Breathing for Scuba

I want to get into more detail about the breathing we should be doing when we scuba dive.  As I mentioned in my first post, it is our first and most important foundational skill.  Well, not that they are not all important, but pretty much everything in Precision Diving is based and results from how we breathe and the choices we make around that.

I mentioned the foundation of the performance mindset as well.  I will be coming back to that in a future post very soon.  I thought it would be a good idea to begin this more specific discussion related to breathing sooner rather than later.  This relates to open circuit scuba breathing.  Rebreathers I will address later.  A few slight and not so slight differences there.

At my presentation at OZTek 2011 the vast majority of participants when I asked how we are told to breathe said slowly and deeply.  When I asked, “Have any of you ever actually been shown what that truly means or been taught it or had it demonstrated to you, ever?”  That moment is a good moment, perhaps many of you had that when you read the first post or you are having it now.  That realization of hey wait a minute, really, yes, wait, HEY, it never happened.  Fun to see that lightbulb go on for people.

If you are highly experienced you might find you are feeling a bit of resistance about now.  Don’t worry it is fine.  This too shall pass.  It is not to indite the industry or wave my finger at it.  I am part of it.  I simply point this out because if we are not aware of it we cannot be open to talking about it.  We think we know, we assume that since we have been breathing, for the most part since the day we were born and it is automatic, that surely we must know how to breathe properly.  Well, we don’t, well unless you were trained how somewhere usually.  If you already get it, great.  Perhaps after this there will be some common language or structure to at least be able to more easily talk about it in the future.  At worst, you might pick up a few new details.  For the rest, you should see a decrease in how much gas you use while diving almost immediately.

I am not pretending that I am inventing most of this.  I am just bringing a language and a structure to it that we can use to talk about it more easily.  So much of this stuff I struggled with trying to make it come to life in my clients until I understood we were missing the common framework and language to speak from.  It was like not being fluent in the same language and carrying on a conversation when there was no obvious common references to work with.

So, I bring this concept forward early in the discussion because it is so critical.  Breathing is the metronome and cadence of our diving.  I will bet that if you have ever had a not so happy dive, that when you think back to it, it is very likely that your breathing was not ideal.  In fact, I bet that your breathing was all messed up.  So, if our breathing is messed up, it is likely that the diving is not too far behind it.

Diving is a powerful thing.  It changes you forever.  Do we ever want to risk  having such a powerful thing be a negative in our lives?

If we are aware of breathing and gain full access to all the confidence and control it can bring for our diving, you will look back and wonder how you ever managed to enjoy it as much as you do now.  It is the most intimate and quickest way to make small and large adjustments in buoyancy, trim and help or hurt how we move through the water.

Think back to your open water course (beginning) and remember that we are told to move up a bit if we have difficulty equalizing our ears or sinuses.  Generally, we are told to add some air to the BCD or swim up a bit.  We are not told to use our breathing to focus on cycling through a more full lung volume.  Or we are told if we begin to move toward the surface without wanting to because of a bit of positive buoyancy, we should let some air out of our BCD.  Why not tell the diver to cycle breathing momentarily on the lower part of their lung volume?  Of course, it is important to make the adjustments eventually with the gear.  But, what is more accessible to the diver, their external kit or their lungs?

Effectively, if we learn to use our full lung volume and can control it, it can be like adding or removing five pounds (2 kg) of buoyancy far more quickly and controllably than waiting to find and fix the kit.  With the lag in changes in buoyancy there is time to find and fix the kit if we can mitigate the issue with how we breathe.  Rather than, especially the new diver or student diver who might not be automated with where to find and adjust their kit, having to make sure they are in correct position and have the correct bit in the right place.  This more immediate control and ability to make more major adjustments will allow you more control and that brings with it confidence.  There are of course limitations to how much we can affect change with how we breathe, but it is certainly more than most of us are aware of or has ever been actively mentioned to us.

renjith krishnan / click on Image for portfolio.

