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Are You Breathing Correctly? Enhance Your Martial Arts Performance and Your Life 

Updated: Jun 11

breathing correctly
Black Belt Plus

What if I told you that strength, speed, power and health all start with your nose?

Depending on how you breathe, you can either maximize or depress your martial arts performance. Just because you’re breath- ing doesn’t mean you’re breathing correctly. Things like stress, the common cold and our modern life- style can make your breath- ing pattern worse.

Ideally, proper breathing will be taught while a martial artist is still young — Brazilian karate champion Igor Leite learned from his father and karate sensei when he was 4 years old. With the right instruction, however, the skill readily can be acquired later in life.

“Breathing properly must be learned, practiced and made a habit by everyone,” says Leite, now 36. “Everyone is born breathing through the nose, but as people get older, they unconsciously switch their breathing from the nose to the mouth.

“There are too many things in modern life like sitting too much, working, stress, inactivity, etc. that compromise our breathing pattern. We must be mindful about our breathing to optimize and maximize its energy. If not, it will lead to a path that worsens health and impedes strength.”

With a little effort, breathing correctly can become natural for you, just as it is for Leite. Then you’ll be fully aware and mindful of your inhalations and exhalations at all times while reaping the benefits as you practice your art, he says.

So are you breathing correctly for martial arts? Lets find out.


Breathing through your nose is the key to boosting your health, increasing your chi, enhancing your vitality and improving your strength. In fact, nasal diaphragmatic breathing (NDB) is essential for any fitness and conditioning program, and it sits at the heart of all martial arts.

When air is delivered to the lungs via NDB, the lungs function optimally and performance is maximized. That occurs because the following actions take place:

  • VO2 is enhanced.

  • Intra-abdominal pressure produces the tension needed to create core power during martial arts movements, is boosted.

  • Oxygen and CO2 are exchanged efficiently.

  • Relaxation is facilitated.

  • Mental clarity and sharpness are augmented.

  • Reflex responses occur more quickly.

Note that breathing through the mouth does not offer any of these benefits. Even worse, it can sabotage them, fostering the opposite effects.

Furthermore, NDB creates volume in the lungs by contracting the diaphragm, which is the muscle that pulls down the lower part of the lungs so we can breathe. The mid to lower areas of the lungs are 30 to 50 percent larger than the mid to upper areas. This is important because the bottoms of the lungs feature more alveoli than the upper parts. Alveoli are sacs that exchange oxygen and CO2. The more alveoli you use, the better your muscles function which is how you increase your VO, or your body’s maximum rate of oxygen usage. 

breathing correctly

Because you’re using more space and more alveoli when you engage in NDB, your breathing slows and you actually pause after each exhalation. As a result, your heart rate decreases because it has to pump less blood. This is important in the prevention of arrhythmia and the transition into an athlete.

Correcting a misconception: If you don’t need oxygen, you won’t breathe until you need it. There’s no need to take deep breaths all the time. This is how you create imbalance.

Another benefit of nasal breathing is the production of nitric oxide. This gas is produced in the nose and acts similarly to CO2, which means it has powerful dilation effects. When you inhale, the nitric oxide present in your nose keeps your bronchial tubes and bronchioles dilated to a normal resting level. That makes it easier for air to enter the alveoli so oxygen can be transported in the blood. Nitric oxide also acts as an antimicrobial in that it filters the air in your nose, thus preventing bacteria and pollutants from entering the body.

Clearly, NDB has the potential to alleviate many common physical ailments, and all that’s required is restructuring your breathing. It’s even more important in the quest to maximize your martial arts endurance.


When you breathe through your mouth, you use the mid to upper parts of the lungs, where there are significantly fewer alveoli, and that reduces CO2 below normal levels. CO2 is an essential gas because it’s a natural dilator that relaxes muscles, stimulates nerves (especially nerves to the brain), and reduces inflammation in joints and muscles. This is important because how you breathe will affect your training and your energy levels.

For example, when CO2 is high during exercise, it acts as a dilator to increase the blood flow so O2 can be released into areas of high CO2 concentration, thus balancing the acidic environment. On the other hand, when CO2 levels are low, less O2 is released, which causes veins and arteries to contract. That reduces blood flow to the brain, heart and muscles. You create this condition because you’re exhaling too much CO2 at one time through your mouth. Just because you can move more air more quickly through the mouth does not mean it’s better than moving it through your nose. In the end, it will affect your performance, strength and endurance in a negative way.


