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The subject of breathing in the martial arts is a large one. Many ‘traditional’ arts, such as taijiquan, qigong and yoga have a whole corpus of knowledge about various breathing techniques, but in recent years, Western medicine and sport science have also begun to bring their discipline and rational approach to bear on the subject. This article aims to give an overview on some key findings from sports science which can help to inform the practice of taijiquan. In typical taiji fashion I am dividing the subject into a yang part: power generation and a yin part: relaxation and health.

Breathing and Power Generation

At the outset I should say that most martial arts actually don’t need a huge amount of power to be effective, but understanding the principles of how breathing can enhance power production provides a rational framework that can inform and enhance what we do.

One hugely influential writer in the field of sports science is Vladimir Zatsiorsky[i] and a key distinction that he makes is between anatomical breathing and biomechanical breathing. Both are forms of breathing where breath and movement are co-ordinated and both can be performed as either abdominal or chest breathing.

Anatomical breathing is where inhalation corresponds to an expansive movement, for example when you are rising from a squat or on the upward phase of a good morning, and exhalation occurs during a contracting move, for example when you are sinking into a squat or bending forwards into a good morning. Anatomical breathing is used a lot in taijiquan and qigong where the anatomical match between movement and breathing is used to promote deep breathing and relaxation.

Biomechanical breathing is where you exhale during the point of a movement where the most muscular force is required, for example, exhaling while rising from a squat and inhaling while sinking into a squat. Most martial arts will use some form of biomechanical breathing – even western boxers exhale when punching.

Another important distinction is between forced breathing and natural breathing. Forced breathing is accelerating the inhalation or exhalation so that air is inhaled or exhaled with greater force than you might naturally use. Forced breathing will often engage a wide range of the core muscles as well as the diaphragm and pelvic floor muscles. It is possible to do forced breathing just from the chest, but in general it engages the whole abdominal and core area. Most biomechanical breathing will be forced in that the breath is often accelerated to coincide with the movement. Anatomical breathing can also be forced, but often in taijiquan the movement is slowed to match a natural breathing pace rather than the other way round.

In tests on isolated muscle movements forced breathing has been shown to increase power production in the large muscles of the legs and arms. Forced exhalation during extension and adduction exercises can generate 5% to 11% extra power[ii]. Exhaling during flexion and adduction increases maximum force by 2% to7% on the upper limbs but reduces it on the legs. Interestingly forced inhalation while extending the legs increases power production by 13% but reduces power production during extension and adduction of the upper limbs.

In terms of taijiquan, most reverse breathing can be considered a form of forced breathing.

Zatsiorsky recommends the Valsalva Manoeuvre as the optimal breathing pattern for power production. The Valsalva Manoeuvre is where you exhale forcefully against a partially closed glottis. It can also be done with the tongue pressed against the teeth or the lips partially pressed together. You also flex your glutes, abs and contract your sphincter to ensure the pressure does not escape in the wrong direction. This is essentially the same manoeuvre as the ‘G-Lock’ or ‘Hook’ performed by fighter pilots to withstand extremes of G-force and in terms of taijiquan it is pretty much the same as heng ha breathing.

Experimental research shows that the Valsalva Manoeuvre is slightly less effective for power production than a forced exhale on isolated limb movements, but Zatsiorsky argues that the additional intra-abdominal pressure increases core stability, reducing pressure on the spine by up to 40%, thus allowing a more efficient transfer of power from the larger muscles of the legs to the upper body. In a large multi-joint movement the power generated is limited by the weakest point in that movement, and for many people that may well be the spine, so the benefits of intra-abdominal pressure are clear.

The use of a restricted air passage is also recommended as a form of resistance training for the diaphragm. Alexandra Strelnikova recommends sharp nasal inhalation exercises and Konstantin Buteyko (see below) recommends nasal breathing during exercise. A breath restricting device was also developed by Vladimir Frolov to improve athletic ability. The practice of breathing against resistance or restriction will probably also be recognised as a key training principle by practitioners of hard qigong.

Zatsiorsky also recommends isolating the Valsalva Manoeuvre into separate breathing exercises and suggests that this is the best core exercise because of the way that it engages the deeper muscles such as the transverse abdominus, internal obliques and diaphragm. However, the news isn’t all good, as the use of increased intra-abdominal pressure can have several negative effects on the cardiovascular system such as increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, increased risk of cerebral haemorrhage[iii] and piles.

This warning is also pertinent to any form of martial art where you are likely to be hit or knocked down. Most people have an automatic stress reaction of a short sharp inhale followed by a breath hold. If you do this before being hit or knocked down the impact can increase intra-abdominal and intra-thoracic pressure to the degree where you suffer a heart attack or haemorrhage, so it is good practice to train people to exhale during almost all martial drills. For older people who are particularly at risk of falls, learning to exhale as an automatic reaction can literally be a life saver. The act of exhaling and releasing pressure is also beneficial for relaxation and stress reduction.