The nice thing is that these types of minor corrections and getting the hang of things becomes easier because we can be less quick about it potentially.  Instead of worrying that if we miss the correction a few times we will have more and more difficulty.  We can use how we breathe to create that space where we can take a pause to think through what needs to be done correctly.  We can mitigate the issue and with it be more likely to be able to address it the first time.

Breathing is critical and will be discussed many more times.  Once you begin to master your breathing you will begin to see just how many ways it has impacts on your diving.  As it becomes more automated, you will not have to think about it as much and the adjustments will also come without having to think about it.

This is when you have the appearance that things do not affect you like it does other divers.  They will be thrown a bit by some surge or waves above and you don’t really move.  They might find it is a bit of a struggle and feel like they have less control.  We will talk about it in a future post, but as you evolve with the skill the levels of detail gets deeper and deeper.  Like so many of the others things in diving, we are training new default responses.  This is one of them, just like the rest.

Below is a piece I wrote for instructors about teaching breathing for scuba over six years ago.  It never ran with the publication that asked me for it.  While it is not geared toward the diver, it gets the details across and I think you will find it an informational resource.

Breathing for Scuba:

Lessons from those who only have one breath to do what they have to do.


Freedivers do their dives relying only on the breath they carry with them.  So, you can bet they make the breaths leading up to a dive really good ones.  In fact, freedivers actively work on how they breathe.  The old adage in scuba of deep slow breathing is true, but only scratches the surface of what is involved.  It is almost universal that breathing is not really taught in a scuba course.

Freedivers use deep breathing techniques prior to a dive to optimize the gas exchange in their lungs.  They use their physiology to its full advantage to insure they have the maximum use of their last breath.  Scuba divers benefit from these techniques while diving gaining maximum breathing efficiency and extending the duration of their gas supply.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of scuba divers are never learning how to breathe properly.  This becomes very apparent when diving with virtually any group of divers.  Breathing remains one of the great under utilized tools of diving.

Simply put, the visual image used for proper breathing is to fill your lungs from the bottom and empty them from the top.  Seems simple enough, however very few ever seem to master the technique or more appropriately are never taught the technique.

The proper technique is known as diaphragmatically initiated breathing.  It takes advantage of lung physiology.  It is important to understand a bit about the lungs to understand why how you breath is as important as breathing at all.  All parts of the lungs are not created equal when it comes to gas exchange.  Most divers breathe primarily in the top of their lungs.  This technique reverses that.  The bottom one third of the lungs is responsible for seventy percent of gas exchange in the lungs.  This is why it is critical to keep the lower third of the lungs occupied with gas for as much of the breathing cycle as possible.

So, the next time you teach an open water course, spend some time teaching your clients to do something they think they already know how to do, teach them to breathe properly.

Have your clients begin to fill their lungs from the bottom first by actively extending their diaphragm out while not using the chest at all.  Now, this is not the sexiest way to look, but it does allow the lungs to fill from the bottom up.  Have them concentrate on just using their diaphragm to breathe with.  This looks like a pooch in the belly moving in and out.  Once they are able to just breathe from their diaphragm, have them add their chest to the inhalation about half way through the expansion of their diaphragm.  Once they have a comfortable full breath they should pause in a relaxed way for a second or two.

The number one rule in scuba is to never hold your breath.  This is not a forced hold of their breath, but rather a pause in a relaxed way.  If a depth change were to occur the air would simply be exhaled.  It is important to emphasize to your clients that they should never forcefully hold at the top of the breath.  It should be relaxed enough to allow for any expansion of gas in the lungs to easily pass and be exhaled.

The next step is to extend their exhalation.  This can be done using the tongue on the roof of their mouth.  Freedivers use pursed lips, but that is tough with a regulator in your mouth to do.  The diver should feel as if the gas is leaving their lungs from the top to the bottom.  The ideal is to keep the lower lung inflated for as much of the breathing cycle as possible.  Once mastered this new breathing technique will take anywhere from ten to fifteen seconds to complete.

