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Nate's picture
Reverse Breathing?

Hi all,

In an effort to refine my technique, I purchased a book entitled Martial Mechanics by Phillip Starr. Although I found the book useful, I was confused by his breathing technique. 

He described reverse "chi" breathing, as follows:

Phillip Starr wrote:
1) inhale through your nose and slightly contract the abdomen. Don't expand your chest or raise your shoulders.

2) As you exhale through your mouth, expand the lower abdomen, along with the front, sides, and lower back, owtward. Slightly contract the anal sphincter and tuck the coccyx forward and upward. Don't arch the chest .

He claims strength and durability benefits from this type of breathing. He also says that normal breathing (especially contracting the abs) separates the upper and lower body, freezing the kinetic chain (my words, his idea).

I personally have never heard of "reverse breathing" before this, and I remain skeptical. I intuitively think that "normal breathing" makes more sense, especially since his book is laced here and there with references to chi. 

Has anyone else heard of this? Any (preferably educated) opinions?


Dave Moore
Dave Moore's picture
It sounds similar to how you have to adjust your breathing when your cycling. It kind off stops you gulping air so you get a steady intake as you try to keep a steady pace.
Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

No idea about which is better, but as far as I know this is the standard breathing technique for many internal arts, Tai Chi etc. You also find it in practices like Qigong and such.

Th0mas's picture

Sounds like pseudo-science to me.

The problem with authors using terms like Chi as a method of explanation, it totally ruins the credability of anything else they write, even if it is based on some sound observations or personal experience.

The particular breathing technique Phillip Starr describes does not logically (to my mind based on my limiting reading of your quote) appear on the surface to possibly provide a better mechanism for breathing when under stress. Any breathing technique that restricts the expanding of your chest to it's full potential capacity, proventing the surface area of your lungs reaching their maximum potential and thus reducing the maxiumum transfer of oxygen into your blood cannot be optimal.

I suppose it might be useful as a training exercise to expand your lung capacity maybe? or provide other potental benefits...resistance to swords?

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

I gotta say, i'm not a true believer in Chi, but I do think that some of the breathing techniques and body mechanics in traditional arts definitely can increase efficacy. I find the knee-jerk reaction to this kind of thing (can't be useful because it uses old langauge/concepts that you don't like) as bad as when people blindly accept it.

Nate, you might want to check out some of Yang Wing Ming books if you want more detail on the breathing stuff, he has some good explanations of both abdominal and reverse abdominal breathing, he is a "chi" guy but also includes some plausible western-anatomy based explanations.

Th0mas's picture

Zach Zinn wrote:

I gotta say, i'm not a true believer in Chi, but I do think that some of the breathing techniques and body mechanics in traditional arts definitely can increase efficacy. I find the knee-jerk reaction to this kind of thing (can't be useful because it uses old langauge/concepts that you don't like) as bad as when people blindly accept it.

I am not suggesting that we dismiss things out of hand, on the contrary most of us who frequent Iain's forums must, by association, be interested in practical karate and are be bought into the concept of re-interpreting traditional kata teaching.

However the use of terminology and concepts that are essentially 300 years out of date and fly against everything we know in terms of human physiology and basic physics does not lend any validity to our argument and makes all of us seem a little kooky. How long would you continue attending your local surgery if they started using concepts and practices from the middle ages?

" Ah, Mr Runge, Miasmic noxious air has caused you to catch a migraine, this has resulted in an inbalance in your four humours and the best treatment I could proscribe is a good Leaching to remove the excess black bile in your body"

Jon Lean
Jon Lean's picture

I've heard these sorts of claims before, but never any objective measures to back up the claims,

i.e lung function/volume?, VO2max? oxygen uptake/min etc,etc. Prove it!

As with many things "chi" the proponents often seem to forget that there are obvious tests to prove or disprove their loose assertions of these "better" methods. 

mike23's picture

I'm sorry, I may not be the "preferably educated" opinion you're looking for but even a broken clock is right twice a day so I'd like to add(I hope) to the discussion.

I read once that if you watch an infant breath, you'll see they "belly breath". Breathing from the abdominal area rather than the chest. It was written that this was "natural" and we should explore it more. I think if you seperate breathing from the chest and shoulders from breathing from the diaphragm, to practice your breathing, you'll be able to increase your lung capacity, since when you're tired you tend to breath with help from the shoulders and forget to use the lower area.

mike23's picture

"reverse breathing" might even apply to certain techniques that might be used better when you inhale on the technique rather than the normal exhale. I suppose that could be another type of' reverse breathing'?

ZenHG's picture

Forgive my intrusion, its' been some time since I have posted here, but it does seem that this topic keeps creeping up in different guises at seemingly random intervals.

It seems to be becoming more about the concept of 'Qi' than the actual technique of reverse breathing; I've been practicing reverse breathing for years, in fact, a lot of people on here have been practicing reverse breathing, at least partially, when they expand their abdomen on an exhale (or project their intent outward while the abdomen is already inflated neither expanding nor contracting, depending on the way you do things) - Haragei.

I understand it was placed in the context of 'Qi' because that was the original context in which it was mentioned and many on here do not buy into it.

If terminology is the problem we can change the term 'Qi' to something more modern? Bio-electro-magnetics perhaps? There are applications for the study of said 'energy' regardless of what term you use and they have been scientifically studied.

Are you going to produce a fire-ball or telekinetics? Probably not. But they have give studies to this. The Body Electric by Dr. Robert O. Becker is one such place, and there are various studies of Monks that can raise their body temperature and survive extreme cold (with some studies showing the lowering of body temperature in extreme heat) based on breathing techniques and focus.