The ability to inhale deeply is a valuable skill for any martial artist as fast rapid panting or panic breathing is highly inefficient and may ‘steal’ up to 70% of the oxygen you are breathing just in the action of breathing. Being able to exhale and inhale forcefully enables you to quickly re-establish a comfortable oxygen / carbon dioxide hypostasis and also directly links with the autonomic nervous system to relax you. In a fight or other stressful situation poor or stressed breathing can quickly lead to a range of stress reactions including: temporary paralysis, tunnel vision, panic, perceptual distortion, loss of fine motor co-ordination, etc[iv] most of which is not really helpful, unless it is not you who is panicking, in which case a side step could well remove you from their visual field rendering you invisible. Knowing techniques such as ‘tactical breathing’ (sometimes known as ‘square breathing’ – inhale for four, hold for four, exhale for four, hold for four) can save your life as often the key thing that differentiates survivors from non-survivors is not panicking.

Breathing, Relaxation and Health

Another highly useful and very basic set of distinctions around breathing came from the Russian space programme these are: mouth and nose breathing, thoracic (chest) and diaphragmatic (abdominal) breathing. Both are easy to understand distinctions and relate closely to common taijiquan practices.

Mouth Breathing

The main advantage of mouth breathing is that it allows for a stronger more direct exchange of air into the lungs. This can be useful during extremes of physical exertion, but at almost all other times is not necessary and has a range of negative effects including:

·         Biomechanical stress, from cold air entering the lungs

·         Biomechanical stress from dry air entering the lungs

·         Biomechanical stress, from dirty air (dust, carbon micro particles, bacteria, viruses etc) entering the lungs

·         Less carbon dioxide and nitric oxide in the lungs

In longitudinal studies on breathing Konstantin Buteyko[v] discovered that during the twentieth century breathing patterns changed quite radically: mouth breathing became more common, the frequency of the breathing cycle increased and the volume of air being breathed rose from an average of 5 litres per minute in the 1940s to 12 litres per minute in the 1990s. By the end of the twentieth century ‘over breathing’ had become the norm. The change in breathing pattern is explained by:

·         Changes in air quality

·         An increase in the amount of time spent sitting

·         More stressful lifestyles

·         Poor posture

·         An increase in physical inactivity

Buteyko believed that the way you breathe affects the way that you live and that many ‘modern’ conditions are the direct result of over breathing. Buteyko’s research showed that a normal healthy breathing rate is around 6 breaths per minute, someone who is ill will take 10-20 breaths per minute and someone who is critically ill may breathe at even faster rates. Buteyko found that illness also affects your ability to hold your breath. Someone in normal good health should be able to hold their breath for 40-60 seconds (nowadays this is more likely to be in the range of 25-35 seconds); someone in poor health, but without serious medical problems should be able to hold their breath for 20-40 seconds; someone who is sick will only be able to hold their breath for 10-20 seconds and someone who is critically ill for less than 10 seconds[vi].

From these key findings Buteyko experimented with breathing patterns as a way of treating diseases and improving health. His research successfully identified that breathing through your nose is one of the single most important actions that you can do to improve your health, especially when combined with diaphragmatic breathing.

Nose Breathing

Nose breathing has a number of major benefits, including:

·         Cleaning, warming and humidifying the air entering the lungs

·         Increasing the negative and positive pressure necessary for breathing to occur

·         Increasing the presence of carbon dioxide in the lungs

·         Increasing the presence of nitric oxide in the lungs

·         A health feedback system

·         Slowing the breathing

The nasal passage is designed to clean, warm and humidify the air entering the lungs by passing it across a thin layer of protective mucus. This mucus traps around 98% of bacteria, viruses, dust and particles and provides a first layer of defence against airborne toxins and diseases. A secondary benefit is the way that it supports the body’s immune system. Having trapped various bacteria and viruses the mucus is swallowed to the stomach. The enzymes and hydrochloric acid in the stomach kill or disable these pathogens before they enter the body through the small intestine. The dead or weakened pathogens are then picked up by the immune system, which learns how to deal with them. This in a sense is a natural immunisation process.

The warming and humidification of the air in the nose and sinuses supports and enhances the process of gas exchange in the lungs and reduces potential stress on the lungs. This is particularly important to athletes as mouth breathing can cause a drying and cooling of the airways that may lead to the conditions known as exercise induced asthma and exercise induced bronchospasm.