When done properly, the diver begins to develop a breathing parameter.  The concept of a breathing parameter is an important concept to introduce at all levels of training.  A breathing parameter is the rate, depth and way you breathe while you dive.  We need to optimize our BPs at all times when we dive.

When diaphragmatically initiated breathing is used in scuba, the diver does not need to change breathing parameter when experiencing changing workloads as there is no more efficient way to exchange gas in their lungs.  Considerable work, time and effort should be used during all training to correct the diver’s psychological urge to lose ideal breathing when experiencing exertion.  There is no reason to go back to rapid shallow breathing when faced with increased workloads as that is only going to use gas faster and make the diver feel worse and more starved for gas.  This is mental training as much as it is physical training.  We need to reverse the tendency of divers under stress to consume gas rapidly with the least efficient way of breathing possible.

This is a foundation of becoming a good scuba diver.  There is no better place to introduce foundational skills than at the very beginning.  It is important to establish this foundation and emphasize that your clients should go back to this as soon as they realize they are out of ideal breathing.  There are times when all divers leave ideal BP.  Teaching divers to correct bad performance is often more valuable to them than just learning the ideal performance.  The easiest way for someone to regain ideal breathing when breathing rapidly is to extend exhalation.

The active component of our breathing is the inhalation phase, exhalation is actually the relaxation phase of breathing.  So, it is very important to minimize any effort while exhaling.  Regulator quality has a great deal to do with exhalation resistance more so than inhalation effort.  So, to regain proper BP, it is better to begin to relax exhalation.  Teach your clients to begin to extend their exhalation on each breathing cycle.  As they begin to relax, they will regain their ability to use ideal breathing.  It is generally a good idea to have them stop their activity while they regain their BP.

Now, there are times when scuba divers want to not be in their ideal BP.  This occurs when adjusting buoyancy and controlling tight hovers.  Extending inhalation or exhalation is still fine.  Just make sure that your clients do this still filling from the bottom and emptying from the top.  Teach them to not hold their breath to hold position but to maintain a tighter range of lung volume while doing so by inhaling sooner and/or not exhaling completely.

As divers gain experience and rise in the ranks, proper breathing becomes even more paramount.  At advanced technical diving levels the maintenance of BP can mean the difference between life and death.  So, work with clients from the beginning to help them establish the breathing foundation needed for them to be confident and effective.  Freediving provides a great training ground to continue to work on ideal breathing.


I hope that helps shed some light on using breathing to improve your diving.  It helps a great deal to work with someone that can help you to learn to control your breathing muscles and work with you on breathing. There are many activities that utilize proper breathing techniques and will lend to improving your breathing for diving.


March 14, 2011

Temperance: moderation or self-restraint in action, statement, etc.; self-control.

Agnes' service.

I flew down from Sydney to Melbourne today to attend the service for my friend Agnes Milowka who died cave diving a few weeks ago.  She had been one of the up and coming stars of the sport.  She was very accomplished in a short time.  She was one of the more enthusiastic and driven divers I have known.  You can visit her site here.

Sunset at Agnes' service.

Agnes, or Ag as many of us knew her, I met in passing at some show or conference a few years ago.  It was two years ago at OZTek 2009 where I really got a chance to meet her.  We were both speaking, her about her latest cave diving adventures in Florida (I enjoyed that she would present on her diving in Florida or the Bahamas in Australia and on her diving in Australia in the US) and me on freediving and lessons from technical diving for recreational divers.  Neither of us had our presentations completed.  Not such a surprise for me as I tend to get these things together late.  I can speak on really anything, so it is easy for me to wait so I can decide what directions I want to go for the audience I have.  For Ag it seemed kind of the same.

