Well it’s nearly that time of year again where we put down that half eaten chocolate Santa, turn down an offer of going to the boozer and say ‘I’m going to the gym!’ That’s right, operation New Year, New You is a go. You’ve had your fill of food comas and now it’s time to get back on the wagon and sweat out all that turkey.

 

So many people start out with such high motivation whether it be body composition goals or they just want to get fitter. However most people barely last 2-3 months before the wheels of the wagon have well and truly come off. Why is that? Having realistic goals and an actual thought out plan are two of the main stumbling blocks. So here are some tips to ensure your 2016 challenge doesn’t lose momentum.

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1 – Setting Clear and Realistic Goals

Seeing some top celebrity on tv and shouting ‘I want that body!’ then signing up to the gym for a year is not a clear and realistic goal. Even as a novice you should think long and hard about what you want to achieve and how you are going to get there. Remember that you can’t get ‘shredded abs’ in 4 days like some claim, progress takes time and patience and you must factor that into your goals.

2016 also means that work comes back with a vengeance, meaning potential late finishes, tiredness and stress. Think about these when plotting out your strategy to reach your goals. Overall the more specific your plan the more chance of success!

2 – Carry Out Some Basic Measurements and Monitor/Track Progress

What’s your goal? Body transformation or performance? How will you know if you’re making progress? Most people lose motivation when they think they aren’t making progress towards their goal. However many people don’t track results in the first place or rely on things like the scales to determine success. If your goal is body composition, take some ‘before’ photos and measurements such as waist and hips and then re-test every 6-8 weeks (not every day!). Progress takes time but if you are monitoring it and tracking it you will have it there in black and white to spur you on to continue.

3 – Aim For Long-Term Change

Too many people make a big push to get to their goal and then go back to old habits once achieved. What happens then? You all know the answer. Why were you on this big change journey in the first place? Because your old ways didn’t work. So why go back to them after all that hard work and come un-done?

Think about long lasting lifestyle change whether it be exercise, nutrition or even things like sleep and hydration. It could even be cutting something out like fizzy drinks. However, slow and steady changes will be easier to sustain than just diving in head first and going cold turkey.

4 – Think About Nutrition

You can lean out and improve health from nutrition alone but that doesn’t mean starving yourself! Just following some basic guidelines will ensure you get the best out of your food and also build long-term habits.

– Eat mostly real, whole, minimally processed food.

– Eat slowly and only until satisfied.

– Eat protein with every meal.

– Eat vegetable with every meal.

– Eat healthy fats with most meals.

– Drink beverages with few calories and few ingredients most of the time.

– Drink lots of water!

I know things like work and play can throw hurdles into the mix but again if you’re fully serious about your goals then plan ahead! Make up a weekly meal plan so that when you go shopping you buy only what you need for those meals. In our house my wife has a 4 week meal plan to keep things interesting on the fridge. We know what we are eating and when, and don’t repeat meals so we don’t get bored. It also means that we have no bad temptations in house, only what we need.

Finish work late? Start making up extra portions so that you can freeze them so you don’t have to cook when you get home but still get a healthy meal instead of take-away or microwave meals from the supermarket. It just takes a little foresight and a little extra effort and you can stay on track!

These are just some simple ideas to get you started. If you are really struggling then just ask! I will be more than happy to help.

If you really want to start your 2016 the right way, then sign up to our beginners programme Basic Training. We will teach you all the basic movements as well as building up the intensity of your workouts to prepare you for our group classes. We have a 50% off sale until the 4th Jan. Email info@warriorstrength.co.uk for more details.

Have a great New Year and look forward to a healthy 2016!

In response to a few of you asking the best way of recording workouts, I thought I would write a quick post on it with some examples.

First of all tracking progress is one of the most important things to consistent improvement as outlined in my article ‘Were You Better Than You Were Yesterday‘. In terms of creating a training journal, it couldn’t be simpler. First up you need to get yourself a notebook, something cheap will do and I got mine from Tesco. It’s personal preference as to whether you want it lined or just plain pages, I personally prefer lined.

Next I would flip to the back pages of the book and make a PB chart. Basically somewhere to record your maxes on the main lifts, rowing/running times and even perhaps named WOD scores. Make a simple table with all the movements/WODs down the side and then rep schemes/times across the top. See below for an example. From there just input any of the data in pencil so that when you set PBs you can easily rub it out and replace so that you always have up to date numbers handily available at the back.

