The Human Operating Manual

Breathing Upregulation

Why and How Would We Use These Exercises?

Upregulation is essentially the process of preparing the nervous system for an excitatory event. This is especially useful for the sorts of occasions that require intense focus and high performance. This way, we are less distracted and prepared for action.   

While most of us would probably derive greater benefit from downregulating our physiology, knowing how to upregulate our physiology, by simply breathing a certain way, can be extremely effective skill for the high-performing individual to learn. Facilitating greater performance gains and improved concentration. 

Examples of such include hyping yourself up before speaking on stage, preparing to run onto a sport’s court or field, or before carrying out an activity that requires single-minded focus.

The following exercises teach us how to utilize the full capacity of the breath, train our bodies to perform better under pressure, and to even produce greater force whilst under a heavy load.    

If you would like to learn more about altering your internal conditions via the breath, click on the Breathing Rabbit Hole link or head to the Breathing Cheat Sheet for an more exhaustive list.

As a final note before following the exercises below, always remember to breathe through your nose, unless otherwise stated, and to breathe deeply into the diaphragm.

Mental Focus:

Victorious Breath (Ujjayi pranayama) 

Victorious Breath refers to conquering restlessness and stress through the process of fully expanding the lungs. This breathing exercise helps you to regulate your nervous system by energizing you if you’re tired or to calm you down if you’re feeling overwhelmed. 

Here are the instructions for the Victorious Breath:

  • Sit in a comfortable position that allows you to maintain a straight back.
  • With your lips closed, breathe in deeply through your nose.
  • The exhalation should begin with an open mouth, constricting your breath slightly, and make a raspy “hah” sound. This should sound similar to hissing.
  • Repeat 5-10 times.
  • During later exhalations, if you can close your mouth whilst maintaining the same raspy “hah” sound, do so by breathing through your nose.

Physical Performance:

Intraabdominal pressure: Powerlifting/strength training

Performing heavy compound lifts, such as a squat or deadlift, requires each repetition being executed with optimal abdominal bracing, to ensure the protection of the spine and to produce maximal force. However, when cued to produce intraabdominal pressure, lifters often misinterpret this as meaning “squeeze the abdominals” or to “hold the breath”. Resulting in rigid mechanics or passing out during the execution of the lift. By using effective diaphragmatic breathing, before proceeding to create tension through the torso, the body is able to relieve the spine of stress, prevent excessive curvature, and allow a stronger full body contraction.     

The following instructions should help to clarify the intrabdominal brace:

  • Before lowering into the eccentric portion of a lift (such as while loaded with the barbell during a squat) take a deep diaphragmatic breath, filling your abdominal cavity with air pressure. 
  • Once the “belly” is filled with air, pull your belly button in towards your spine, creating a pressurized brace. While in this state, you should be able to create more tension on the bar and with the ground. 
  • Execute the eccentric portion of your lift, with your intraabdominal pressure maintaining spinal rigidity, and proceed to complete the concentric portion while continuing to hold the brace.
  • To prevent the breath from being held, and to allow more freedom on the final phase of the lift, you can release pressure through pursed lips. Just don’t let it all out too quickly as you will suddenly lose tension within the body. 

With enough practice, the intraabdominal brace will naturally become activated before lifting a heavy weight. Meaning you will be able to complete a greater number of repetitions and generate greater torque as a result. 

Improving CO2 tolerance, oxygen optimization, and improved endurance

Buteyko Breathing

Trains the body to breathe in line with its metabolic needs. Improving CO2 tolerance and simulating high altitude training. See Control Pause/BOLT Score for prerequisites for the more advanced exercises.

Breathe Light to Breathe Right (The Oxygen Advantage):

  • One hand on the chest and the other above the naval to help follow your breathing.
  • Breathe in and gently guide the abdomen outward.
  • Breathe out and gently guide the abdomen inward.
  • Observe your breathing pattern, noting the size and depth of each breath.
  • Apply gentle pressure with your hands to slightly reduce your breathing movements. It should feel as if you are breathing against your hands.
  • Encourage the depth of each breath to reduce.
  • Take in a smaller or shorter breath than you would like.
  • Allow a relaxed breath out, exhaling gently, slowly, and easily.
  • Do not tense your body, hold your breath, or pause your breathing. Continue to breathe smoothly but take in less air than before.
  • The objective is to create a tolerable air hunger. Try to sustain this for 3-5 minutes at a time. If your breathing rhythm becomes chaotic, or if your breathing muscles contract, then the air shortage is too much. If this happens, stop and return to the exercise when breathing is back to normal.

Simulate High-Altitude Training – Walking (only if Control Pause/BOLT score is over 20s and not at risk of health complications):

  • Walk for 1 minute or so while breathing through the nose.
  • Gently exhale and hold your breath until a medium-strong hunger for air. Counting the amount of steps you take to record your progress.
  • Follow the breath hold by minimal breathing for 15s.
  • Breathe normally for 30s then gently exhale and hold the breath again.
  • Repeat breath holds 8-10 times.
  • A typical pace increase may look like this: 20, 20, 30, 35, 42, 47, 53, 60, 60, 55.

Simulate High-Altitude Training – Running, cycling, swimming (only if CP/BOLT score is over 20s and not at risk of health complications):

  • 10-15min into the run/cycle/swim, gently exhale and hold your breath until a strong air shortage is reached. The length may range from 10-40 paces and will depend on your running speed and BOLT score.
  • Following the breath hold, continue to jog with nose breathing for about 1 minute, until your breathing has partially recovered.
  • Repeat the breath hold 8-10 times for the duration of your run. It should be a challenge, but breathing should be able to recover to normal within a couple of breaths.

Advanced Simulation of High-Altitude Training (only if CP/BOLT score is over 20s and not at risk of health complications):

  • Blood oxygen saturation must be monitored and kept above 80%.
  • Walk for a minute or so. Exhale and hold your breath for approximately 40 paces, then take a sip of air into the lungs. Hold the breath for a further 10 paces.
  • Now take a sip of air in or out. Hold for 10 paces.
  • Continue taking sips of air and repeating short breath holds until you feel a fairly strong air shortage.
  • If the air hunger is too strong, reduce the hold to 5 paces. With each hold, oxygen saturation will decrease.
  • Challenge but don’t stress yourself.
  • Perform for 1-2 minutes.

Increased Awareness & Energy:

Tummo/WHM (Regulate ANS and improve immune system)

An exercise popularized by Wim Hof, this has been shown to regulate the immune and autonomic nervous system, clear the mind, and energize the individual carrying out the technique. Similar to taking a cold shower, this technique is effectively a form of hormesis – winding the body up and stressing it out, preparing you for the rest of the day.  

  • Sit in a meditation posture, lying down, or whichever way is most comfortable for you, in a quiet and safe environment. Make sure you can expand your lungs freely without feeling any constriction.
  • Close your eyes and try to clear your mind. Focusing on the present moment. 
  • Take thirty to forty deep breaths in through the nose or mouth. Fill up your belly and your chest. Don’t force the exhale. Just relax and let the air out. Fully in, letting go.
  • At the end of the last breath, draw the breath in once more and fill the lungs to maximum capacity, without using any force. Then relax to let the air out.
  • Hold the breath once you have reached a relaxed exhalation. This is called the retention phase. You may time the breath hold if you would like to measure your progress.
  • When you feel the urge to breathe, take one deep breath in and hold it for ten to fifteen seconds. This is called the recovery breath.
  • Let your breath go and start with a new round.
  • Repeat the full cycle three to four times.
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