We happened to be sitting next to each other in the speakers room that day.  Each of us wanting to make a dent in our slides.  We would get bored and begin to chat.  Any distraction is a good distraction when it comes to these things.  She had seemed a bit nervous when she sat down next to me.  Tough not to notice the energy from that girl and it was clear the nerves were related to her talk.  Me being me, I asked her what she was nervous about.  She wanted to get her talk just right for her adopted homeland audience.

When divers get together there are always stories.  It is pat of what makes diving so cool.  Generally, when divers are around cave divers the conversation relates heavily to what can possibly have us desire to do this or have you ever been scared and the like.  The conversation is different when both divers are cave divers.  There is an understanding of all that already.  So, in a strange way that mutual understanding leads to picking up conversations more immediately and generally go places with those conversation more rapidly than you would with others.

The day progressed, one of us would pop out to see a speaker or grab some food while still working away on our presentations.  Throughout the day we discussed many topics and how we dealt with many of the things faced while diving.  I will save the details of the conversation to myself.  But, I found she was a deeply driven and motivated woman with a strong desire to learn as much as she could at every chance she could.  She was good.  Perhaps almost too good.

Ironically, my last conversation with her was over lunch at another meeting last year.  She had told me about the cave she was working in Australia and what she had been finding there.  This would turn out to be the same cave she died in.  Also at this meeting, I spent a lot of time speaking with Wes Skiles.  He was a mentor to Ag.  Both are now dead.  Perhaps I need to check my karma.

I am not going to try to judge her actions on the day of her death nor do I really even have that right.  She knew what she was doing and was experienced.  I will defend the right of anyone to make almost any decision for themselves, especially if they are qualified and experienced to do so.  How her life ended is not what matters, the life that was lived is what is important and what should be remembered.

But, I am going to use her memory to drive home a very important aspect of Precision Diving.  That of temperance.  Temperance of time.  It is not for me to try to figure out if Ag went too far too fast.  She was driven and wanted to have an impact.  She did have impact on everyone she met or knew.  That was very clear from everyone at the service.  What her psychology was on that eventful day is only known to her.

Psychological aspects of Precision Diving are for a future post.

Trying to relate exploration diving to the average recreational diving is like trying to compare Formula One racing to a drive to your corner store.  The experiences and the risks are completely different and the necessary components to make either possible just cannot be related to each other.  But, it is not to say that we do not learn a lot from Formula One racing that helps car manufacturers make better cars for us to drive everyday.  So it goes for diving as well.

Wanting to get better or go a bit deeper or take the next course in recreational diving is not likely to end poorly as training and experience are great things.  Diving is a milage game.  You have to actually get out and do it to be better.  Improvement comes with time and respecting that time is critical to being a precision diver.  Temperance to know you need to walk before you run and get the dives in, in a progressive and thought out way is a corner stone of our efforts.  Milage matters.  We just want to make sure they are good miles.

The great thing about diving is you cannot hide form yourself in the water.  So, you learn to face your anxiety and fears as you go.  You also find your greatest passions and joys in the experiences along the way.

Temperance is also about respecting that you need to work on the mindset of a precision diver for it to become an automated thing.  When we train for diving in the beginning, we are spending a lot of time on skills, but we are also retraining the brain in new default responses.  If something were to happen while we dive, we stop, breathe, think and act.  This is in contrast to the engrained response most of us are born with when faced with a problem while underwater.  The engrained response is hold your breathe and fight for the surface.  That old response is replaced with a new one of not panicking and not bolting for the surface while we hold our breath.

It is very important that we respect that it takes time to achieve this change in our default responses.

Precision Diving has its origins in technical diving, but applies to all diving.  It is much easier to approach diving in the best way possible from the first opportunity than to wait only to have to fix bad habits.  It is a system that can be introduced at any level in diving because its foundations are universal and apply to all levels of diving.

