How to work your respiratory muscles

For maximum performance you need to develop every muscle in your body – especially those you breathe with...


For maximum performance you need to develop every muscle in your body – especially those you breathe with.

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Never mind heart rate, it’s being ‘out of breath’ that’s often the limiting factor. The basic principles of training are that all muscles must receive an overload stimulus followed by a rest period in order for performance adaptations to occur. This includes muscles in the respiratory system.

The muscles that you use during the inspiratory phase of breathing (expiration is largely passive) are the diaphragm and the intercostals between each rib. These represent a system that is responsible for consuming up to 20% of the available energy at maximal intensities of exercise.

Breathe deep

In the last couple of decades, there have been numerous publications on the efficacy of inspiratory muscle training (IMT) in a performance context. In a Swiss study, 20 people trained their respiratory muscles for 30mins per day, five days a week for four weeks.

This work boosted their cycling endurance time by 27%. Blood-lactate levels were lower in the respiratory-trained athletes after both high-intensity and endurance-type exercise. This was attributed to improved lactate intake by the trained respiratory muscles.

Although, it’s also possible that the well-trained respiratory muscles may have allowed leg muscles to have more blood. A UK study over a six-week period saw the subjects enjoy a 28% gain in maximal inspiratory mouth pressure and a 22% gain in the amount of air that could be breathed into the lungs in 30secs.

The study’s cyclists were 65secs faster than the controls in a 20km time trial and 114secs quicker in the 40km trial. Other studies have shown increased running economy (5%), better swimming performance (up to 3.5%) and improved warm-up of the respiratory muscles.

In the past we’ve looked at the most famous of these training devices, the Powerbreathe (above), which is generically referred to as ‘pressure threshold training’ technology. This device has received the greatest amount of attention, but there are other methods available.

One of these is hyperpnoea, which involves breathing at an artificially high rate – although this requires a modification of inspired gases to avoid hyperventilation, and so isn’t practical for most home users.

But there are other simpler methods, such as flow resistive, where you’re required to breathe through a small hole, and thoracic restrictive, where ribcage movement is opposed by an external force. Interestingly, this method presents an opportunity for ambulatory training and hence an even greater degree of specificity.

Overall, for a minimal time outlay, we’d recommend giving either option a go.

Inspiratory training protocol

For mouth-based, pressure threshold IMT devices such as the Powerbreathe, the recommended training programme involves bouts of 30 maximal breaths repeated twice daily. These bouts should be completed at a load where 30 breaths are just achievable.

As your inspiratory muscle strength increases and 30 breaths become easy, then the load should be increased. As with any targeted muscle training programme, you should expect a noticeable difference after about four to six weeks.

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