Is breathing something you think about while you are climbing? When you are watching a friend from the ground do you shout “BREATHE!” as a form of encouragement? Most climbers understand that breathing while climbing is important as it allows us to relax and flow through moves without getting a debilitating pump. However, breathing techniques can be used not only to relax but also to increase strength and power and help you through even the most difficult crux moves.
Here’s an article by Joshua Rucci, a Collegiate Strength and Conditioning coach in the Southeastern Conference (you can see his full bio at the end of the article), that describes how you can leverage your breath to create move strength and power.
How Breathing Can Increase Your Strength and Power
I know what you’re thinking, “Oh great – another article on how important breathing is!!!”
But please don’t stop reading quite yet!
I, like you, have read so many articles about why breathing is important in climbing. Most of these articles approach the subject from the point of view that you need to breathe to get oxygen to the working muscles, which is indeed a very important aspect, but not exactly rocket science. Another topic of conversation revolves around using your breath as a means to relax while climbing or while resting on route. This is a very important aspect of efficient climbing and you can read more about techniques and drills to get better at it here on Training Beta.
Harnessing the power of your breath for relaxation is only one side of the coin, however. Like everything else in life, there is duality, a yin and a yang. Without good, there is no bad; without night, there is no day; without gumbies, there are no mutant climbers. Without RELAXATION, there is no TENSION. While your breath can be used to relax your body, your breath can also be used to create tension.
TENSION equals STRENGTH. The ability to use our breath to increase tension throughout our body will subsequently increase the amount of strength we can produce. Increases in strength output will help you to produce more power, pull harder, and send more rigs. What is of even greater importance is the ability to quickly move between a state of relaxation and tension. Watching a climber move through easier terrain in a very relaxed manner and then just throw the hammer down through a crux and then quickly return to relaxed climbing is a beautiful thing.
In this article we will look at the background and science of how you can use your breath to increase tension and then look at another tension technique you can employ in your climbing.
Much of the research dealing with the power of breathing has come from Russian scientists, and one of the most famous practitioners of this science is Pavel Tsatsouline. Pavel is a former instructor for the Soviet special forces and has been the driving force behind kettlebell training in the United States. While Pavel is not a climber, nor does he train climbers to my knowledge, his teachings are everything I believe a climber should be utilizing. He values strength, mobility, function, and real world strength over useless muscle mass. His teachings revolve around creating maximal tension while performing various lifts as well as how to leverage your breath to relax into stretching to develop increased mobility. With all that said, he is basically one of the most badass coaches you will ever come across, and I highly recommend anything he has written.
Pavel was one of the first coaches to utilize and teach the pneumo-muscular reflex to increase strength output. Pavel explains this reflex really well using the analogy of a stereo system.
- Your muscles are the speakers.
- Your brain is the MP3 player.
- In your abdominal cavity you have special baroreceptors that sense intra-abdominal pressure and represent the volume control.
So when your volume (intra-abdominal pressure) is set to low, the volume coming out of the speakers (your strength output) is low. But crank up that volume control knob (intra-abdominal pressure) and the volume (your strength output) gets cranked up as well. By increasing the intra-abdominal pressure you are exciting your nervous system which in turn tells your muscles to contract harder.
To do this, first take in about 75% of a maximal inhalation and then expel the air at really high pressure by pressing your tongue against your teeth making a “Tsssss” sound.
Now just stop and think about the thousands of climbing videos you have watched, what is the main commonality behind all those hard sends? Pretty much every hard move is accompanied by some sort of grunt, “Tsaaaa”, “Tsssss”, or guttural sound.
Climbers have been instinctually using the pneumo-muscular reflex!!! Now before you get pissed at me for giving every climber an excuse to do their best Sharma impersonation at the gym, think about martial artists for a second. They too have learned to utilize this reflex in the form of a “Kiai,” the sound they make when they strike. This “Kiai” or forceful exhalation is what allows a relatively small martial artist to strike with the force of a heavyweight.
The key to maximizing this reflex, however, is your ability to match the increase in internal pressure with exertion; “match the breath with the force.” This is a skill, and just like a well-executed drop-knee or flag, it will take practice.