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Once that’s complete, you can now flip back to the front of the book and start recording your sessions. Again, this will be down to personal preference and you can be as detailed or as brief as you like however I would at least record the criteria below:

  • Date
  • Strength exercises complete with rep schemes and weights lifted
  • Some sort of note as to whether you will add more weight or more reps the following week
  • Workout complete with time/score
  • Notes on any scales for the workout
  • Notes on performance if applicable

If you want to go into even more depth you could also record:

  • All meals for the day and how you felt after each one, especially pre/post workout
  • Time of day you trained to see if performance is affected
  • How much sleep you had the night before
  • Water intake for the day

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The key with any recording is to do it in a way you understand and a way that’s easily referred to as you will have to look back on sessions to decide performance in future sessions. This means it needs to be legible and easily understood. Other than that, its really not that complex, the key thing here is that you have a platform to record data and determine how heavy you should lift or how fast you should complete a workout etc. Without this data, it’s merely guess work and could be slowing down your progress.

Alternatively for those who are more into their tech, there are plenty of great apps to record your sessions as well as tracking maxes etc and are pretty comprehensive. Also with it being on your phone, you are less likely to forget it when going to the gym. However if you’re like me, I prefer the old pen and paper. You could also do a combination of the 2 and keep an electronic record of your maxes etc on a spreadsheet.

We are in the process of developing a tracking journal of our own, but if you need any help at all with making a journal please don’t hesitate to ask me in the gym. I also have a ready made spreadsheet for recording maxes and again feel free to ask for it.

 

Overview

‘If you ain’t squatting you ain’t training’

While it may seem like an extreme phrase, the squat is considered to be the king of all barbell exercises and I’m inclined to agree. I would argue that if you are not squatting, you haven’t reached your true athletic potential whether your sport is moving iron or moving your own body.

The squat not only builds and develops leg strength and muscle mass, but due to the full body demand of the movement you will develop core strength that no amount of sit-ups can build and even improve mobility and more important stability.

 

Benefits

On top of building slabs of muscle on the body and a core of steel, I briefly mentioned that squatting can improve mobility, however this doesn’t mean you can skip your warm-up. You will still need to prep the body through unloaded movements, but that mobility means nothing if you don’t reinforce it with some full ROM loaded movements such as goblet squats. This will help build strength and stability through the ankles, hips and thoracic spine (upper back).

As also mentioned the squat is great for building muscle and strength not only due to its full body nature but also due to the body’s hormonal response to the movement. As so many muscle groups are utilised this can lead to larger production of testosterone as well as growth hormone which creates a great anabolic, muscle building environment in the body. Heavy squatting will increase blood flow to the muscles bringing more of these anabolic hormones to the muscle receptors and also:

–          Increase protein production

–          Increase the use of stored fat for energy

There is a lot to be said on the benefits of squats helping you achieve a lean body as well as building strength.

Before You Start

So now we know how important the squat is for strength and athletic performance we can now look at how to squat, variations and some common faults/correctives.

However before we can squat it is worth mastering a few basic principles to ‘earn’ your right to squat safely before even attempting to get under the bar.

Neutral Posture – This affects everything you do in life especially when trying to move external loads correctly and transfer external forces around the body. Unfortunately in today’s age of tablets and prolonged sitting, most of us don’t know what a neutral posture is. You should know how to adopt this before moving anything remotely heavy as this will ensure that the spine is loaded safely with all the supporting structures doing their job.

Bracing – The importance of correct breathing techniques seems to be gaining momentum in mainstream fitness. While outside the scope of this article, learning how to breathe diaphragmatically instead of using our emergency accessory muscles will not only help with abdominal bracing and therefore keep you rigid in the bottom of a squat, it will also help to reinforce good posture.

Hip Hinge – Finally, a crucial aspect of the squat is known as the hip hinge which is how squats are initiated, so it makes sense to be proficient at this pattern. While it may seem a simple movement ‘you just push your butt back…..right?’ Many people mistake the hip hinge for some kind of twerking exercise and end up over-extending through their lumbar spine (lower back) which just won’t help the situation.

