Basic Spearfishing Breath Hold Techniques

Taken from Ultimate Spearfishing Magazine volume 13

If you think about it, being able to hold your breath and dive is possibly the biggest part of spearfishing. Well, that's outside of the hunting part, but even then if you don't have the freediving part sorted out then you are probably just snorkeling on the surface and missing out on the best part of spearfishing.

In the next few Back 2 Basics articles we will cover a number of techniques, from breath hold, duck diving, proper descent and ascent and more, all to help you improve your diving ability.

In this article I will cover basic elementary techniques on breath hold that will assist you in improving your dives. The gurus and freediving experts will have many tweaks and alternative methods and ideas, but this is just the basics that I have found to work the best for myself and the guys I have taught. Please remember that breath hold diving is dangerous, and you should always apply these techniques in the safest and most responsible way possible.

You don't have to have been spearfishing for long to find out that the longer and easier you can stay on the reef, the more chances you are going to have at good fish. The key words here are 'longer' and 'easier'. Being able to stay 'longer' is a no brainer, but 'easier?' The easier your diving becomes, the longer and even deeper you will safely dive. Thus, if you are struggling or having to force your diving in any way, then you are doing something wrong.

There are loads of technical and physical aspects that will effect your diving, from weighting (covered in vol 12), your duck dive, finning style, your fins and more. Being able to hold your breath however is the starting point, and if you are not maximizing your air intake and usage then you are at a huge disadvantage.

In this article we will cover the essential breathing methods and some key tips to help you dive longer and easier.

This is a very difficult subject to cover without getting to long-winded and very technical, so we will just touch on the basic methods to avoid all the technical chemistry. If you want more information, perhaps doing a freediving course will help although I have coached a number of guys who have done all the courses and for some reason missed the essential elements. It is these essential elements that are probably 90% of what you need to know and to apply as a spearfisherman.

The key elements we will cover are: How to breathe; relaxing, and the breath up process before a dive.

How to Breathe

We all take breathing for granted and think that it is a simple thing. The problem is that until some one actually shows you how to breath you are probably doing it all wrong.

Lets do a little test. Right where you are sitting or standing and reading this article take a big deep breath in, and then breathe out and in as much as you can.

Take note of the movement of your shoulders and chest. Do your shoulders move up and your chest out when you breath in?

Now here is the crazy thing. If your shoulders moved up and your chest out when you took a deep breath, your technique is wrong. You are breathing with only a small portion of your lungs and you need to learn how to use the rest of your lungs as well.

The easiest way to explain how to breathe properly for spearfishing is to break up the breathing cycle in three parts. For the sake of this simple article lets call them the following:

  • The Stomach (diaphragm)
  • The Chest
  • The Throat

There are far more technical terms for these three phases of breathing, but lets keep things real simple.

The first key phase to effective breathing is using your stomach or, more correctly, your diaphragm. The diaphragm is the most efficient muscle of breathing. It is a large, dome-shaped muscle located at the base of the lungs, just like a large plunger. Your stomach/abdominal muscles help to move the diaphragm up and down to give you more power to empty and full your lungs.

Most people never use their diaphragm to breath and only use the top part of their chest. This shallow breathing is very ineffective and using the diaphragm will dramatically improve your diving.

The idea is to have the maximum amount of fresh, oxygenated air in your lungs before you hold your breath and dive down. If you only use your chest, you are only using a small portion of your lungs and you would not have been able to purge all the dead and used air out effectively.

The trick is to learn how to breath using just your diaphragm. One of the simplest ways to learn how to do this is to place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach, so that you will be conscious of which parts are moving.

Now slowly breath in through your nose and push your stomach out as you breath in. Your chest and shoulders should not move at all. Then breath out, sucking your stomach in and pushing the air out. If you are battling with this and are still breathing with your chest , get a belt and place it around your chest just under your pectorals. This will help you to control your breathing with your chest. Another exercise is to lie down on a firm bed, or on the floor. Place an object like a book or this magazine on your stomach. Focus on breathing in and out while pushing the book up and down on your stomach.

How to Breathe, ultimate spear fishing

Once you have mastered this, this way of breathing will become your primary way of breathing when in the water. It is also much easier to relax when making long slow breaths with your diaphragm.

The next phase is using your chest. There is nothing complicated about this step in the process, you simply breathe in as you always would have, with the exception that you now would have already have filled the bottom part of your lungs with air using your diaphragm. What you are basically doing is filling up the top part of your lungs. Your shoulders should now lift and move back. Your chest should also expand as you breath in.

At this stage you are probably thinking, "how could I possibly take in more air?"

The third phase is what very few people take advantage of, and that is your throat and the very top of your lungs.

Now that you have filled up using your diaphragm and your chest breath, extend your chin upwards and extending your throat. Breath in as you perform this extension and you should feel air filling the very top of your lungs and filling your throat. Some guys get another 2 litres of air in this area alone!

If you are able to complete all three phases one after each other you probably will have, for the first time ever, used all the space in your lungs. If you land up coughing and feeling dizzy, take a break. Firstly, your lungs are like a muscle and will need to get used to stretching and expanding to these new limits. You might also not be used to so much oxygen being in your system and that's what will cause you to feel dizzy, so take it slow.

