Struggling to Breathe During Planks? Here’s Why & The Solution

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Do you find yourself holding your breath whenever you plank?

Or do you eventually give up on a plank because you’re struggling to control your breathing?

As it turns out, this is an extremely common planking issue.

Here’s why this occurs and how to fix it.

If you can’t breathe during planks it’s usually because you’re holding your breath or breathing from your chest. Therefore, you need to learn how to “breathe behind the shield”, which involves bracing your abs, while taking slow and controlled breaths. A good practice is to actually count breaths rather than seconds when you plank.

You’re Breathing From Your Chest

One of the main form cues when you plank is to contract your abs.

Essentially, you brace your abs as though you’re about to receive a punch.

However, most people tend to hold their breath when they tense their abdominals.

And this is exactly what you’re doing when you plank.

That being said, as you hold the plank for longer you realise that there’s no way you can continue without actually breathing.

But unfortunately, what typically happens here is that you start to breathe from your chest.

And chest breathing is most commonly associated with our internal fight or flight mechanism.

Basically, we revert to chest breathing when we feel stressed.

However, chest breathing automatically tenses muscles, tenses the joints, and stiffens the entire body.

In effect, this actually makes breathing much harder, which is often why you feel out of breath when you’re stressed.

Risks of Chest Breathing - Reduced Oxygen Intake, Increased blood pressure, Increased heart rate, Shoulder Pain, Neck Pain, Upper Back Pain, Headaches, Reduced Physical Ability, Fatigue, Sleep Issues.

And if you continue to hold your breath or breathe from your chest during planks your performance will diminish over time.

So, you have to learn another way, the correct way of breathing.

I’ll cover this in more detail in just a moment.

Your Plank Form is Poor

Now, while many trainees tend to hold their breath or breath from their chest when they plank, this can automatically occur even if you’re trying to breathe correctly.

The main reason for this is simply poor form.

In fact, there is an ideal way to hold a plank which can actually help with your breathing.

This initially involves dropping your ribs down slightly.

You can actually practice this movement while sitting or standing.

So, initially take a deep breath in and allow your abdominals to contract.

Now, as you exhale, actually push your lower rib cage down with your hands.

You’ll notice that this feels completely natural and very familiar.

That’s because this is how you normally breathe when you’re not under any stress or pressure.

This is what you need to learn to do while you plank.

Furthermore, you also need to roll your hips under slightly, whereby you get yourself into a slight posterior pelvic tilt.

However, a common occurrence during planks is to allow your hips to sag towards the floor, while almost putting yourself into anterior pelvic tilt.

Not only does this position mean that you’re not activating your abdominals and core as well, but it also makes it far harder to breathe naturally.

Additionally, dropping your hips will put a great deal of strain on your lower back while you plank.

Plus, a lot of the planking tension will also go into your shoulders.

So, remember to push your rib cage down, roll your hips under, while activating your abs, glutes, quads and shoulders.

This will ensure that you stay in the optimal plank position, plus it makes breathing much easier.

Count Breaths Not Seconds

Now, most of us tend to count seconds when we perform planks.

Whether it’s 30 seconds, 1 minute, or 2 minutes, we typically count seconds in our head while we plank.

Granted, you may use a timer or a stopwatch, but there is a tendency to also count seconds to yourself.

For me, one of the best ways to ensure that I am breathing, and breathing correctly when I plank, is to actually count breaths rather than seconds.

Essentially, a one-minute plank is probably around 15-20 deep, slow, and controlled breaths.

So, I’ll get into plank position, inhale deeply while contracting my entire body.

Then as I exhale I feel my ribs being automatically pushed down.

And I’ll continue taking these slow and controlled breaths until the end of my set.

I think one of the main issues with planks and breathing is that you don’t feel you are fully contracting your abs when you breathe.

However, the transverse abdominis, which is the deepest of the abdominal muscles, directly below the rectus abdominis (6-pack muscle), will automatically relax whenever you inhale.

So, if you’re trying to stop your abdominal muscles from relaxing then you’ll typically end up holding your breath or breathing from the chest.

Therefore, you must learn how to relax the transverse abdominis, while simultaneously contracting the rectus abdominis.

And I’ll show you exactly how to do this now.

Learn to “Breathe Behind the Shield”

In order to perform a plank effectively you need to learn to brace and breathe.

And the best way to achieve this is by using the Pavel Tsatsouline method of “breathing behind the shield”.

Pavel is probably best known for reintroducing kettlebells to the west and his much lauded Russian fighter pull up program.

Essentially, the shield is your abs, or more specifically your rectus abdominis, which is the visible six-pack muscle at the front of your torso.

You can actually practice breathing behind the shield in a number of ways.

Firstly, from a standing position contract your abs.

Now, you are going to breathe using your abdominals and diaphragm.

So, initially tense your abs and place your hands on your stomach.

Take a deep inhale and your stomach should come out.

And when you exhale your stomach should come back in.

Keep practicing this abdominal and diaphragm breathing until you feel you’ve nailed.

Now, using abdominal breathing in this position is all well and good, but you’re not putting your body under any stress, as you would while planking.

Use Other Exercises to Master “Breathing Behind the Shield”

So, you can actually use abdominal breathing while performing certain exercises.

This typically involves having a weight in front of you.

For me, the best way to achieve this is to perform loaded carries.

Loaded Carries to Help With 'Breathing Behind the Shield' - Zercher Carries, Kettlebell Front Rack Carries, Dumbbell Goblet Carries.

Once you’re loaded with weight in front of you, brace your core, and simply start walking.

The aim here is to breathe from your diaphragm while walking and carrying the load.

Essentially, you’re bracing in exactly the same way as you would when you plank, but proper breathing is essential to allow you to keep walking.

Something else to try is getting yourself breathing heavily and then dropping into a plank.

As an example, you can perform a high-rep set of heavy kettlebell swings and then go straight to planking.

You’ll feel out of breath, but the aim is to tense your abdominal muscles and breathe while you plank.

Realistically, you’ll have no option but to breathe, as there’s no way you can hold your breath while that fatigued.

And from here you can learn the correct way to breathe and brace.

Key Takeaways

  • There is a tendency to hold your breath whenever you tense your abs.
  • Eventually you’ll need to breathe while planking, but you’ll typically do so via your chest, which is a stressful way of breathing.
  • Poor breathing techniques during planks can often be attributed to poor form. This is especially true if you allow your hips to sag.
  • You should push your ribcage down, roll your hips under, and get into a slight posterior pelvic tilt. This position will allow you to breathe more easily.
  • You need to learn how to “breathe behind the shield” when you plank.
  • Breathing behind the shield can be practiced with loaded carries, while the weight is in front of you.
  • You can also perform an exercise which gets you out of breath, immediately drop into a plank, where you’ll be forced to breathe anyway.
  • Always breathe from your abdominals and diaphragm when performing planks.

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