I like to say that if you want it to become habitual, you must create a ritual.  Or create a ritual for it to become habitual.  This also takes time.  A habit, good or bad, is just a behavior we have repeated over and over again.  These patterns lead us to our habits or what we tend to do.  It also helps us become automated in our motor responses.  Like driving that car or like being able to use diving for other things.  Perhaps have a camera in your hands and still be able to dive with ideal performance.  Time and repeated experiences are what do this.

Precision Diving requires temperance and patience to make sure that the correct rituals and pattern are established early to ensure good performance.  The nice thing is, even if you have no agenda on the bottom, it is always more fun to be better.  It is why we say be better this dive than the last, better the next dive than this one.  Practice temperance while you dive and evolve as a diver.  Gain experience in measured steps and when you change something, work up those changes from the pool to the ocean and then and only then take them deeper or further.  The pool is your best friend and is the playground where we work up any significant changes to our diving or kit, not something that is only for new divers at all.

Execution is always more important than ambition.  In the end, we dive to have fun and it is more fun to be better and feel confident in our diving.  Precision Diving will take time to take hold in you and it could be a year or two before you “fully get it”.  But, you will if you stick with it and pretty quickly you will not need to actively think about all of it.  Respect that it takes time for us to reach unconscious competency and for new responses to become automated.  Temperance.

First Overdue Post

I have been dragging my feet at getting this blog started.  After prompting (massive and aggressive nudges from those that will likely show up on here soon), I have finally gone public with this blog.  So, here is the first of many posts.  See Joi, it is actually live now.

Precision Diving has been in development for fifteen years.  What began as an effort to help make technical divers better quickly evolved into what to do to make all divers better right from the first day of beginning training and beyond.

In general, what diminishes performance in all divers is the inability to have their diving be an automated skill.  Driving a car, for most, is an automated skill.  For better or for worse, we all are able to do other things while we drive, some of us better than others.

All we have to do to illustrate that most divers are not the same as most drivers is to distract the diver while diving by having them concentrate on something other than diving.  Easy enough to do by handing almost any diver a camera.  Let the games begin.  The diver most often is not looking so good even if they manage to snap a few fair photos.

I am not going to try to describe the full extent of Precision Diving with this first post.  Rather, I hope to begin a dialog with divers all over the world that want to improve their diving at any level and any non divers that are interested in learning more while they begin their path to becoming a diver.  No matter who you are, you will be better for the effort.  Likely, the very next time you dive.

First, it is best that I tell you what Precision Diving in not.  The system is not trying to be a training agency, nor should it be applied outside of an existing training system.  Meaning secure proper training from a reputable training agency.  You certainly can share this blog with your instructor.  Precision Diving is not trying to standalone or pretend that we do not stand of the shoulders of giants.  Nothing happens in a vacuum and there is just too rich a history of innovators that have come before.

What Precision Diving is, is a system that works to add a structure and a language to the underlying foundational components of diving integrating them into a theory and approach that enhances any training agency’s offering.  It provides a cognitive strategy and a path of thinking about diving that will make all divers better because some of the pieces have never been connected in the past.  It is a foundation that any system of diver education can easily build upon while still very much allowing the instructor to remain within standards.

When we begin to learn to dive, we enter the course knowing what we can study in our course materials.  From a performance standpoint, we have not learned any physical skills yet.  We are unconscious incompetents.  We have no clue what we do not know yet.  Other than we know we know nothing.  Once we begin, we become conscious incompetents.  We very much know what we do not know.  Hopefully, we migrate to conscious competence rather quickly.  In diving, this is where most divers remain.  How do we know?  Well, hand them that little camera.

If you provide something that takes energy away from the thoughts of performing diving skills, those skills get worse.  Those divers that are lucky to stumble on to the next level making it to unconscious competence are able to dive while also doing other things.  Unfortunately, the divers that get there tend to find their way on their own or by a happy accident and it can be incomplete.