Some guys add a fourth phase to this, and they compress more air by using a technique known as 'packing.' This is a more complicated technique and can also be harmful if you are not instructed properly. It is also very difficult to master when using a snorkel and added to this, sometimes I've found it to be stressful and actually counterproductive to calm and natural breath hold diving.

Relaxing and the Breath Up Process

Okay so now that you have the how to breath part down, you still need to string it together and apply it to the way you dive. This is where many freediving guys are unable to help spearfisherman, as spearfisherman are making many consecutive dives while continuously being physical.

The key to all breath hold freediving and spearfishing is relaxing. The top freediving guys go as far as using yoga, meditation and super controlled serene and tranquil environments to help them focus and relax. For the spearfisherman, this is not really a possibility, especially after swimming half a kilometer out to sea through rough surf when the only thing on your mind is, "where are the fish?"

So you have to try to find other ways to control your environment and do what you do, in order to be able to slow down enough to be able to relax. This could be as simple as using a reef hook or anchor, so that you can relax on your buoy instead of swimming all the time (covered in vol 11).

One of the greatest mistakes I see novices making is that they don't take enough time between dives to relax, recover and refocus on diving effectively. A dive watch with surface interval timing is absolute key here. You need to be able to manage your breath up and recovery times effectively if you are going to maximize your breath hold potential.

Let's break down a typical dive scenario and apply a few key strategies, starting a few moments after a dive. Note that depending on how deep and how long you dive, the recovery/breath up process will differ. The longer you are down at depth, the longer your recovery times need to be. This is an entirely different discussion and this scenario will just cover the basic principles you can apply to your breath up.

  1. You have reached the surface after a dive, and you are breathing heavily and your heart rate is up. You need to do 2 things: re-oxygenate your body and rest/recover.

    Here, it is best to try focus on using your diaphragm to breath. At first your breaths will be rapid. Focus on deeper and deeper breaths and this will help slow your breathing down. This should not be forced, it should be natural and relaxed. This will vary from 1-2min, depending on how intense your last dive was.

  2. Now that you have recovered from your dive and your breathing is controlled and relaxed, you can start to focus on slowing your heart rate down and relaxing even more.

    Start taking long, slow breaths, in and out and with pauses in between. This may vary from person to person, but try taking 3-4 seconds to breath in, then hold for 2 seconds, breath out for 3-4 seconds and hold for another 2 seconds (remember use only your diaphragm to breath). This will slow your heart rate and calm you down. 1-2 min should be more than sufficient to get your heart rate to a good slow pace and for you to be relaxed.

  3. While doing the slow controlled breathing, focus on relaxing your whole body. This can be a challenge if you are still swimming up against the current or fighting a choppy sea. The great divers have, through fitness and experience, learnt to master this.

    I find that even holding my gun too tight hinders my ability to relax, so if there is no current and you are not swimming, try dangling your gun and arms down while lightly supporting the gun grip on your finger tips. This will help you have a nice relaxed posture.

    It is also important to be floating relaxed and horizontal in the water. If your weights are too heavy then you will be at an angle and probably also swimming to keep horizontal. (correct weighting covered in vol 12)

  4. Now once you are relaxed and fully recovered do you start the final breath up sequence. Start with 3-4 deep and full breaths again only using your diaphragm. These should be about 2 seconds in and 2 seconds out. On the last two cycles, purge your lungs by blowing out 2-3 times at the end of the breathe out. This will ensure that all 'dead' air is expelled and your lungs are full of fresh air.

    This sequence can be a bit straining and can cause your heart rate to spike a little, so try to remain relaxed while doing this part and try especially not to force the purges too much.

    If you are feeling like you are not as relaxed as before, 1 or 2 slow, deep and controlled breaths will calm you down again.

  5. The final breath before you dive uses the 3 stages we covered in the beginning. On your last breath out do a light purge so that you are starting with a nice empty lung and, using just your stomach and diaphragm, pull in a deep, slow and full breath.

    Now breath in with your chest, it is helpful here to raise your arms from the downward position forward in front of you. This helps extend your chest area.

    You should now feel like you have taken all the air in that you can. Extend your chin forward and suck in as much air into you throat area.

  6. Here is a secret: Stop! Hold yourself on the surface for just a second, take your snorkel out of your mouth, relax and then dive. I have found if I rush straight from the last breath I loose the calm relaxed state I am in and this is seriously counter productive. So even if you are diving really deep, don't chase, just relax and go through the motions.

    There are understandably loads more tips to improving your breath hold and diving ability. from doing a successful duck dive, streamlining and finning techniques, to what you do as you reach the surface, like hook breaths and more. We will cover these techniques in future 'Back to Basics' articles.

Please note that this is not the only way to breath up. Some guys will have a totally different theory on how to do it. This is just a very basic and practical starting point from which you can develop your own breath up sequence. The key is to do this type of sequence no matter how deep or easy the diving is. The more you do it, the more natural and easy it will become.

Lastly, please dive safe. I have known guys who have taken these techniques and doubled their bottom times, exponentially increasing the depths that they are diving. Remember a sudden increase in depth and time will put you in unfamiliar territory and out of your comfort zone.

Go slow, dive safe and enjoy every minute of it.