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CrossFit and the Art of Kiai

You think you control your body, right? For the most part, you do. But the human brain is an amazing—and amazingly complex—piece of equipment. And the thousands of various moving parts and actions that a body utilizes during the day all interconnected through your brain.

Your stomach, for example, sends messages to your brain when it’s hungry. That one’s easy. Others aren’t quite so cut-and-dried: Craving salty foods? There’s a good chance you may be dehydrated—which, if you stop and think about it, seems like a complete contradiction, sense drinking salt water can lead to dehydration (there IS science behind it, but it still seems a bit freaky).

While it’s a myth that your eyeballs will pop out if you keep them open when you sneeze, your eyes automatically close 99.9% of the time. And some studies have shown that physically smiling while you’re on the phone actually makes you sound friendlier, even if you’re doing something unpleasant like disputing a credit card purchase.

So much for body control…

What does all this have to do with CrossFit? Before we go there, let’s look at one more instance where a conscious action causes an involuntary reaction in the human body: kiai.

Kiai is the time-honored practice of yelling during martial arts moves. Sure, it adds dramatic effect; is there another reason?

As it turns out, more than one. For starters, the trained, forced, rapid exhalation of breath can drive focus (focusing on breath means less of a chance you’ll focus on the seemingly impossible, like breaking a brick with your bare hand). But it also pushes oxygenated blood flow to the extremities.

OK, while it may be involuntarily, there’s still a bit of cause/effect there—or there would be, if that was all that happened. But there’s more: practicing the kiai also

  1. Contracts both the diaphragm and the chest, which improves your chances of successfully taking a hit.
  2. Strengthens your core by tightening your abdominal muscles.
  3. Drives extra energy into the strike by causing you to focus on the moment of impact.
  4. Can catch opponents off guard if they are anticipating it or don’t know what to expect. Think of it as a battle cry in a real fight, but it also shows spirit in professional competition.

So essentially, you’re controlling one thing: a yell or scream. But the effects run throughout your entire body. If it works for martial arts, would it work for CrossFit training? Is kiai really that different from grunting or screaming or cursing when working out?

Not at all; the same basic principles apply, and for much the same reasons. People are calling your name, the clock is ticking, and you have to pull strength from the depths of your soul in order to hit that last set of reps. The world slows, you’re hyper-aware, and everything you are is focused your body is doing. You scream in anguish … or is the screaming part of the reach? Does it matter? It all flows together as you push beyond where you thought you could.