Mastering Mind and Body with Breathing Ladders

Mastering Mind and Body with Breathing Ladders

Okay, so you’ve been training seriously for quite a while. You know a lot about different exercises, and set/rep schemes to get the most out of them. Congratulations! Even at that, you may find your training has plateaued. That’s understandable; you cannot rush physiological adaptation. But you can help it along by considering the one element you probably never give a second thought.

So how is your breathing?

If you’re like most people, you breathe through both nose and mouth as much as needed between hard sets of compound exercises. You probably don’t start a new set until you’re comfortable. You may not even be breathing correctly. Take a deep breath; did you feel your chest expand? Well, you failed! Let me teach you how to breathe.

Deep breaths should always be accomplished by “belly breathing.” Sit down and close your eyes, placing your hand on your belly. Inhale slowly through your nose only. Your chest won’t move much but you should feel your belly “inflate.” Next, even more slowly, exhale through your nose, retracting abdominal muscles as you push inhaled air out completely. Continue for a few minutes, focusing on the movement of your stomach. Good job; now follow me.

Okay, so what is a breathing ladder?

You will now match each rep of a dynamic, compound exercise with an equal number of belly breaths. Heavy kettlebell swings or sandbag thrusters are perfect choices. We’ll use swings for our example. Remember, you must breathe exclusively through your nose both during and between swings.

Complete one swing. Set the kettlebell down and take one belly breath. Take two swings, followed by two belly breaths. Continue in this fashion, matching swings and breaths in a 1:1 ratio all the way up to 20 swings followed by 20 breaths! If you feel panicked at any point, then breathe normally. But if you can resist that urge and power through, your body will begin a process of adaptation that will improve lactate clearance and gradually increase maximal oxygen consumption. You’re now officially a beginner.

You mean it gets harder?

Of course it does. Now you have the option of descending all the way back to one swing/one breath. The entire ladder now consists of 400 swings and 400 breaths. You will inevitably experience panic. Focus totally on your breathing, slow and deep. Keep going! You are now in command and your body will follow. If you need variety, try this with sandbag thrusters, but don’t start with more than 10.

Why are breathing ladders so effective?

Breathing ladders take you to the edge. They may make you feel that you’re suffocating, but you can override the panic at any time by opening your mouth and breathing deeply. The longer you resist that urge, the more adaptation that will occur.

  • You will increase your body’s efficiency in processing oxygen and removing lactic acid, especially from respiratory muscles.
  • You will also change your response to panic, learning to stay calm.
  • You will become a better endurance athlete, because breathing ladders increase both aerobic and anaerobic performance.
  • You will cause changes in your autonomic nervous system that make it easier to “push the envelope” in future sessions.

So catch your breath, because there’s work to be done.


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