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There are a few great ways to learn how to hip hinge, one of the first steps is combining neutral posture with the hip hinge which is where the good old pvc pipe comes in handy.

Can We Squat Yet?

Once you have mastered these principles then we can look at whether you can squat. While I would love to just throw each and every one of you under a bar, it simply doesn’t work like that. People’s anatomy is unique to them and some people may not be destined to squat just yet. For those that are ready it is worth going through some progressions first to build and efficient and safe movement pattern. I use this process with all my clients to build them up to squatting with a bar, some may take a session or two, and some may take a couple of months. The key is to only advance once you have mastered the movement with correct and safe technique.

Wall Squat – Are great for teaching the hip hinge movement of the squat but stop people from turning it into some sort of good morning exercise so reinforces postural alignment (see I wasn’t making it up). Move closer to the wall as you progress.

Goblet Box Squats – Goblet squats a great teaching tool for the squats but also a good warm-up/activation exercise well into your training career. Having the weight out to the front acts as a counter balance, forces you to engage the core and allows for a more vertical torso which in most cases will allow for better depth. The use of the box will just reinforce the hip hinge or ‘sitting back’ pattern. Decrease the height of the box as you progress, ensuring your spine stays in neutral and you avoid the ‘butt wink’ or flexing of the lower back (more on that later)

Goblet Squat – Once the box goblet squat has been mastered then we can remove the box and continue with a regular goblet squat. Focus on sitting in between your hips and keeping a vertical torso.

Front Squat – Now we get to finally get our hands on a barbell! Like the goblet squat the front squat allows for a more vertical torso, better core recruitment and heavier loading. However there still may be some mobility restrictions so using two KBs in a front rack position is a good alternative at this time.

Box Squat – Now we have become proficient in the hip hinge, sitting back and maintaining abdominal bracing, it’s time to get that bar on the back! We’ll talk about positioning later but for now just note that the trusty box will be utilised one last time before we move onto the full squat itself. However Box squats can be a useful staple at any point in a training cycle, especially if your squats are more quad dominant.

Now Can We Squat?

Hmmm, I suppose. Only joking! Now what was detailed above might seem like overkill and may even seem like you have to spend an eternity squatting to a box, however it is my job to ensure that you move in the most safe and efficient manner. Will everyone need to go through all the steps above? No. That’s the trainers/athletes decision to make. Will it take an eternity to get through the list of progressions? Not necessarily. I have had athletes learn abdominal bracing, hip hinges, wall squat and goblet squats in a 1 hour session with them ready to squat within a matter of days. I’ve also had some athletes come to me with poor posture, poor mobility and no clue how to squat, so it would be irresponsible to chuck a bar on their back and scream ‘shut up and squat!’ Some people aren’t even designed to squat at all, but that’s another post entirely. Anyway I digress, now that you have earned the right to squat let’s talk about how we actually do this movement I’ve been raving about.

How to Squat (Back Squat)

SETUP:

  • Tension on the bar – We want to build up some upper back, lat and shoulder tension BEFORE getting underneath the bar. Having a well organised upper back will help pull the chest up which in turn will help maintain the lumbar curve (lower back). We achieve this by grabbing the bar with as narrow grip as possible (flexibility permitting) and ‘bend’ the bar in half. This should engage the required area.
  • Setup under the bar – Keeping tension we built up in step 1, get underneath the bar and set it on top of the shoulders (high bar). Pull the elbows down towards the floor and in towards the centre of the body, this again will help set the lats. Angle of the torso will mimic the angle of your arms, so keep them pointing as close to ground as flexibility will allow. Finally set the feet into the correct squat stance, ideally shoulder width apart.
  • Un-rack the bar – Once we are setup underneath the bar we must then remove it from the rack by extending the legs and taking as few steps back as possible (think 1-2). Adjust feet as needed, toes pointing out slightly.
  • Re-tension – Check elbows, lift up the chest and pull the bar into the back to keep lats engaged.

