The Fitness Fixer
The Fitness Fixer

Respiratory Muscle Training for Better Health and Exercise

At the American College of Sports Medicine conference last month, I attended an entire session on effects of training respiratory muscle function. Back when I was in school, we learned that the ability to breathe harder, better, faster, could not be trained with exercise or other modality, that it was fixed from person to person, like eye color, except that it got worse with aging, and that it didn't matter much, since ventilation did not do much to limit exercise potential anyway.

Even though the lungs don't have any muscles of their own, it didn't seem right to me, as the diaphragm and muscles that move the rib cage to voluntarily breath in and out are muscles like any other. What if there are people whose respiratory muscles are not trained to work hard enough and add to the metabolic cost of exercise, increasing fatigue and so, limit exercise? It is also true that many people are not in good enough shape to use more oxygen, so breathe most of the oxygen back out with each breath, even when exercising strenuously. What about someone in great athletic shape who could use that oxygen. Why couldn't they be trained to move more air faster if they needed some?

Exercising the muscles that you use to breath in (inspiratory muscle training) is known to improve the endurance of the respiratory muscles in people with spinal cord injury and cystic fibrosis, and is shown to improve exercise capacity in patients with heart failure. What about for people without these conditions or for athletes?

There is some published literature that does not show improved work capacity (J Sports Sci. 1991 Spring;9(1):43-52.) and some that show high-intensity training increases exercise capacity in people who are healthy (Phys Ther. 2006 Mar;86(3):345-54.).

Combat swimmers have long used various breathing training to get in shape for swims and other strenuous work. The diving medicine conference I attended two weeks ago had several studies that showed interesting and promising results with breathing training.

More on Pulmonary and Respiratory Training:


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Dr. Bookspan is an award-winning scientist whose goal is to make exercise easier and healthier.