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Isometric Breathing for Endurance (VIDEO)

The way that the fitness industry approaches endurance confuses me.

Think about it. People who do high intensity interval training (HIIT) often have someway to criticize long distance runners, or vice versa. Then there are the lifters who are determined to be heard, saying stuff like “Cardio? You mean lifting weights faster?” as if the strength they accumulated couldn’t protect their egos from being accused of not having endurance.

It’s all a big mess, so I’ll do my best to clean it.

What is endurance? The capacity for your body to withstand longer bouts of activity, but what really is endurance?

Let’s see, it’s having muscles, lungs, and a heart that can support extended periods of activity, with an efficient nervous system that has already archived your movements to make your energy costs more economical (muscle memory).

There’s a good start. Now, how do we get there?

Nerve Strength for Endurance

Well, of all of these, the nervous system is probably the simplest to equip for endurance. Whatever activity it is that you want endurance in, do it daily and progressively. Do the movements with focused form, because practice makes permanent, and your nerves will acclimate to those movements each time you do them.

Personally, I find that dynamic tension training is the best way for me to outfit my nerves for efficiency in any activity. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my training is that “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.” Thus, by doing a static contraction so that my nerves are firing rapidly, but moving slowly through whatever actions I wish to train (even running), I develop my muscle memory for those movements much faster than either training with plyometrics, or by endless repetition without the contraction.

Apply this to weightlifting, and you’ll find gains in places you didn’t think to look.

Muscle and Cardiac Strength for Endurance

That brings us to our next topic, which is muscle strength for endurance. Now, it’s important to understand the nature of the endurance you want to train here, because training to survive a marathon may not bode well for you if your true goal is to spar for three rounds in a wrestling match.

Slow twitch muscles are generally considered the endurance muscles, as that is quite literally their goal (for instance, the muscles in your core and neck are mostly slow twitch muscles.) However, if you want to be able to train explosively and recover quickly, you’ll need to train fast twitch muscles.  

Regardless of what type of muscle you want to train, you’ll want solid amounts of it, and isometric exercises, with their incredible diversity in terms of time under tension, can certainly help to develop either or both.

Now as for cardio, yes, lifters, you’re definitely working your heart by lifting heavy or faster. Plus, having the endurance to get through a series of sets, or through a powerlifting or strongman competition, is a unique and high level of endurance. With lifting that’s used to truly bring forth your fast twitch muscle (as long as healthy attention is paid to tendon training), it can raise your endurance for impact sports like no other.

Weight training or maximal intensity isometric exercises seem to couple HIIT training in a complementary way, though Alex Viada has shown well that you can have a 700lbs squat and still run triathlons; thus, either can honestly be used for long distance training as well as long as your focus is on progression.

Isometric Breathing for Endurance

Now all the things I’ve said above are things that you may already know, as they’ve likely been covered hundreds of times in the arguments between fitness groups.

Nevertheless, the area that seems most critical to endurance is the area, I find, with the least exposure.

Breathing. It seems like common sense, right? I mean, breathing is inarguably one of the most vital functions we perform, but it’s one of the least focused upon areas to train in modern fitness. Proper breathing is more key to endurance than anything else I’ve listed above, and let me explain why.

BECAUSE YOU NEED YOUR LUNGS TO LIVE.

Short and sweet, right? But no, seriously: whether you’re a sprinter, a weightlifter, or a long distance runner, one of the first thoughts that comes to mind with a lack of endurance is difficulty breathing. You could say the heart, sure, but there are lifters who train until their skin resembles a topographical map of the Amazon River, yet can’t run a mile. Their hearts are definitely getting a lesson in intensity, but their breathing is not.

My solution? Two words: the diaphragm. You ever start running and get a burning feeling in your chest, and it’s slowly more difficult to draw in air? That’s not simply your lungs becoming less efficient, that’s your diaphragm fatiguing. Your diaphragm controls the power of your breath; it’s made up of skeletal muscle just like all our other muscles, yet so few know how to train their diaphragms, even as the fitness of their whole bodies improve.

General core training is one way that can build up the diaphragm, which is a reason that martial artists emphasize the importance of training your core. It’s also why they emphasize kiai (a forceful shout) with strikes and kicks to increase power.

Still, I find that the best way to train breathing is by breathing. Just like any other skeletal muscle, the diaphragm has a point of relaxation and a point of contraction. Your diaphragm relaxes when you inhale, allowing your lungs to fill up with air, and it contracts when you exhale, pushing the remaining air out. So, the isometric breathing exercise I offer you, simply, is to slowly empty the air from your lungs and then, once all air is out, forcefully exhale for 12 seconds. Below I’ve posted a video of me demonstrating this very exercise.

12 seconds, that’s all it takes. What I’d suggest to you is to practice this one exercise for thirty days. You only need to do it once a day, and it’s okay if you can’t do a full 12 seconds the first few tries. Nevertheless, I can guarantee you that with this and this alone, your endurance will have increased at the 30 day mark.

Another interesting, but advanced, exercise to train for breathing is doing breathless squats. Essentially, gather air for a few seconds, hold your breath, and then do as many bodyweight squats as you can before your air runs out. The first time you try it, you may achieve a low number, but as you continue, you’ll see that the number of squats you can do, and your overall endurance, will increase.

This exercise is one to proceed with extreme caution: don’t do more than one set of this a day, and don’t continue to do so if you feel lightheaded. Doing any kind of physical activity while forcefully depriving yourself of oxygen can be dangerous...but I’m a man of danger.

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