The narrower air passageway through the nose constricts the air flow into and out of the lungs. This creates the need for a greater pressure differential between the thoracic cavity and the ambient air conditions. In effect this more or less necessitates the use of diaphragmatic breathing. It also has the effect of making the diaphragm have to work harder to inhale (conditioning it) and slowing the exhale (relaxation phase). As a side effect the diaphragmatic breathing process also requires the maintenance of a better posture, while mouth breathing tends to lead to a collapsing of the posture because of the sudden loss of pressure in the thoracic and abdominal cavities.

The amount of carbon dioxide in the lungs is increased by breathing through the nose. This is a subtle, but important consideration in the body’s hypostasis. By breathing through the nose there is a slight increase in what is known as ‘dead space’ (the volume of air that is not changed during breathing). The remaining air in the lungs and ‘dead space’ contains exhaled carbon dioxide which mixes with the air that is inhaled. This also helps with the process of humidification. The full role of carbon dioxide in breathing is only just becoming understood, it is far more than just a ‘waste gas’ it actually enables and governs much of the breathing processes.

Buteyko suggests that fast breathing patterns, where carbon dioxide levels are low have a self-replicating equilibrium point and so do slower breathing patterns where carbon dioxide levels are higher. The trouble is that the fast breathing pattern seems to condition an oversensitivity to carbon dioxide into the serotonergic neurons in the medulla that control breathing and once established this homeostasis is hard to change.

Nasal breathing helps increase levels of carbon dioxide and nitric oxide (emitted by the sinuses), which act as vasodilators and help relax muscular tissues. Once you build up a tolerance to carbon dioxide it causes muscles to relax, you hold less tension and use less oxygen bringing the body back into a state of homeostasis but at a slower breathing rate. Managing to get to this ‘tipping point’ was also viewed as key to mastering abdominal breathing. Buteyko found that many patients’ diaphragms were stuck in a tension spasm preventing abdominal breathing, but this could be released by higher levels of carbon dioxide in the blood.

Another influence of increased carbon dioxide levels in the blood is to lower the ph levels making the blood more acidic. This relates directly to the Bohr Effect, discovered by Christian Bohr (father of the Nobel Prize winning Niels Bohr). The Bohr Effect shows that oxygen binds to haemoglobin with less affinity in slightly acidic blood allowing it to be released into tissue more efficiently. It is this saturation of oxygen in the tissues that allows longer breath holding.

Buteyko also found that as well as breathing correctly, physical exercise also improved the ability to hold the breath. Again, as with breathing the human body seems to have two clearly defined balance points. A major improvement occurs when doing more than one and a half hours of physical training per day. Buteyko advocated breathing through the nose when exercising as it provided a self-regulating system. Breathing through the nose seemed to restrict people who were unwell from over exercising by limiting what they could do. For athletes it added an additional layer of conditioning to their training, but wouldn’t be suitable for competitions where maximal exertion was needed.

Thoracic (Chest) Breathing

Buteyko’s research has shown that during the twentieth century thoracic breathing has replaced diaphragmatic breathing as the norm. It is widely known that thoracic breathing is associated with stress related conditions, but it also has wider implications.

Thoracic breathing largely uses the upper portion of the lung. This has been shown to be a highly inefficient way to breathe. The upper 7% of the lung is only capable of delivering 4ml of oxygen into the blood, while the lower 13% of the lung can transport 60ml of oxygen per minute[vii]. The lower portion of the lung is 7 times more efficient than the upper lung in terms of transporting oxygen to the blood.

To accommodate this inefficiency thoracic breathing is forced to take in a lot more air. People who breathe from the chest take 18 to 20 breaths per minute, in inhale 12 to 18 litres of air per minute. This places a degree of mechanical strain on the body and in spite of the volume of air being breathed there is still a tendency towards hypoxia- lowered oxygen levels in the blood.

Using diaphragmatic breathing and a normal breathing rate of 6 breaths per minute an adult at rest would take in between 3 and 6 litres of air, which would be sufficient to provide arterial blood with 98-99% oxygen saturation.

As well as reducing oxygen levels in the blood, thoracic breathing also fails to expel stale air from the lower portion of the lungs. This means that the waste materials and toxins passing from the more efficient lower lung are not regularly exhaled and remain stagnant in the lung. This is one of the reasons that thoracic breathing is thought to contribute to conditions like asthma, bronchitis, heart disease and cancer.

Diaphragmatic (Abdominal) Breathing

The lungs contain no muscles and so are entirely dependent on accessory muscle groups to function. When contracted, the diaphragm is pulled downwards, by as much as 10cm, increasing the thoracic volume and decreasing the intra-pulmonic pressure to create a partial vacuum which draws the air into the lungs. Exhaling is primarily a passive process (at rest), but can also engage a range of core muscles to support it. When the diaphragm is relaxed it recoils back up into the thoracic cavity, decreasing the volume of the lungs, increasing pressure and expelling air from them. This is known as negative pressure breathing. The process is usually combined with the movement of the scaleni muscles (along the vertebrae) and the intercostal muscles (between the ribs). When the scaleni and intercostal muscles contract they lift the rib cage aiding the expansion of the thoracic cavity during inhalation. Relaxation of the scalene and intercostal muscles drops the rib cage back down, decreasing the volume of the thoracic cavity and aiding exhalation.