It’s useful to determine how many breaths you take in one minute. Just breathe normally as you monitor the time. Don’t inhale so your shoulders rise as you struggle to get in the last bit of air. If you’re a mouth breather, breathe through your mouth. If you breathe rapidly, do it for the test or you’ll be missing the point. If you don’t know what is dysfunctional, you won’t know how to move forward. Note that when you’re counting, one breath includes an inhalation and the subsequent exhalation. Evaluate your results as follows:

  • 3 to 7 breaths per minute — excellent/normal

  • 8 breaths per minute — good (normal)

  • 9 to 18 breaths per minute — below normal/poor

  • 19 or more breaths per minute — poor


Here’s how you can alter your breathing to make it healthier. At rest, inhale and exhale through your nose while keeping your mouth closed. Take a long, natural, comfortable inhalation and then exhale. This will create a pause after each breath. Don’t force anything or struggle to inhale more air. Let your body cue you to take deeper breaths when it needs to. If you take extra-deep breaths all the time, it will have the same effect as mouth breathing.

The more you practice breathing, the more it will adjust over time. Aim for a five-second pause after each exhala- tion before the next inhalation. In trained athletes, the normal resting breathing rate is frequently low. They often pause for 10 seconds or more because of NDB. 

When you breathe through your mouth, there is little to no pause.


Breathing into the stretch is important to facilitate muscular contraction and the relaxation you need to foster flexibility. The breathing pattern for flexibility is much slower than for the strength phase of movement. In Travell & Simons’ Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction: The Trigger Point Manual, Janet G. Travell, M.D., and David G. Simons, M.D., write, “Inhalation encourages the contraction of most muscles, and exhalation encourages their relaxation.”

Try this drill: Get into a lunge position. Contract your glute. Inhale, and while you do so, tighten your abdominals and stretch your hip flexor to maximum by lower- ing your hips. Inhale into the stretch. Once the move- ment stops, pause at the barrier and then slowly exhale. Pay attention to how your hips can move closer to the floor. You’ll feel the increase in flexibility instantly.

Breathing and contracting facilitate the stretch, whereas just stretching places excessive force on the muscles, which is not optimal.

After the exhalation, inhale again, repeating the exercise three or more times to instantly increase range of motion.


During strength and power training, inhaling through the nose contracts the diaphragm and produces intra-abdominal pressure to create abdominal ten- sion. And the slow exhalation is a hiss through the mouth. Hissing through the mouth maintains abdominal tension.

The hiss is the power release. It can be controlled for more or less tension. If you don’t have pressure and tension, you won’t generate force and power. Stuart McGill, Ph.D., a renowned biomechanics professor, refers to this as “bracing breath.” He says, “Bracing breath transfers to the spine and muscles throughout the body.” The diaphragm is the key to making this happen.


Stand up and contract your glutes to about 70 per- cent. This will activate your lower abdominals below the navel where chi is located and bring your hips into alignment. This is the center and the strongest point of your body.

Inhale through your nose. As you do, tighten your abdominals while keeping your glutes contracted. Don’t let your stomach distend. As you inhale, you’ll feel it all the way down to your feet, which helps you generate power from the ground up during martial arts movements.

Your abdominals should automatically tighten because your diaphragm is contracting. Tighten around the pressure of your breath and think “brace.”

Now exhale-hiss, keeping your glutes tight. Don’t exhale all your air; just release your breath through your mouth. Exhale by hissing the air out, making an actual hissing sound. The harder you push the air out through the exhale hiss, the more your abdominals will engage in isometric contraction. You can use “breathing ladders” to build your breathing strength: three seconds for the inhalation and three seconds for the exhalation, working your way up to four and four, then five and five.

The abdominal cavity has receptors that sense the increase in pressure from the inhalation. That increases tension, which increases power.

Practice training your breathing reflex with a little force and then a lot of force. Feel the differences in intensity and in the resulting abdominal contractions. 

“Energy, strength and power must come from the diaphragm practiced through nasal diaphragmatic breathing,” Leite said. “You cannot suck air in and out of the mouth. This is not energy efficient and is the [way to become] tired and fatigued, as well as the limitation hindering strength, performance and progression.

“Strength and power development is all about how you breathe, function and train to deliver maximal results. Doing the latest and greatest workout does not ensure progression; how you breathe does. Breathing expresses how we can and will move.”

Jason Kelly has worked as an exercise physiologist for 20 years. He’s written three books: The Balanced Body, Your Breath Is Your Power and Instant Strength. He also teaches workshops on strength, performance and health.

This article originally appeared in a 2020 edition of Black Belt Magazine.

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