Precision Diving provides a structure to reach this level of ability in diving while also accelerating the progress through the other points along the way.  It also helps to provide a mental picture of what it means to be a good diver, so you will have a picture of what you are trying to become as a diver.  Almost every other activity can point to what it means fairly definitively to be good at that activity.  The diving industry has never clearly defined what it means to really be good at diving.  We can put one hundred instructor trainers in a room and likely get similar answers from many, but there is no industry definition we can point to for this.  No snap answer or sound bites that all would clearly agree to.  We need a clear end goal we can picture in our head to make it there.  Otherwise, we take our skills and it is a hope that we end up somewhere close game.

So, Precision Diving proposes one.  An elite diver, the end goal, is a diver that is in control of their diving with no impact in a sphere around them including on other divers and the environment while always performing within ideal performance.  Basically, nothing ever happens without the conscious or unconscious control of the diver.  If something is outside of ideal performance, it is either because the diver chose to break from ideal or it is an error.  If we accept this definition, then errors will immediately register with us as outside our mental picture of where we want to end up as a diver.  Then, we will naturally work to not repeat the same error again.  But, without awareness of what is ideal, we have no clue whether we are making errors and worse we may believe what we are doing is exceptional.

Spoiler alert….  What you believe to be great diving or those you look up to as great divers may not be as great as you now believe.  I apologize ahead of time for the resulting disillusionment suffered.  But, it also means we can all be much better.  None of us is as good as we can be.

So, our foundation is this performance mindset.  We will spend a lot of time with this in later posts.

Almost all sports have a set of basic foundational skills that you practice when you train.  Basketball has dribbling, passing, shooting, rebounding and the like.  When you practice you spend time working on those foundational skills and usually also play the game working on using each skill together in whole.  The diving industry has not really laid out a simple set of skills as the key ones for us as divers to keep in mind all the time.  Those points we can keep in mind on every dive no matter what else we are doing.

Well, there is one.  Buoyancy.  That would be on everyone’s list.  It is often talked about and is, of course, super important.  However, it is not first.  Nor has the industry really built a tangible picture of what that means as it connects to the other skills of diving.

When we learned to dive, if you have not yet you will see this for sure, what was the most important rule in scuba?

Never hold your breath!  No need to get into why right now.

When we are told this rule we are also told that we should breathe deeply and slowly.

Did anyone ever show you, demonstrate it, and teach you what that actually means?  For most, the answer will be “wow, no actually, no one ever did or has since.”  Did the light bulb just go on a bit?  Hum, you know, why are we not actually teaching the number one skill in scuba?  Well, because everyone believes we already know how to do this.  We have been doing it our whole life, how possibly could we not know how to do this properly. Well, the vast majority have no clue.  Shame really.

So, yes, you guessed it, Precision Diving has breathing as the first skill and the most foundational.  More on this, a lot more, in future posts.  You think you know, but you likely have no idea.  Just an FYI, if you get good at ideal breathing, you will immediately see a 25% to 40% increase in your gas duration assuming you are newer to the sport.  All will see immediate improvements of some level.

Breathing is not just a fine-tuning technique that affects buoyancy or is used to adjust it.  Breathing is very closely linked to buoyancy of course, but it weaves through almost all aspects of diving and is a route to the control we seek in Precision Diving.

The specifics of how to breathe for scuba I will cover in the future, but I can say that if you find that your diving is not going as it should on a dive, I would bet that your breathing is not ideal either.  So, we need to lead with what is most intimate and controllable, HOW WE BREATHE.

The Foundational Skills (your basics) of Precision Diving

The BASE:  Performance Mindset

Layered on top

  1. Breathing
  2. Buoyancy
  3. Swimming (includes all aspects of how we move and our impact from doing so.)
  4. Trim (including streamlining and all related aspects of contact with the water and drag.)

There is, of course, far more to it than just a list.  There is a great many details around the above and more to come not listed yet.

I would like to sign off with a question for everyone.  Diver or not.  For the divers, what event or moment can you think of where you recognized your diving made a change for the better?  For the non divers, what about any activity in your life, what moment or event made you significantly better at it?