How do Navy SEALs, fighter pilots and brain surgeons keep their cool?
These people are often in situations where there is a level of uncertainty, their heart rates are jacked and their minds are racing at light speed.
To lose their cool would be, well, a really bad thing…
To answer the question, they keep their cool by relying on their training. Their actions are second nature. Automatic.
Well, I’m not trying to make you a Navy SEAL or brain surgeon, but I do want to offer a training method which can help you gain a little more intensity, help you keep your cool when the workouts get really intense and even help increase your VO2 Max.
Today, I want to talk about breathing ladders.
What is a breathing ladder?
Well, I can tell you that a breathing ladder doesn’t involve one of those collapsible objects used to paint the side of your house.
Rather, a breathing ladder has rungs of reps and breaths.
Originally introduced by Steve McNamara, RKC it is a method that involves moderate intensity with a lot of volume, and they can be quite deceptive.
For beginners, a breathing ladder is an ascending ladder of one rep followed by one breath, then do two reps followed by two breaths, three reps followed by three breaths, etc. You could do a 1-10 reps breathing ladder (i.e. 1-2-3-4-5-6–7-8-9-10) or even 1-20 reps.
For the more advanced, you do an ascending and descending ladder. One rep all the way up to 10 reps and back down to one rep, or 1-20-1.
Reps schemes can change based off of WHY you are using the breathing ladder, which we will discuss in a moment. Either way, a lot of reps, a lot of breathing and a practice which can really benefit you in the long run.
You can breathe as much as you would like during the repetitions, but between the reps schemes, or rest period, you need to control your breath by counting them (1 rep then 1 breath).
Now, you know what a breathing ladder is…why on earth would you want to add them to your training?
Why you may want to try a breathing ladder
There are two reasons you may want to try breathing ladders:
- First, to learn how to control your brain in an intense situation by inducing panic breaths.
- Second, you may want to add some serious aerobic work in a non-traditional fashion (not running, rowing, cycling or swimming).
Let’s start with panic breathing (sounds scary, I know).
One of the theories behind breathing ladders is they can induce “panic breathing” and teach you how to control your breath and recover quickly with limited rest periods. To do so, you will need to use heavy loads in compound movements and preferably fewer reps, or a smaller ladder (i.e 1-10 ladder).
1.) Example Panic-Breathing Ladder:
- Movement: Heavy load of Thrusters, Power Cleans or even Squat Cleans
- Rep scheme (ladder): 1-10 or even 1-15
- Load: Heavy, but light enough to be able to do 10-15 reps.
- Duration: Should take anywhere from 10-20 minutes
- Breathing: Mouth breathing (out of necessity) will invoke more of a fight or flight response
- Goal: Get to panic breathing state, but finish the workout.
Panic breathing may sound a bit extreme, but if you do some really intense workouts (which you should from time to time) you can get to panic breaths, which are never fun.
Your breathing can become a bit erratic as you push the intensity envelope. The more erratic and out of control your breathing, the more your brain will start to panic and tell you it’s time to pump the breaks.
Of course, breathing ladders can help you develop a solid aerobic base, but there are a lot of benefits between the ears too. You can use breathing ladders to calm your mind and recover well under stress.
The fear to push yourself often comes from “unknown” elements of REALLY pushing yourself. If your body-brian connection gets too out of whack you will slow down significantly, or worse quit really intense workouts.
Breathing ladders can help you address this problem.
If that sounds too scary to you, you can start with the second reason behind breathing ladders, aerobic work.
This type of breathing ladder can be used simply as an aerobic exercise with movements which are not generally seen as aerobic in nature. To do so, you wold use lighter loads with a longer ladder (higher rep scheme, 1-20-1).
2.) Example Aerobic Capacity Breathing Ladder:
- Movement: Light load of kettlebell swings, kettlebell snatch or goblet squat
- Rep scheme (ladder): 1-20-1
- Load: Light loads, to be as aerobic as possible
- Duration: Could take up to 60+ minutes
- Breathing: Start with, in from the nose out with the mouth, as long as able, which will help with a more relaxed psychological state.
- Goal: No real oxygen debt and a long focused aerobic workout.
These workouts can be VERY long, and the reason why breathing ladders can be seen as deceptive. Recently, I programmed one of these workouts (but with two movements) at End of Three Fit and some of the results ended up being in the hour range.
Either reason, whether you want to trigger your body’s fight or flight response and practice controlling yourself under pressure, or if you just want to get a good aerobic workout; breathing ladders can be a lot of fun.
Now, let’s have you build your own to try out.
DIY Breathing Ladder
So now you know what breathing ladders are, and two different methods on how/why to use them….Let’s build your own!
How to create a breathing ladder:
- Step 1: Pick a movement based off of your breathing ladder goal (panic breathing vs. aerobic capacity). So that would be a big compound movement (think barbell) or a lighter movement with kettlebells or dumbbells.
- Step 2: Pick a ladder (1-10, 1-20-1, 1-15, multiple 1-10’s in set time frame)
- Step 3: Breathe only the specified number of “reps” while resting.
- Step 4: Focus on your breathing!
- Step 5: Do them regularly and notice the difference.
These aren’t necessarily “for time” workouts. This is training your breathing, which very few people ever do. BE deliberate in your breathing, take note of it, and learn how to control it where it doesn’t control you.
Breathing ladders can be a valuable training tool when added to your current program.
Now go out there and try some breathing ladders!