather, we should all develop our own insight into the entire process of breathing before, during and after the lift.

Many of us do not know the process of breathing very well. I have seen many lifters walk away from a miss confused. They were sure their mechanics and tactics would be enough. What they did not realize was they completely changed the pattern of their breathing in this particular attempt.

I have seen multiple situations in which a lifter will take an out-breath during a deadlift when they usually take an in-breath before grabbing the bar. I have also seen the long and tedious process of learning how to breath while walking with a heavy yoke or farmers handles. This one little skill can be the difference between a PR or a complete failure.

Neglecting the knowledge about our breath can be a domino effect that can set your training back. We’re talking weeks, if not months or longer. It’s common to see lifters try to fix and build up all of their weaknesses without ever considering that they may be losing tightness and force on the barbell due to sloppy and miss-timed breathing.

There is nothing to risk in working with the breath. We cannot overtrain it. We will not have a day where we cannot breath due to a busy schedule or what have you. And we can constantly tinker with the appropriate use of it. It is time to enlist the breath in multiple strategies to set and reinforce a mindful training process in the gym.


Apply your breath

One of the best benefits of proper berating is sharpened focus.

Lets steal from Yoga for a minute. In yoga, the breath is focused where you feel the stretch. The goal is to relax and deepen the pose. We can apply a similar technique to lifting. 

Think of the set up for a lift. This is the time we can visualize the lift, or most importantly, this can be the time we set our entire body to remain tight. Try something simple such as breathing in deeply at a specific point and sending that in-breath to the part of your body that needs to tighten up the most. Set your mid section with a hard breath to support your lower back. “Send” a breath to your feet to grab the ground before a lift, this can really make a difference in the tension you feel. You need as much tension as possible to lift big. 

Take a deep breath in and follow that breath through your entire body while setting up for the bench press. Expand and tighten up, like a stretched bow. Utilizing this kind of simple technique can help you lift more weight immediately. Stability is absolutely critical. 

A second step is to identify where your breathing habits are poor. In many instances we do not have to make sweeping changes to our breathing patterns, but we have to ensure our own consistency. As I mentioned earlier, many lifters aren’t even considering the breath. Chalk this up to a lack of awareness. 

In strongman, there are patterns of breath for each event, and it is worth the time to learn your optimal breathing pattern for each event. Strongman is the perfect sport for learning about breath. This is because of the diversity that is so prevalent in the sport. For a yoke walk, you may want to hold your breath. For a husafel stone carry, you have to ensure you are breathing the whole time, which is quite difficult with a large load on the chest. For a Conan’s Wheel carry, you have to create forceful and purposeful breaths with each step. This creates a huge learning curve for new athletes. With time, many strongman competitors grow exceptionally knowledgeable and skilled with breath. 

Much like any other part of your training this is just a technique change. Consider it to be fine tuning of the lift. Seeing how we engage our breath as we address or go through a lift or event gives us the opportunity for consistency. This is no different than learning the first pull of a snatch, or how to properly engage the lats on a bench press. We learn the optimal pattern of breathing for our particular movement, and then we start training this new habit. This will allow for sharpened focus, improved body engagement, and an added support and leverage for our training. 

Speed pull against heavy chain. Need to keep dialing in thoracic position, but that’s a long-term corrective project.

A video posted by Chris Moore (@barbellbuddha) on


The final aspect of breathing is centered on mindfulness and visualization. Another meditation teacher of mine was a Zen Monk who the finer points of zazen. When any of us would enter the room he would quietly and kindly ask us to sit down. Upon sitting and getting into the appropriate posture he would look up warmly and say, “Now you are the Buddha.” It was a quiet and calming moment. A strong behavioral cue.

His point was not based in being inviting, it was very concrete. He was simply saying that all the Buddha did to be enlightened was sit in this posture. So when we sat in that posture there was no difference. As we so often say it is a simple concept but very hard to master.

For the sake of our strength training I suggest we adopt a similar mindset. Utilize the breath to envision a stronger version of yourself. When you deadlift you are the great Ed Coan. When you lift a stone you are Magnus ver Magnusson. In the Box, you are Rich Froning.

Take the time to visualize a lift, but add one more caveat to that practice. While visualizing, breath as if you are doing the lift. Close your eyes, mentally go through the entire lift, and while you are doing this, access the exact pattern or breath you want to use in that lift.

Practice this as often as you can. Become intimately familiar with your breathing patterns and visualize the success that can come from accessing this consistency.

There is no reason to ever consider yourself inferior to other lifters. We are all limited by breath. When you are breathing you are everyone, you are that process. If you work with your breath you will grow more consistent in the gym. You will quickly become a better lifter. By simply connecting to the breath you can build better habits and identify opportunities for improvement.

Try it and do it often, you cannot over train it.



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9 Responses to “Hitting PR’s through mindful breathing”

  1. Yohann

    Tjank you Chaz for sharing. We get so caught up in our day to day that we forget to breath. It’s so easy to take for granted because it’s so automatic but they beauty and magic happen when we are in the moment…in the “now”.
    I agree that by practicing simple mindfulness in our lifts or even during a metcon we can become more relaxed and maintain our composure when our minds are screaming is to stop.
    Excellent post.

    • Chris

      Yeah, it’s an area that gets little focus in modern gyms. It’s as important as anything.

  2. George Anderson

    Great piece, Chris. As a zazen practitioner too, I frequently forget to make breathing part of my lifts. Thank you for the inspiration and reminder.

  3. Chaz Franke

    Thanks for reading guys. It took me a long time to really accept that I could prioritize stillness and breath as a part of my training. Now it is an integral part of my ability to maintain a balance state, keep my ego in check, and really have an objective view of what I need to do.
    It is always important to have an intention when you address set or a rep, and mindfulness can help you maintain that intention. In meditation we learn the integral parts of practice are intention, attention, and attitude. Keeping those in mind have really guided me to a new level of strength.
    I truly appreciate the feedback and the discussion of this topic.


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