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The Strenuous Life Podcast with Stephan Kesting

This is the Stephan Kesting's Grapplearts Radio Podcast where we discuss BJJ, Grappling, MMA, and all manner of martial arts training.

Stephan runs, where he has published many hundreds of martial arts videos, articles and tutorials.

His free guide to learning Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, A Roadmap for BJJ, has been downloaded more than 10,000 times and has become a foundational text for the art. Click here to download that book for free as well.

Stephan has a lengthy career in martial arts, spanning more than 3 decades.  He has dedicated many years to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and you can find his accessible and practical expertise on all BJJ matters at

A black belt in multiple martial art systems, he brings a range of approaches to self defense, and a critical eye for what works in the street.

Stephan has been featured in Black Belt Magazine, Ultimate Grappling, Tapout Magazine and Ultimate Athlete.

He is also a frequent guest on martial arts related podcasts, including The Fightworks Podcast, Atlantic MMA, Combatives Corner, The Warrior’s Den, The Spartan Underground and many more.

Mar 2, 2018

One of the very worst things is to be trapped on the bottom with all your opponent’s weight on top of you and be unable to breathe.  This is usually followed by exhaustion, panic and surrender.

But it doesn’t need to be like this – there are several approaches to breathing in BJJ that can make sure air gets into your lungs, oxygen into your blood, and keep you in the game, even when you’re being completely crushed on the bottom.

The following video breaks down the 3 levels of answers to this problem.

  1. Physical conditioning
  2. Psychological adjustments
  3. Technical answers

Better BJJ Breathing Part 1 – Physical Conditioning

Some people think that if they just had better cardio or stronger abs that they would have an easier time breathing when there’s a big giant guy lying on their chest.

And they’re right… sort of, kind of…

Yes, better abs and cardio will definitely help. So do more crunches, leg lifts, running, swimming and elliptical trainer work.

In fact some systems of Karate like Kyokushin go so far as to bounce up and down on each other’s stomachs with a heel firmly planted on the diaphragm to teach learning breathing while maintaining a very tight core.

Better BJJ Breathing Part 2 – Psychological Adjustments

Many people simply stop breathing when they’re in stressful situations.

This can be a byproduct of suffering from claustrophobia, or it can be a standalone problem.

I have addressed both of these issues in previous blog posts, and the feedback that I have received tells me that a LOT of people have found them VERY useful.  So if you even think that this could be part of the problem for you then I strongly suggest that you skim these two articles and figure out if they contain the solution to your problem…

ARTICLE ONE: Dealing with Claustrophobia in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu


ARTICLE TWO: Breathing, Oxygen and Exhaustion

Check them out.

Better BJJ Breathing Part 3 – Technical Answers

If you’re in reasonable shape, don’t think that you’re holding your breath, and don’t suffer from claustrophobia then there are probably technical answers that’ll fix your breathing in bad positions.

I cover these in considerable detail in the video above (or, if you prefer, here’s the same video about breathing on the bottom on Youtube) so I would watch that.

The main themes are…

Breathe Easier by Getting Onto Your Side

It’s really, really tough to breathe well in BJJ when you’re flat on your back and your opponent has his weight on your diaphragm (the large muscle that separates your lungs from your guts that is roughly at the level of your solar plex).

If you’re flat, and he has weight on your diaphragm, you’re going to suffer.  It’s that simple.

If you’re on your side, with one hip and one side of your body off the ground, then breathing is much, much easier.

Sometimes this is as simple as planting both feet, giving a little bridge, then turning onto your side with a shrimping motion.

There are some other tricks as well.  For example, in the video version of this podcast ( above I shared something I learned from Carlos Machado which he calls ‘power hips.’  In this manoeuvre he plants one foot and then extends the other leg far out to the side.

This power hips position naturally lifts one hip off the ground and turns the body onto the side.

When you do it under an opponent, regardless of what top position he’s in, it makes breathing much easier.  He also has an entire escape system based on power hips that I’ve been playing with but haven’t come anywhere near to mastering yet!

Breathe Easier by Opening Your Mouth WIDE

Here’s a breathing trick I learned from Walter Lanz, one of my old Judo instructors…

If you’re getting smothered under your opponent’s gi then resist the temptation to close your mouth and instead try opening your mouth as wide as possible.

Do this experiment with a gi in private so that nobody will think you’re crazy…

Hold a gi over your face and try breathing through it with tightly pursed lips.  Really difficult with a small breathing hold, right?

But when you open your mouth all the way then you’ve got much more surface area of gi to pull that air through. It might not be easy, but it’s a lot less difficult

Wider mouth usually means more oxygen in a smother situation.  It’s not a 100% solution, but then nothing is; that is why BJJ is a martial art and not a martial science!

Breathe Easier by Not Exhaling Fully

This one is really counterintuitive.

Most of the time I advocate breathing deeply, breathing fully, and not limiting the amount of oxygen you’re taking in when you’re working hard.

But if there’s a lot of weight on your chest or diaphragm you actually DON’T want to exhale fully for the time being.  That’s because once you’ve breathed fully out your lungs will be contracted, and then the weight of your opponent will make it impossible to fill your lungs fully again.

So you actually want to breathe rather shallowly.  Keep them as full as possible until you manage to get one hip off the ground and get onto your side (like we discussed a little higher in this article).

Stay Breathing my Frens!

There, I hope this overview of the physical, psychological and technical factors allowing you to breath effectively in BJJ (or any grappling sport really) when there’s a ton of weight on you is helpful.

Sometimes you can make huge strides with tiny adjustments, and I think this is one of those areas in which it happens.

I’ve known at least two pro MMA fighters who used to freak out whenever they were on the bottom.  They were claustrophobic and couldn’t breathe as soon as anyone got on top of them.

But by learning to deal with the claustrophobia through progressive desensitisation, making subtle adjustments to their position on the bottom, and developing excellent escape techniques they overcame those problems and went on to have relatively successful MMA careers.

So it can be done!

Take heart, figure it out, keep training!


P.S. If you found this useful please consider signing up for my free BJJ email newsletter.

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