Both the diaphragm and the muscles of the chest are used during breathing. It is the ratio of usage of these two sets of muscles that determines whether the breathing is diaphragmatic (abdominal) or thoracic (chest).

As well as transporting oxygen more efficiently, diaphragmatic breathing has a number of other well known benefits. These include:

·         Relaxation – Thoracic breathing creates the physical condition of stress, both in the action of breathing quickly and in its direct influence of breathing quickly on the sympathetic nervous system. This in effect creates a sustained state of arousal or stress in pretty much every cell in the body. Conversely, diaphragmatic breathing can help relax the body by reducing physical stress and exerting a powerful influence on the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for resting and digesting.

·         Lymphatic drainage – 60% of the body’s lymph nodes are located under the diaphragm, so as well as pumping air in and out of the body the diaphragm acts as a lymphatic pump, helping to cleanse the lymph nodes and increasing the rate of toxic elimination by around fifteen times.

·         Detoxification – correct breathing will allow almost all waste from complex carbohydrates to be exhaled, reducing stress on other organs like the liver, kidneys and intestines. In theory, just as stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system can cause constriction of almost every cell in the body and lead to the build up of toxins, stimulation of the parasympathetic system can cause an opening of the channels necessary for detoxification through the pores of the skin, gut, liver and so on.

·         Digestion – the action of the diaphragm is like an abdominal pump, which can help promote digestion and the transit of food through the gut. The stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system accelerates peristalsis and promotes the production of saliva, gastric juices and secretions in the large intestine

·         Heart rate – the pace of our breathing directly influences the parasympathetic nervous system that controls the breath dependent variability of the heart rate, or to put it simply, breathing slowly helps slow the heart rate, reduces the force with which it pumps, and lowers blood pressure.

·         Sexual arousal – the parasympathetic nervous system regulates sexual arousal, which is why prolonged stress can lead to sexual dysfunction and why unexpected sexual arousal can be experienced during meditation and relaxation exercises.

·         Voice production – breathing from the chest can cause a constriction of the bronchioles leading to a tenser and higher pitched voice. Most voice tuition (for singing and acting) includes some breath training as diaphragmatic breathing can ‘support’ the voice making it stronger, deeper, more controlled and allows a longer more sustained breath.

·         Reduction in free radical production – many free radicals arise as a result of hypoxia, thus by keeping the blood and cells sufficiently oxygenated abdominal breathing helps reduce the number of free radicals in the system and prevents the damage they can do to the body.


For me, sport science has enriched my understanding and appreciation of the art of taijiquan. It provides rational and logical reasons behind the effects that taijiquan practitioners experience and it is suggestive of ways to improve our training practice.

Although the training of power lifting and taijiquan may seem vastly different there are strong points of similarity. Zatsiorsky found that people starting weight training could increase the amount that they lifted by 100% to 200% in eight weeks[viii]. This was not down to any increase in muscle, but to the improved neural activation of the muscles. Similarly, people who are subjected to periods of inactivity decline in strength more rapidly than can be attributed purely to muscle loss. Another interesting aspect to this is that using visualisation it is possible to achieve 60% of the results of those who are training with weights (over the short term). Even though in taijiquan we do not train with force, integrating breathing and movements, combined with a detailed knowledge of what we are doing will have a significant effect.

As Laozi says, “Water is fluid, soft, and yielding, but water will wear away rock.” Anything you do five thousand to thirty thousand times a day, two to ten million times a year will exert a strong influence over your life. The use of breath training in taijiquan is one of our most powerful tools and can be used to benefit our strength, health and wellbeing.

Glenn Gossling, 2011

This article was first published in Tai Chi Magazine

[i] Zatsiorsky VM, Kraemer WJ, ‘Science and Practice of Strength Training’, 2006.

[ii] Ikeda, Borg, Brown, Malouf, Showers, Sheng, ‘The Valsalva Maneuver Revisited’ 2009

[iii] Looga R, ‘The Valsalva manoeuvre-cardiovascular effects and performance technique: a critical review’, 2005

[iv] Grossman D, Christensen L, ‘On Conmbat’, 2004

[v] Buteyko K, Buteyko Method: the experience of the implementation in the medical practice’ 1991

[vi] Altukhov S, ‘Doctor Buteyko's Discovery Trilogy’, 1990

[vii] West J, ‘Respiratory Physiology’, 2000

[viii] Zatsiorsky V, ‘Biomechanics in Sport’, 2000