Things to think about when practicing and utilizing this technique:
- This technique should not be used for every single move. If you tried to do this, you would run out of air and get gripped super quickly. Use it when you need to power through the hardest moves and then quickly return to your normal, relaxed breathing pattern.
- It does not have to be loud or be a certain sound. Any sound that comes out of your body when you are trying hard and forcefully exhaling is acceptable. This is a technique to increase tension, NOT ATTENTION.
- Timing is key. The exhalation should take place during the hardest aspect of a movement. That could be when you use your legs to initiate a dynamic movement or when you when you hit a hold and have to create maximal tension to hold it or when you are mid-way through a really hard lock-off move.
- If this feels funny to you, try bouldering at or above your red-point level and pay attention to your breathing when executing the hardest moves. More than likely you are already using the technique, now you just need to practice actively using the technique rather than just letting it happen. There may be times that you do not make a noise through the hardest moves and still are able to complete the movement. But if you actively employ the technique, maybe that move will seem easier and save energy for the rest of the problem or route.
*If you lift weights, begin to integrate this technique into your lifting as well. The more you can practice power breathing in all aspects of force production whether it be a heavy deadlift or a powerful crux sequence, the more autonomous it will become.
Photo Credit: John Wesely; @lightningsnaps; Area: Little River Canyon, AL; Climb: Powder Keg 12b; Climber: Rick Willison
Even More Tension!!!
Breathing is the first gateway to relaxation and tension when climbing, but there is another way to increase tension called irradiation.
Irradiation is a tension technique that is rather easy to employ and again is something that climbers instinctively do already. When a muscle contracts, it irradiates nerve force and is able to increase the neighboring muscles’ intensity of contraction. If you are able to contract a larger quantity of musculature, you are able to create more tension where you want it.
I like to use the analogy of closing a circuit when thinking about irradiation. For example, when attempting a maximal single arm military press there are many ways to increase tension which include:
- Screwing your feet into the ground
- Squeezing the ground with your toes
- Flexing your quadriceps
- Flexing your glutes
- Bracing your abdominals
- Engaging your lats
- Making a fist with your free hand, and
- Squeezing the kettlebell as hard as you can.
If any one of these tension techniques is missing, you’re essentially leaking strength and power and have not adequately closed the circuit. When all of these tension techniques are utilized, the circuit is closed and all of that tension is going directly into the act of driving the kettlebell overhead.
Executing difficult moves while climbing requires a great deal of attention in regards to creating tension as well. When you are relatively new to climbing, you really have to pay attention to the subtleties of the movement. At first it is really hard to concentrate on simultaneously creating tension in your hands, arms, abdominals, and legs to keep you on the wall. As you improve however, you begin to create tension where you need it without having to consciously think about it.
Even for advanced climbers, working on creating tension through your whole body while executing difficult moves can prove beneficial. When working hard boulder problems or crux sequences on a sport climb, the difference between sending and falling can be the smallest detail.
Maybe you didn’t squeeze the pinch hard enough when locking off, maybe you didn’t push hard enough on a small foot hold to keep your feet from cutting, or maybe you didn’t create enough tension in your core to stay compressed on that tricky overhanging arête. After working the problem you may instinctively solve the problem, but with better tension generating techniques, maybe you flash the problem or give significantly less burns to send and save energy for your other projects.
How to practice this technique.
- Jump on a boulder problem or sequence of moves that you can complete, but still presents a challenge.
- Run the problem like you would normally, while paying close attention to areas of your body that may not be fully activated (tensed).
- Rest and analyze your performance on the problem. Pinpoint areas of your body that you could more fully engage to increase tension.
- Repeat the problem several times and try to “close the circuit.”
*Another good training idea is to decide which body part you are going to focus on during a given session. Complete your workout as normal, but dedicate extra focus on one aspect of your body. “Today I am going to focus on engaging my abdominals through harder sections of climbing.” Each day you can switch up the focus, and hopefully after multiple sessions you will be able to put it all together without a great deal of mental effort.