'Qi' is just a term and many seem to equate it with magic and mysticism, parlor tricks, ect. Which is understandable considering the stuff that's been touted under the banner. However, it is just a word, the feelings towards it are based on perceptions of said insults to intelligence. Does that mean the thing is dismissed in its' entirety? It doesn't matter really.

Sifu Starr has given tremendous insight into Mechanics in my view, and they are based on sound principles. Punch = Hydrostatic Shock, Elbow is a smash, ect.

Going in-depth on what each of these entails, the mechanics behind such. With breathing techniques thrown in there, and terminology such as Qi used, does that dismiss it? Why not give it a try and at the same time do some research on the matter? At the same time ask why there is said prejudice against Qi and see how it holds up to research, then we can start separating the B.S. from what is of real value and applicability.

Some may come down on that statement saying it is, itself, complete B.S., touting physics, science, ect. That's fine, but just remember, basic Physics is not truly basic, it may appear so, but there is still much that is not understood and it goes way beyond the Quantum level. So this being said, nothing can really be dismissed without looking into it first, and that is exactly what has been done - the results themselves leave much to question.

Wallace Smedley
Wallace Smedley's picture

Hey, just want to chime in on this one.

Regarding 'reverse breathing', when you really get down to it, it is based on pseudo-science. Abdominal breathing is pretty standard in the martial arts from most of Asia, and reverse breathing is pretty standard fare in Chinese martial arts. It is based in whole on concepts of Qigong (qi work, or qi development), and so falls straight into the category of pseudo-science.

e wrote:
Monks that can raise their body temperature and survive extreme cold

If you take about fifteen to twenty minutes and practice contracting the abdomen while you inhale (and btw, this is supposed to be a full girdle contraction; abdominal muscles, oblique’s, perineum, the whole works...), and releasing the tension on the exhale, near the end of the time all of your guts will start to feel nice and warm. This, I am sure has to do with blood flow to the stimulated area, and nothing to do with qi.

It is easier on the body to use abdominal breathing, as there is more oxygen available to the muscles needed in training. 'Reverse breathing' is using a tension on the muscles, and so has to be using oxygen at a much higher rate.

ZenHG's picture

Abdominal breathing may be standard, and is not just standard to the Martial Arts, but Reverse breathing is not just standard to Chinese Martial Arts and Qi Gong (Qi being breath work similar to the translation of Prana), it is also a part of the practice of Pranayama in India as well as some forms of deep meditation in Tibet (and I am sure other places that I forget at the moment).

That may be getting into areas that come off a little too 'mystical,' but there are definitely practical uses. Take the warming of the body for instance, while regular abdominal breath definitely can do this, it needs to be sped up and expend more energy to get there. 

Reverse breathing on the other hand produces the effect much more quickly without speeding up, at about the same rate of a regular breath, though I cannot speak for energy expenditure, this may be the equalizer on said technique, more research and practice on the subject is necessary. 

This is not based on any fact to which I can point, just experience in the matter. If anyone on here wishes to see for themselves they can give it a try. 

As to other benefits, I think its worth exploring at least a little more in-depth. I don't believe its' association with 'Qi' automatically makes it a 'pseudo-science,' which basically implies no experimentation. If that is the case then the majority of Physics itself is psuedo-science (where we take theory as if it were fact and maintain an unflinching loyalty to established dogmas of the status quo - which is essentially what we have today in quite a few areas of science, not all, and quite a bit of it has been beneficial in advancement, but there it is).

So I think we should establish an approach for personal exploration and answer some questions in relation to the main question, see how it pans out (or not).

If we are taking a scientific/pragmatic approach then this would be the logical course of action; do some research, test it out, ect. 

But in order for it to be true science all dogmas must be erradicated and replaced with true skepticism that does not dismiss anything outright, regardless of personal notions or prejudices. Only then can a fair assessment be made according to anything that is not a pseudo-scientific mindset. 

Th0mas's picture

Hi ZenHG

A few of points:

As I said in my previous post, I believe most on this forum are totally bought into the idea of re-purposing old ideas, learning new ways of breathing may well be a valid area of study. However we should not park our common sense at the door of the dojo and accept at face value ideas and concepts that are at odds with the general understanding of the universe.

Secondly I don't think you have given a fair representation of the Scientific Method...

A quote from wikipedia (because I am lazy, sorry)

"To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning"

So a theory is a testable hypothesis. By definition it can be tested and proven wrong. Dogma, faith, pseudo-science etc are based on Truths or definites, whilst scientific fact or theory is based on in-definites or our "best guess based on all the available evidence". So essentially the Scientific method is based on Consensus. Being Sceptic is absolutely fine but you need to start from the "null" hypothesis and the onus is on proving the unexpected interpretation by disproving the consensus view. Saying that it is not worth undertaken exhaustive experimentation on Crystal-power does not mean we are being dogmatic just a bit pragmatic with our time and resources.

Calling chi or Ki or Qi or whatever "Bio-electro-magnetics " does not change anything. Wrapping a kooky concept in sciency sounding words does not make it a science...and the term "energy" falls squarely in that category.

Sorry I know this is slightly off-topic, but it is a real bugbear of mine. If we don't base our martial arts on real science we can very rapidly move into the realm of chi-balls, no-touch knockouts and deluge of correspondence/subscription 17th Dan Hanshi con artists.

..seems to be a bit of a distraction from learning how to deal with what is definitely there... like the basic martial arts challenges of gravity and the laws of conservation of momentum.



DaveB's picture

FYI http://skinnybulkup.com/proper-breathin ... t-lifting

Perhaps not totally relevant to the question, but might be useful.