EXECUTION:

  • Big Breath – Once tension on the bar has been sufficiently built and the position has been set, take in a big breath and hold. Think about pushing your belly out as if to brace for a punch to the stomach.
  • Hip Hinge – To initiate the squat, hips need to hinge back to set the lumbar curve and transfer weight onto the heels. Think pushing the butt back and keeping it back throughout the movement.
  • Knees Out – Drive the knees outwards to begin the descent phase of the squat, ideally keeping them over the toes. This transfers load to the hips and strengthens the posterior chain.
  • Depth – The depth of the squat should ideally be below parallel flexibility permitting. Squeeze your butt at the bottom to get out of the hole whilst still forcing your knees out. Again we want to ensure our chest is up and upper back is tight throughout.
  • Finish the Movement – Driving through the heels keeping the knees out we want to ensure our hips and shoulders move up at the same time. Squeeze the butt once more at the top of the movement to fully extend the hips and complete the squat.

Sounds simple right? Well unfortunately there are some weird and wonderful squats out there so I thought I’d go through a few common mistakes and how to fix them.

Common Errors

The Butt Wink – The lower back must maintain a natural arch to avoid putting excess stress through the lumbar spine. A common fault is as someone gets to the bottom of their squat, their lower back tucks under. This causes loss of that natural curve and flexion of the lower back, which is also known as the ‘butt wink’.

In most cases this is due to pelvic alignment and muscle imbalances through the hip flexors and the core musculature. More specifically the hips are tight or ‘stiff’ and the core is not as tight or ‘stiff’. That means once you have found the limit of your hip mobility (hip flexion) the only way to achieve more depth is to allow your trunk to lean forward and cause lumbar flexion.

To address this issue you need to mobilise the hips and create more tension in the core. Foam rolling and dynamic mobility for the hips should be your daily routine if you want to squat ‘ass to grass’ safely.

Working on anti-flexion exercises for the core to increase ‘stiffness’ will also help alleviate the butt wink.

In the meantime, decrease the ROM of your squat to ensure longevity of the spine. Squatting to a box would be the best solution while working on the above.

Heels Coming Off the Ground – As mentioned before the weight should sit around the mid foot to the heel, with the whole foot in contact with the ground at all times. Some people tend to shift the weight into the balls of the feet resulting in the heels coming off the ground. This will put more undue stress on the knee joint but also limit posterior chain activation, hindering progress.

For most the fix should be as simple as focusing on sitting back as you squat. Go back and become a ninja at the wall squats and box squats to drill the movement. As a visual cue, try and keep the shins as vertical as possible.

If this doesn’t solve the problem it may be worth looking at strength work for the posterior chain. RDL’s and Good Mornings would be a good place to start.

Knees Collapsing Inwards (knee valgus) – When squatting our knees should track over the foot and be stacked on top of the ankle. If the knees collapse in this could potentially lead to joint issues down the line. There are of course some lifters who have whats known as knee valgus (knees collapsing in) and are fine. However for the everyday athlete, keeping the knees over the feet will serve you better in the long run.

Even if you are consciously pushing your knees out and they are still caving in, then address a few issues:

– Mobilise your adductors (inside of thigh) using a foam roller and dynamic stretching such as below.

– Activate glutes during your warm-ups

– Build glute strength in your training session

Chest Dropping Forward – We already talked about the importance of maintaining the natural curve in our lower back to protect the spine. Keeping your chest up will also contribute to maintaining this position. While I say chest up that doesn’t mean you have to be completely upright. Depending on the length of your limbs and torso as well as pelvic alignment will dictate to an extent how much forward lean you will experience. Not to mention the type of squat being performed. Not everyone will look the same.

However just like the knees collapsing in, if you are putting in all the effort in the world to keep the chest up but are still collapsing forward, try these fixes.

– Setup: If you setup under the bar with the chest dropped then it will be impossible to recover during the movement itself. Get under the bar and pull your elbows down and drive the chest up. Then take the bar out of the rack.

– Move your hands closer to the shoulders. This will allow you to utilise the downward movement of the elbows more which helps utilise the lats to drive the chest up.

– Work on upper back strength and thoracic mobility. Foam roller on the lats and thoracic spine as well as the pecs may help you drive the chest up more. Building upper back strength through rows and pull-ups will also contribute to keeping the chest up.

– Address core ‘stiffness’ as mentioned earlier.

– Play around with bar position on your back. Some may find a high bar position will allow you to stay more upright while you address core or back strength issues.

