How Breathing Affects CrossFit Performance – Part 1

Other than bracing for a heavy lift, most CrossFit athletes don’t pay much attention to the way they’re breathing—inside or outside the gym. How many times a day do you think we breathe? Typically over 20,000 times! Breathing is a foundational movement that plays a critical role in not only oxygen in and carbon dioxide out, but..

  1. trunk control
  2. muscle recovery
  3. and many important processes within the body.

​Shallow breathing, which is using the chest and not the diaphragm, is a very common dysfunctional breathing pattern that doesn’t allow you to get as much oxygen as you otherwise would — it mimics the type of breathing common during stressful situations.

You see this all the time in athletes. They will perform a tough workout, and they will partially hinge over, hands on their knees, and drop their head down and try to catch their breath. And you will see their shoulders are up by their ears. I’m guilty of this at times as well – over the past few months as I’ve revisited these concepts I’ve been able to adjust my ability to recover through proper breathing, and it’s made a HUGE difference. There’s nothing worse than being dead out of breathe during these workouts without muscle fatigue.

Okay so what exactly is going on here? Well, dysfunctional breathing can have many negative consequences on respiratory chemistry which can have a huge effect on a wide range of system functions….. respiratory chemistry meaning the balance of chemicals in your lungs and breathing systems:

1). Chest breathing causes an increased amount of CO2 in your body, which increases the acidity of your blood. The more acidic your blood becomes, the more inefficient your muscles will be, and overall performance will suffer.
2.) Elevated CO2 levels also put your body in what’s called a “fight or flight” state — which is a stress response that occurs in your body during a threatening situation.  This can increase HR, increase anxiety, increase stress, impair reflexes, and impair focus.
3.) Speaking of focus – How many of you have pile-drived through a workout and midway through suddenly can’t remember what round you’re on or what your rep count is? Breathing affects this aswell. Being focused on the task at hand is just as important as performing the task.

Focusing on breathing correctly (think quality vs quantity) will create:

  1. more efficient work output
  2. more precise responses from our central nervous system
  3. and without a doubt boost overall performance.

​Now, we talked a bit about performance, but what about injury? Dysfunctional breathing patterns have been shown to play a significant role in posture, technique, and movement control associated with back, neck, hip, and shoulder pain. Here are some examples:

The spine is one of the most frequently injured body regions in CrossFit. There are a few things happening here with excessive chest breathers (these are related to non-acute injuries):

  • It causes hyperextension of lumbar spine → which is the most common lower back movement pattern that leads to pain
  • It also causes hyperextension of the cervical spine → also the most common movement pattern in the neck that leads to pain

Also, when you disrupt trunk stability, especially in the neck and lower back, a host of other issues can occur, particularly in the shoulders and hips – two very common problem areas in CrossFit athletes.

It’s important to recognize that dysfunctional breathing has been recognized for many years as a potential source of a wide variety of unexplained symptoms. If you’re one of those people that’s had continued issues in any of these areas, you’ve received treatment, but things still linger or come back, I highly recommend you consider your breathing patterns and implement some of the concepts I’m about to talk about.


What’s also important is to recognize that your breathing patterns play a crucial role in core stability.
Core stability must come from the inside out, not the outside in — such as weight belts for example.

A healthy spine is dependent on strong core stability and the dynamic coordination of many muscles especially the deep abdominal muscles. Are you familiar with what IAP is? – it’s that big breathe you take prior to big lifts, and it’s the smaller controlled breathes you take to do burpees for example so you don’t flop like a worm. Simply put, it’s the pressure your body generates from within to keep you safe during workouts.


​Intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) 
is an important parameter that influences spinal mechanics and stiffness….. And its generated by the muscles of respiration aka breathing. What muscle is main key driver of breathing?

Check out Part 2 to find out, AND learn how to breath correctly to boost performance!

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