Something that is little talked about is breathing and BJJ. No, we’re not talking about making sure you’ve popped a breath mint before training (though we appreciate it!). One of the biggest hindrances to endurance and performance is poor or inadequate breathing during training.

Muscles and your brain can only function well when they are adequately supplied with oxygen. If they are not receiving enough oxygen or too much (in the case of hyperventilation) then they cease to function in the activity you are doing- you ‘gas out’ or ‘can’t think to move’. There are entire section of yoga and meditation practice devoted and centred around breathing (did you know many of the Gracies do Yoga?

Check out Rickson’s amazing breathing control in this video.) so let’s begin to look at how we can working with our breath to easily benefit the rest of our training.


Different types of breathing and the anatomy of breathing:

Belly breathing Vs. Chest breathing- Most people in an inactive state only engage in chest breathing. When they take a breath the chest rises and falls, nothing below the ribcage or the stomach does. This fills the top and largest section of the lungs but does not get air to any of the lower lobes of the lungs and does not fully engage all of the muscles we have to help us breath. Belly breathing is when someone is primarily using their diaphragm- the large sheet of muscle that is located between the chest and the abdomen, to contract; pushing air out of the lungs, and expand; pulling air into the lungs. This sends the most oxygen to all parts of the lungs to process. What it looks like is the abdomen rises first from the belly button and then the chest expands to complete a full inhalation. In Jiu Jitsu and any cardio demanding sport, we need to be able to become use to belly breathing as we are doing the activity. Holding your breath is the enemy and death!

Now let’s look at three different ways to improve your breathing during warmups, sparring, and after your training session:


Breathing during training and sparring- In general you want to breath with the movement. If you are doing a hip escape exhale as you scoot your hips and turn on your side compressing your core and inhale as you extend and recover to your back. Basically, anytime your hips come close to your shoulder exhale, if your shoulder and hips move away from each other inhale.  The exception to this is when you are being thrown or falling. When you impact the mats you always want to exhale! Exhaling will help disperse the impact of falling through your body by soften your muscles and letting you transfer any force taking in out of yourself. The warmups that are done before class is a great time to begin to do this sort of training for yourself. You may be able to execute the movement well but now try to integrate your breathing into it. This will help you carry this habit into your drilling and sparring.

In sparring, anytime you find yourself feeling trapped or stuck, focus on your breathing and you will find you begin to relax and can think clearly about what you need to do next.

Recovery breathing- Recovery breathing is most useful when you’ve just made a big effort in training, have a short break and have more work left to do. This is an ideal thing to use between sparing rounds, between competition matches, for specific training rounds, and metabolic conditioning sets. First of all, do not crumple yourself inwards- It can be difficult but collapsing your body forward closes off much of your ability to breath. Stand up and begin to move just a bit. If you stop moving suddenly, you can get cramps and muscle aches. Inhale through the nose keeping your mouth closed, at an even rate, head up and shoulders back, allowing your lungs to open up expanding first your belly, then your chest, and up into your collar bones. Exhale through your mouth, loosening the body and letting its movement help exhale your lungs in little pushes till your lungs are finally empty. Getting the most air in your lungs is about exhaling it all first, not trying to inhaling more into already partly full lungs! The more you can exhale the more effectively you can fill your lungs. If you have one minute to rest, instead of thinking about the time, think about doing 6 recovery breaths. This shift in focus gets you to thinking about the quality of your recovery more than how long it is. Click on the video below to see an example of this type of recovery breathing: 

Breathing to control and separate your circulatory and respiratory system: Box Breath-

Slowing down your breathing means more oxygen will be getting into your lungs and blood stream. Box breathing is just one technique you can apply after training to help you begin to master your breath and separating it from your heartbeat. It will also help you learn your breathing capacity and how to engage all muscles to help you breath. Eventually you will find that your heart can be pounding but you are able to breathe evenly, deeply and slowly.

With box breathing start with a lower number- say 5 seconds. Each part of your breathing in this cycle will take this long. 5 seconds to inhale evenly, 5 seconds to hold that inhaled breath, 5 seconds to exhale evenly, and 5 second to hold your lungs empty. Then a few normal breaths and repeat this process. As you continue to practice you’ll find it easier to go through this cycle up to 10 second increments.

box breathing

After training lay on your back. Begin by empty your lungs, both upper and lower, by sucking your belly button into your spine and collapsing your chest down. Once your lungs are empty your count cycle will begin- inhale evenly for 5 seconds filling to capacity, first the stomach, then chest, then the collar bones rise up. Hold your lungs full of air for five second, exhale evenly for the next five second and finally hold your lungs completely emptied of air for 5 seconds. Take some normal breaths (realize how much your breath and heart rate have dropped in this time!) and get ready for the next cycle.

We leave you with a quote from Rickson Gracie on the subject of breathing and breath work: “When you control your breath you can actually control yourself mentally and physically. You can really understand your fears and your emotional stress.”