Breath training programs, pulmonary rehabilitation and breath hold experts need to start addressing the incredible strength of our breathing muscles.
From breath hold to performance enhancement, anxiety control to asthma management and lung rehabilitation – here’s why you need to start lifting weights with your lungs.
There are so many different theories these days – methods and gurus who each claim that through their method your health, your performance, your focus and control will all improve.
Some of these programs offer fantastic tools for performance, but they don’t always acknowledge the most powerful tool we have to manage our breath. Strength training! I’m a science guy, so of course I’m going to use proven research to demonstrate.
Strength training the breathing muscles leads to….
- Increased diaphragm thickness by 8-12% (Downey et al, 2007)
That’s right, the main breathing muscles get bigger! Just like all the other muscles in your body when you strength train – we just can’t see these ones bulging.
- Increased diaphragm strength > 20% (Downey et al, 2007)
If you take your breathing muscles to the gym, they become stronger. Just like all the other muscles in your body. See the pattern developing here?
- Change in fibre type (Ramirez-Sarmiento et al 2002)
We get a shift in the type of fibers in the muscle which make the muscle stronger and more efficient.
- Leads to Improved athletic performance (Romer et al. 2002)
- …and improved asthma control and COPD management (P Weiner. 2002)
- …and also improved blood delivery to exercising muscles (Harms et al. 1997)
So, do you even lift?
If you’re doing breath training you are missing a huge gain if you’re not adequately strength training.
Simply put, strength training the breathing muscles makes breathing easier, and it makes the breathing muscles less resistant to fatigue (Babcock et al, 1995). If a muscle is less resistance to fatigue, it needs less fuel to operate and then it allows more blood flow to the muscles that are exercising – like your legs, arms and/or other muscles involved in your athletic performance.
There are many conflicting approaches to breathing technique and application. The Wim Hof method employs a simple hyperventilation technique to overbreathe and reduce carbon dioxide levels. The Buteyko method offers health benefits doing the complete opposite. During exercise it is beneficial to remove C02 levels – but, if you increase your work of breathing to do this, you may suffer from an early fatigue of your breathing muscles, which of course can result in poor performance.
Strength training the breathing muscles has been shown to improve the efficiency of these muscles by improving the removal of C02 (Salazar-Martínez et al.) without increasing the energy cost to do this.
Strength training in breathing muscles has had some extraordinary results – reducing shortness of breath measures during exercise and improving performance along with the traditional changes we know that occur with a strength training program. Above you can see Cirque Du Soleil artist Stuart McKenzie whom I have worked with for many years now, strength, control and the ability to make hard things look easy are the keys to his success!
I designed Fletcher Techniques so I could take this research to the next level – for my patients and athletes as well as my own practice – by utilising the proven research and my experience in exercise physiology as well as innovative training techniques developed by sports scientists and trainers only in the past few years.
The strongest athletes I see without any specific breath training are Olympic lifters, grappling fighters and swimmers.
Lifting athletes strength train their diaphragm through their sport – most likely through the core training and intra-abdominal pressure development they do in order to lift and move heavy weights. You see them wearing belts to prevent abdominal hernias due to the high levels of intra-abdominal pressure development – And the diaphragm is the lid on this pressure development, so it undergoes indirect training each lift and grapple.
Swimmers are placed in water and have to take sharp breaths to ensure a complete breath, especially during the freestyle stroke. One of my athletes, Cameron McEvoy breaths every 1.2sec during a 100m freestyle race, and has less than 0.2 sec to take a breath – this type of training indirectly elicits an improvement in strength.
Martial arts athlete Junior Dos Santos recorded a test of 221cmH20, the highest I have seen on an intial test.
I am consistently seeing improvements in the strength of breathing muscles in high level athletes using science based methods and threshold devices (good luck achieving the load required – above 30%max – with anything other than a threshold device). With both professional and amateur athletes I’ve achieved a minimum of 21% improvement in every single bespoke training program we’ve undertaken. So, lesson of the day, science works and I’m sticking to the research!
I would love to hear your thoughts, questions and experiences.
What element of the breathe do you want to hear more about?
Bringing Science to the Breath