The Usual Suspects

by Thomas Phillips on June 26, 2013

When I sat with my colleague, good friend and level 4 Z-health trainer / RKC Steve Pucciarelli to create a viable kid’s program to compliment the UTC (, we agreed that kids should be able to identify simple ways to improve performance.  We narrowed a long list to ‘5 usual suspects.’  Having successfully completed that task, we agreed that the information should be presented to EVERYONE, not just kids.

This article demonstrates how proper use of kettlebells can address the FIRST ‘usual suspect;’  however, I will be presenting this material in a ½ day seminar along with RKC / Z- health expert Steve Pucciarelli and RKC Team Leader Matt Maher.  In fact, on July 14th we will address ALL 5 ‘usual suspects.’

Suspect #1:  The “Chest / Reverse breather”


How to address the “chest breather” with kettlebells:

Practice diaphragm breathing

1)    Perform a set of 10 dead swings.  Count each rep out loud at the top of the swing with conviction.  This will assure you have some air in your lungs at the bottom and letting it release up top.  Many people mistakenly breathe in at the top of the swing instead of “spitting the air out.”  Therefore, think about “spitting the air out” at the top of EACH swing along with the rep number you are currently performing.

2)    In between the next set of 10 dead swings, lay on your belly with your elbows under your chest and think about breathing into the floor with your belly.  Allow your belly to naturally push into the floor as you visualize sending your breath deep past your belly button and toward your groin.  Do this for a minute, then perform another set of 10 dead swings.

3)    In between the next set of 10 dead swings lay on your back and allow the back of your head to touch the floor while keeping the neck NEUTRAL.  (Note: If your chin is up then you may need a thin pad to put behind your head).  Once in place, think about keeping the back of your neck long.  Block one nostril with your finger and put the other hand on top of your belly.  Finally, breathe deeply into the belly (as described in #2) while maintaining that long neck and neutral cervical spine.  Do this for one minute, and then perform another set of 10 dead swings.

4)    Once you become comfortable with the 2 breathing techniques described above, try continuing both of those strategies while closing your eyes and consciously attempting to slow your breathing / heart rate.  This should result in relaxation of residual tension in your muscles. Do this for one minute, and then perform another set of 10 dead swings.

Practice Hard style breathing

5)    Rack a pair of kettlebells and get ready for front squats.  Breathe into the diaphragm while standing with the bells racked.  Think about making the belly big, then hold your breath and drop into your front squat.  Initiate the ascent with a loud and abrupt “up” from the belly.  You will only be letting about 10% of your air out when you initiate this sound.

If the sound is initiated incorrectly (from the throat) you will not feel as strong and “connected” on your ascent; however, if the sound is initiated correctly (from the diaphragm) you will hear a better quality of sound and feel a better quality of connection as you ascend.

Understand the difference between the “qualities of sound” in this way:

From the throat think “Bob Dylan”  (INCORRECT)

From the diaphragm think “Pavarotti”  (CORRECT)

Check out high-level powerlifters or strong men as they squat or deadlift heavy weights.  Notice the big breath in, the intensity on their faces and their ability to grind through a heavy rep without panicking.  This is an example of mastery of this technique.  Take a look at powerlifting legend Ed Coan:

Now, try a heavy set of kettlebell front squats.  Perform 5 sets of 5 reps focusing on these principles.  At the top of each rep, take another breath and perform the next repetition.

Practice breathing behind the shield.

6)    Hold 2 heavy, heavy kettlebells in each hand in front of you while standing with your feet spread slightly wider than usual.  Try to create as much tension as possible in your body by doing the following:

a)    Lock your knees and tighten your quads
b)    Squeeze your glutes as hard as possible
c)    Grip the bells with your hands as tight as possible
d)    Tighten your triceps
e)    Tighten your lats
f)    Keep holding… tighter… tighter… tighter!!!

7)    You will notice that if you breathe too deeply and hold your breath as described earlier in the front squat, you will not be able to sustain this amount of intra-abdominal pressure very long.  Therefore, a different approach is required.

8)    Try this:  Get into a front plank position (like a push-up but on your elbows), then close your eyes and imagine someone is about to kick you rapidly in the stomach 10 times in a row.  This should force you to do each of the following:

1)    Tuck your pelvis
2)    Brace your abdominals
3)    Breathe more shallow

This should also STOP you from doing each of the following:

1)    Sagging your belly
2)    Relaxing your mid-section
3)    Putting your lower-back into extension

From this position, try to create as much tension as possible by focusing on squeezing your glutes as hard as you can.  This will help maintain a tucked pelvis and braced abdominals while also giving the opportunity to breathe shallow into the belly.

Here is an example of me utilizing these principles in a plank:

Here is an example of me utilizing these principles in a push-up:

This ability to comfortably breathe shallow “behind” braced abdominals is what we mean by “breathing behind the shield.”

Use this technique for exercises that require isometric holds.  Gymnasts must use this technique on the rings, the parallel bars, etc; however, notice how RELAXED their faces are as they utilize this breathing strategy.  This is an example of mastery of this technique.  However, you can also use this technique during sub-maximal lifting where the goal is to lift a relatively heavy weight for as many reps as you can over a period of time.  Here is an example of me lifting 265 lbs for 30 reps in less than 90 seconds at 165 lbs bodyweight.  After my AAU meet, I elected to try the “feats of strength competition” in Las Vegas last summer.  This was the result using the principles of “breathing behind the shield”:

Practice anatomic breathing:

Suppose the goal is to do as many reps as possible over a longer period of time (perhaps 30 seconds or as long as 5 minutes or more).

Take a light to moderate kettlbell and put it in the rack.  Use your legs to help you push press the weight as fast as possible while maintaining good form.  For me, a 16 kg bell for 30 reps in 30 seconds does the trick.  Take a look:

For this technique I’m using my body as a “spring” and “catching” the bell with my WHOLE BODY.  As the bell descends and hits my body I breathe out to “absorb” the force of the bell, then, immediately redirect the bell upward as I breathe in again.  You can see this type of speed would be impossible if I were to use Hard-Style, / High Tension / Intra-Abdominal breathing described earlier in the front squat.  Instead, I breathe out while moving WITH the force by absorbing this force into the WHOLE BODY, then I “take it somewhere else…” in the example of the push press I absorb and redirect the bell straight back up into the air.

As you can see, breath mastery is critical to performance.  Practice the appropriate techniques depending on the task at hand; however, there is NEVER a reason to be a “chest breather.”

To register for the ½ day seminar on July 14th, contact Master RKC Thomas Phillips at sign-ups are limited because this seminar is part of a larger seminar series.



About Thomas Phillips, Master RKC: Being a good student, teacher and athlete has always been a priority. This is why I choose to remain the student and the teacher in all aspects of life. Other than being a teacher of math and philosophy for the past 13 years, I am also a writer, gym owner, as well as a proud father and husband. I continue to challenge myself physically by competing in… Read more here.

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