The key thing to remember is if you are experiencing pain or discomfort, stop! What you are doing is either wrong or an imbalance/asymmetry needs addressing. Don’t ignore it, regress the movement to a pain free version and work on the problem. You have plenty of options above to explore.

A Word on Squat Depth

Ideally everyone should be squatting below parallel as this is where you will get the most muscle recruitment from the posterior chain (glutes and hamstrings) however as mentioned earlier not everyone is designed to squat below parallel or squat at all. Go through the following steps to help solve squat depth issues.

Plank Test

Hold a plank for as long as you can with good form and note which muscle you feel working the most. If it’s your lower back then your core musculature isn’t firing correctly and needs to be trained to work reflexively.

Possible Solution: Dead Bugs, Birddogs and my favourite the Bear Crawl will enable you to activate the core. Alongside this, work on your breathing and bracing techniques mentioned earlier.

Plate Test

Put an empty bar on your back and perform some squats noting how low you can get. Place a 2.5kg plate under each heel so that the balls of the feet are still in contact with the floor and repeat the test. If you can get lower, then your calves or ankles may need some work

Possible Solution: Foam rolling for calves and dynamic ankle mobility

Deep Squat Test

Using a fixed upright grab onto it at around waist height. Perform a squat and aim to get as low as you can. If you passed the plate test and your calves and ankles are fine then you should get below parallel without issues. However if you can’t or struggle to get out of the bottom once down there then your hip flexors may need some work

Possible Solution: Hip Flexor stretches as well as activation work through lunges and split squats.

These are just a few ways to troubleshoot squat depth the list is by no means exhaustive. Core stability can have an impact on a lot of movement restrictions hence why it is top of the list. A lot of people have the mobility required but because the body feels it is in a weak position (lack of stability) it shuts the movement down. All the rolling and stretching in the world won’t help, work on strengthening the weak areas such as the core and upper back.

Assistance Work

When you have become proficient at squatting it is worth noting that you may end up reaching a point where you no longer feel you are getting any stronger with the movement. Depending on your training experience and/or programming this may not happen for while or it may happen relatively quickly. Changing the stimulus of the movement should be your first port of call whether that be utilising pause reps, other resistances such as bands and chains or even playing around with reps schemes and rest periods.

However sometimes you may need to work on strength imbalances or assistance work to aid in getting your stronger at your squat. One of the best assistance exercises you can do for the squat is any single leg variation be it lunges, split squats or step-ups.

 

Additional Information

Lifting Shoes – Olympic weightlifting shoes are utilised by many for squatting and for good reason. As mentioned earlier, your ankles or calves could be restricting your squat depth, which for competitive weightlifting athletes isn’t going to cut it. The lifting shoe utilises a raised heel to allow for more ankle dorsi-flexion when squatting to allow more depth and stability in the bottom position. So while really useful especially for competitors, that’s it that’s all they do, they aren’t a magic shoe to fix your squat and nor should someone ignore the issues that are causing the need for ‘assistance’. You should still be able to squat to depth without the shoe and still feel stable without the shoe, if you don’t or can’t then fix it and use the shoe for those top end weights or in competition.

Belts – Exactly the same principle as the shoes they are really useful. They allow better use of intra-abdominal pressure to support movements such as squats and deadlifts and they also give you a physical cue to show you are bracing correctly. Again though we don’t want to rely on the belt, you should still be able to know how to brace without a physical cue and also be able to support sub-maximal weights without a belt. Utilise it on those really heavy training sets (85%+) or in a competition.

Knee Sleeves – Knee sleeves help keep the knee joints warm and lubricated which are great for training in really cold environment or if you’re squatting volume is particularly high. I personally wear sleeves myself and saw some great benefits in getting rid of my ‘creaky’ knees.

 

Breathing, one of the simplest, most natural things we can do. Anyone can breathe and breathe correctly, right? When we think of breathing we think of simply breathing in and out with no consideration for what muscles are being utilised or how it affects our posture, training and stress levels. So let’s take a broader look at breathing and its practical applications.

 

 

–          Breathing can help increase intra-abdominal pressure and thus provide stability of the spine when lifting heavy things.

–          Correct breathing patterns can facilitate faster recovery through correct utilisation of the autonomic nervous system. This can apply to recovery between sets and recovery between workouts.

