How and Why to Train Your Lungs

Can you really make your lungs stronger? And does that have an effect on performance? Respiratory training might seem like a gimmick, but a research review shows it just might work.

Working the respiratory muscles has long been a goal in fitness culture. It’s not something you’ll see a machine for in the gym, not even the hardcore gyms. No, working the muscles that drive your lungs is something that you need to go to the real fitness fanatics to find. You know, the people who think about exercise non-stop, all day long. But it’s not new, and in fact, it’s been a deep and sometimes hard-to-find part of conditioning the body for decades or longer.

But sometimes fitness nuts are just that: nuts. That tendency makes you wonder if there is any research out there that actually demonstrates a benefit to this obscure training method, and it turns out that there is. A review published this month by the Journal of Strength and Conditioning looked at the studies that examined this topic. There were 21 such studies, and all were focused on healthy athletes.

The first question the researchers addressed is whether or not respiratory training does anything at all. The answer here is a resounding yes. Respiratory training has a marked effect on the respiratory muscles like the diaphragm. When trained, these muscles go through the normal changes that our other muscles do. Training increases aerobic enzymes and blood flow and improves both endurance and power when done appropriately. The respiratory muscles even get stronger in the range of motion that you work them in, just like your other muscles. It seems odd to think about it that way, but the respiratory muscles really do function like our normal skeletal muscles that lift weights.

Now that’s all well and good, and very fascinating (to me at least) but what about the bottom line? We are athletes and coaches, and we want to know if respiratory training will actually help us win.The answer to that question is a mixed yes. Respiratory training was demonstrated to improve performance for almost any activity except swimming, diving, and special forces training. The latter was probably simply too technical, and perhaps an accidental part of normal special forces training anyway. For cyclists, there were trends towards improvement. In every other sport studied, the outcomes of athletic performance were improved.

The results were mixed for a few reasons. Each study used a wide array of methods for strengthening the respiratory muscles, some of which were undoubtedly more effective than others. That alone could account for all of the variation in results. Next, some sports include respiratory training to some extent as a matter of daily training. Because of water pressure, swimmers have frequent external loading to their torsos and forced breathing. Diving is probably too short an event to show much improvement from respiratory muscle training.

Now that we know respiratory training works, we just need to know how to do it. Well, swimming is obviously one way. But like all muscles, you need progressive resistance, so you’d have to get even better at swimming, which may not work for all athletes. There are products available that develop respiratory muscles, some of which are marketed as mimicking elevation training, but really do not. While this is an option, it’s typically an expensive one.

Perhaps the simplest and cheapest way to work the respiratory muscles is tube breathing. That’s right, good old breathing through a straw. Do this progressively, with stronger, faster, and deeper breaths through ever smaller tubes. That’s it – simple and effective.


1. HajGhanbari, et. al., Effects of Respiratory Muscle Training on Performance in Athletes: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analyses,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 27(6), 2013

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