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Martial Arts: Breathing

Just Breathe

By Christopher Caile

I was judging kata. Greg (not his real name) was a great karate student, strong and coordinated with good technique, but somewhere in his kata he became winded. He slowed and lost umph and finished poorly.

After we scored the kata the judge sitting next to me shook his head, looked over and said, "Well, he started out really well. He could have won."

What went wrong?

I noticed that as he performed various techniques, especially when in series, Greg held his breath. He wasn't breathing properly and it was a long, difficult kata. By the time he finished his kata, he was tired and winded.  

This is a common mistake. I see it all the time in karate, taekwondo and kung fu kata performances, sometimes in basics, but most often in free fighting. It is also a common mistake among novice boxers and those who grapple, practice judo or wrestle, not to mention a whole host of other sports.  Students start out well, but soon become tired. Their technique slows and they become noticeably short of breath. (1) Once they lose their breath, their technique goes out the window. Soon they are half the practitioner they started out to be. Their technique has no power and their ability to move and react is severely diminished.

The consequences for a member of a team in competitive sports is loss of physical ability. But if you are free fighting in karate or boxing it can be dangerous, especially if loss of breath turns you into a weak, stationary target. This is OK in practice, but if you are on the street really defending yourself, the consequences can be devastating.

The answer to this problem sounds simple -- just breathe. In reality, however, breathing properly takes a lot of practice.

Ideally breaths should be taken between every technique and movement.  But sometimes, as in karate, techniques are thrown in quick bursts with no time to breathe in between. In that situation make a short exhalation with each technique extension or combine your exhalations in a sort of staccato longer out-breath followed by a deep in-breath.  Also,while free fighting or  boxing when parrying an attack, blocking or even absorbing an attack (in addition to tightening your body) make a little out-breath too, again followed by a deeper in-breath.  In a similar vein try not to hold your breath while moving, dodging or slipping. In short, breathe at every opportunity.

There is also a little trick here. If there is a short break in your offensive action, take another deep in-breath and quick out breath (leaving air in your lungs to make further out breaths if necessary). If there is more time, breath deeply again. This gives you a little extra shot of oxygen. It is surprising how much this little extra breath helps, especially when done repeatedly.

The idea is to keep as much air circulating in and out of your lungs as possible. Breathe whenever possible. Take in as much oxygen as possible. The more exertion, the more that added oxygen is needed. Instead of  holding your breath as many do during intense periods of activity, breathe more. Deeper when possible. The more the better. Monitor yourself. Try to fit in extra short breaths, however short, when you normally wouldn't, between techniques, when moving, or even pausing. Breathe and breathe again - short all the time, deeply when possible.

You have to train at this, like everything else. (2) You will be surprised at how many more breaths you can take if you train yourself to constantly breathe. Those extra breaths add up. If you maximize them, they could add 30 to 50 percent more oxygen intake.

Of course being in shape creates an edge in any athletic activity. Pacing yourself can also be critical. But remembering to breathe is just as important. It can't make up for not being aerobically fit, but it can maximize your stamina at whatever fitness level you have achieved. On the street this might just give you the extra edge that saves your life. 


(1) There are also times when it is advisable to conceal your breath. In Japanese Samurai sword and weapons arts, warriors often attacked when they perceived an opponent breathing in. Why?  Because during an in-breath the body is thought to be slightly weaker. The same philosophy has carried over into karate, taekwondo and even kung fu. Teachers often suggest that when free fighting, students monitor their opponent's breath  to be able to attack when an opponent takes an in-breath.

(2) When breathing, remember to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. There are some very good reasons to do this, but they will be covered in another article series, "The Art of Breathing."

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About The Author:

Christopher Caile is the founder and Editor of

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karate breathing, breathing in the martial arts, taekwondo breathing, breathing correctly

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