–          By utilising correct breathing patterns we can aid postural correction which in turn could reduce asymmetries and thus reduce injury risk.

–          Finally breathing can help improve performance!

Now when we refer to breathing techniques within exercise, we are talking about using the core to stabilise the spine. However to truly get the core stability we need, we have to utilise the diaphragm. If we have poor diaphragm function (most do) then we cannot fully contract these muscles and therefore unable to fully utilise lumbar extensor muscles for spinal stability which is where we need it most.  Put simply, if you can’t utilise your diaphragm correctly, you have a higher chance of developing lower back pain.

So what is the diaphragm and how does it work? It’s a dome shaped muscle at the bottom of the rib cage and as we breathe in, the diaphragm contracts and pushes down into the abdominal cavity. This decreases the pressure in the thoracic cavity and the lungs fill with air. When we breathe out the diaphragm relaxes allowing air out. SO what does this look like? When you breathe in the lower part of your abdomen (belly) should rise or expand as the diaphragm pushes down into the abdominal cavity, then the ribs should push down as we exhale to ensure we clear all the air out. What does it actually look like for most? Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly and relax and breathe normally. Which part of your body rises and falls? For most it will be the chest. This means that instead of using the diaphragm fully we are using accessory muscles such as the neck, lats an even hip flexors to help us breathe. As mentioned this could lead to anterior pelvic tilt, increased lumbar lordosis, back pain, neck pain and shoulder issues.

So how can we learn/improve diaphragmatic breathing? We can utilise the following progressions. In all cases the aim is to breathe not just into the belly, but incorporating a 360 expansion of the core. This means that when you breathe in correctly, your belly should expand as well as the lateral (side) and lower back muscles too. This is why we start on the floor so you can feel if your lower back is expanding as it will push into the floor. This is where most people struggle so own these progressions before moving on.

Crocodile breathing poses more of a challenge as people will try to exclusively push their belly into the floor. Remember we want 360 degree expansion of the core so lower back and lateral muscles should expand as well making you look like a crocodile. Get someone to check if unsure. If you can master these drills, you are on the right track!!

So in terms of core stability ensuring the diaphragm moves down into the abdominal cavity correctly will mean that the pelvic floor and then the abdominal wall will contract and thus forcing the lumbar extensor muscles to contract. This means that when you breathe correctly you will feel a 360 degree expansion of tension and true spinal stability. This brings us nicely into its practical applications through abdominal bracing.

Once we’ve nailed down our breathing techniques we want to be able to apply that to core stability and abdominal bracing to move heavy things. From here we’ve done the hardest part of getting our entire core to expand when we breathe and now we just need to maintain that position/tension through bracing. Think of bracing as trying to deflect a punch to the stomach, you have that 360 expansion, but now its solid to touch, that’s bracing. However we should still be able to breathe while holding that position so if the diaphragm is working correctly you should have a solid core all the way to the bottom of the abdomen and still be able to breathe. That is true core stability!

A great way to practice this is through the use of a lifting belt or resistance band tied around the waist. The belt or band provides feedback in terms of that 360 degree brace, then you can practice breathing while still maintaining that tension against the belt or band. Remember though you really need to focus on that full expansion and not just pushing your belly into the floor as again you’ll compensate somewhere else along the body.

What next? Well once you have mastered the breathing and the bracing, you want to add more challenge by utilising these techniques with movement. Having good breathing techniques and bracing ability is useless if you can’t maintain it while moving as that is the main reason you are using it! So we can begin to practice through unloaded exercises such as the Dead Bug, Bird Dog or even as simple as single leg lowering!

If you can apply the principles above whilst carrying out these movements then it’s time to apply those techniques under load. Get squatting, deadlifting and pressing and see how these new techniques change the way the movement feels. Now please don’t mistake this article as some sort of Holy Grail, yes these techniques can improve efficiency and therefore performance and they can definitely help improve posture and minimise injury risk. However once you learn to breathe and brace correctly you won’t suddenly put 50lbs on your lifts, this application is for the long term health, performance and recovery of your body. You have still got to put in the work, perform correct technique and follow a structured programme. This is just another tool to help on the journey to greatness and with so many people reporting the benefits of improving breathing technique, it’s one that can’t be ignored.

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