*Just like with power breathing, begin to use and practice the power of irradiation in your weight training. When training with weights you are typically performing a movement that involves much less coordination than pulling a crux sequence on the wall. This should allow you the ability to really focus on creating as much tension as possible. Get really good at creating tension with more simple movement patterns and then carry that over into your climbing movement.
- You may have realized there are several areas of your body that need more tension and it may take you several tries to coordinate it all. Again, this technique is a skill and will take practice.
- Picking an easier problem that still presents some difficulty is key. You will be able to practice and experiment with the movement until you get it right and can replicate the proper sequencing of tension. If the problem is too hard you will not be able to focus on improving your movement.
- This is not a technique that you are going to use while moving over easier and moderate terrain. This technique should be used for the most difficult crux moves or crux sequences that are encountered. Remember that climbing is a unique interaction between relaxation and tension. Learn how to create maximal tension when needed, but also how to ratchet down tension (relax) when moving through easier climbing.
Photo Credit: John Wesely; @lightningsnaps; Area: RRG, KY; Climb: Pulling Pockets 10d; Climber: Hal Garner
Power Breathing + Irradiation = Maximal Tension
Each of these tension techniques is a skill, and just like any other skill, you have to practice each of them in order to improve. Once you begin to master each one individually, then you must practice using the techniques in concert with one another. This is where you really can make great strides in creating tension and climbing harder. The ability to “close the circuit” and “match your breath with the force” can lead to significant gains in strength.
These techniques have been developed and used with great success by many strength coaches and kettlebell instructors. I have seen individuals learn these techniques and in the same day utilize them to set personal bests just by employing power breathing and the power of irradiation.
For example, during my first kettlebell certification, I admittedly had a difficult time military pressing much more than a 28kg kettlebell. After learning the power of irradiation and utilizing power breathing, I was able to strict military press a 36kg kettlebell. That is almost a 20lb increase, which is a pretty astounding jump seeing as just hours ago I was struggling with the 28kg kettlebell. So you be the judge, there is no way that in just a mere couple of hours I somehow magically grew stronger muscles. The power of these techniques is real!!!
And while these techniques may have started in a kettlebell or weightlifting gym, I firmly believe that they can be leveraged in our favor when climbing. Climbers are already using these techniques; I have just given them a name, some background info, ways to practice them, and ways to more consciously utilize them to improve your climbing!
But remember the duality that exists between relaxation and tension. Being able to use your breath to relax your body and conserve energy over easier terrain is just as important as being able to ratchet up the tension when moving through difficult sequences. This ability to dynamically and quickly move between times of high tension and relaxation is a skill. And just like every other skill, it needs to be practiced!!!
I hope this article has given you the info you need to take your climbing to the next level! Take time to practice these techniques and critically evaluate your climbing. Create tension when the climbing demands it, and relax when the climbing allows you to!
Joshua Rucci is a collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coach in the Southeastern Conference. He has always been passionate about helping athletes get better and reach their potential.
Upon arriving to the southeast, Joshua quickly realized that his days of team sports were over and that he belonged in the woods mountain biking and climbing.
Joshua entered the climbing game later in life at the ripe old age of 24 and for the past 9 years has been training to transform his body from a 200lb college lacrosse player to a 155lb rock climber.
Joshua’s progression has been slow and steady up to 5.13 sport and double digit boulders with limited interruption from injury or major setbacks. Amidst having to work long hours as a coach, Joshua has effectively been able to manage his time to accommodate training, getting to the crag, work, and a new addition to the family!
Joshua is passionate about strength and conditioning as well as climbing and through his blog entries he is hoping to bring the two worlds together to help climbers utilize the science and practical training that he employs with his athletes.
Joshua’s certifications include NSCA CSCS, NASM PES, SFG Level 2, FMS Level 1, and he completed his undergraduate degree at BGSU in exercise science and completed his graduate work at UGA in motor behavior.
(Title Photo Credit: John Wesely; @lightningsnaps; Area: Citadel, KY; Climb: Afterbirth; Climber: Hal Garner)