[00:00] Introduction/About Greg Wells
[06:32] Where 15% of Your Total Oxygen Consumption Goes During Exercise
[07:39] What is Hyperpnoea Training?
[08:58] Jerome Dempsey’s Study on Breathing Muscles Steal Blood from Extremities
[10:13] Does Breathing Through a Straw Work the Same Way?
[14:31] The Difference Between Resisted Breathing and Hypoxic Training
[16:12] A Typical Workout Using a Resisted Breath Training Device
[23:15] Is It Possible to Do Resisted Breathing Incorrectly?
[27:05] End of Podcast
Ben: Hey folks, it’s Ben Greenfield here, and I wrote an article over at bengreenfieldfitness.com a while ago called Underground Training Tactics for Enhancing Endurance. And in that article, I introduced you to the concept of using things like resisted breathing and restricted breathing and hypoxic training to do things like increase your oxygen utilization, your VO2 Max, your inspiratory and your expiratory muscle strength or muscle endurance. And in that article, I actually mentioned something that I use called a PowerLung, which is a special, portable breathing device that I personally use and have been using when I drive around in my car or I’m stuck in traffic, when I’m watching a movie or waiting in line at the airport as a way to squeeze in a quick workout for my lungs and my inspiratory and expiratory muscles. So I keep it in my bag and kind of pull it out whenever I know I have a quick chance to boost my VO2 Max. So that means I can exercise my lungs just about any time, any place. But sometimes it’s difficult to understand how exactly these things work, whether they’re proven, and whether they actually can increase your VO2 Max without you having to go out and exercise, and really, how these things actually operate.
So I decided to get an expert on the call today to talk about how you can actually train your respiratory muscles without actually exercising in a traditional sense of the word like say riding your bicycle up a hill or running on a treadmill. So the guy who’s on the call with me today is Greg Wells, and Greg is a Ph.D., he’s the assistant professor of the faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education at the University of Toronto. He’s also the associate scientist of Physiology and Experimental Medicine at the Hospital for Sick Children. And today, he’s gonna share his wealth of knowledge with us on respiratory muscle training. How to do it, what you can get out of it, how it actually works, and everything there is to know about it. So Greg, thanks for coming on the call today.
Greg: My pleasure Ben, great to speak to you.
Ben: Now Greg, I notice that you’ve actually written a paper called Respiratory Muscle Power Before and After Training. I’m curious how you got into kinda looking into this in the first place and then as a follow up, what you’ve looked at and what you found when it comes to respiratory muscle power and what happens when you train with it.
Greg: Yeah, I got into this getting my Ph.D. at University of Toronto. I was in Exercise Physiology and I’m a former competitive swimmer and I was coaching swimming at the time. I was really interested in finding new ways to make athletes faster. And one of the things I was really interested in, I always had been interested, is how breathing interacts with movement to help athletes perform. And so I began to explore this idea of respiratory muscle training and decided that was gonna be what I did my Ph.D. thesis on. So we developed a whole bunch of things, one of which was how to actually test the strength and power of the breathing muscles, a really complex system that we built in the lab that measured pressures that you could develop and the speed of breathing and how much ventilation that you can actually create. And then we took a group of athletes through a 12-week training program and found out what happens to them when they train their breathing muscles. They were actually swimmers at the time but I also did a group of cyclists in a side project, and a lot of other people have done research in rowing and a little bit in running. So it’s certainly been an area of great interest, almost 10 years now.
Ben: Hmm, and so when did you actually start to work on this paper, this Respiratory Muscle Power Before and After Training? Is it a paper or is it a study?
Greg: That’s sort of the paper that I wrote that came out of my Ph.D. research. I published a paper in the European Journal of Applied Physiology that was the scientific version of that. The paper that you’re referring to is the paper that I wrote for coaches, to help them to understand what’s happening. Tried to make it as simple as possible, and we talked about power and increasing ventral breathing power is basically the same as the watts on a bike that you’re generating watts of breathing. You’re creating ventilation which is liters per minute, how deeply you can breathe, times how fast you can breathe, breaths per minute. And so the math comes out to liters per minute and if you do that as a factor of time, it’s power of breathing, believe it or not. So we measured critical power of the breathing muscles which had never been done before. And the critical power of the breathing muscles is sort of the endurance capacity of the breathing muscles, and we tested that before and after training to see if we could improve the critical power, the endurance capacity of the breathing muscles with just regular swim training or regular swim training plus respiratory muscle training.
Ben: Interesting. So explain to me exactly how respiratory muscle training works. Can you give me some examples of how someone would do respiratory muscle training?
Greg: Sure. There’s really two main ways that people do respiratory muscle training. The first one is to use a device like the PowerLung that you referred to, and those are devices that have springs in them. So it’s like a tube you put up to your mouth to breathe in and out through the tube. The tube’s about an inch in diameter and an inspiration port, the port that takes air in, and the expiration port, the part where air flows out, have springs that you have to work against in order to open them up and to be able to breathe in. So it’s like a strength training maneuver, just like weight training for your breathing muscles. The other way…
Ben: Now can I interrupt you real quick?
Ben: When you say breathing muscles, can you clarify?
Greg: Yeah, it’s amazing but most people probably aren’t aware of it. 15%, let’s say you’re exercising your VO2 Max, you’re cycling along and you’re going all out and you’re breathing really hard and your leg muscles are hammering and you’re going all out. About 15% of the total oxygen that your body consumes around VO2 Max is spent on your breathing muscles.
Greg: And your breathing muscles are all of the muscles that are in your ribcage. So if you eat ribs for dinner or whatever, that’s actually your ribcage muscles and those are the muscles you contract in order to breathe. You also have the diaphragm with a huge sheet of muscle running through the middle of your body, the base of your ribcage, but then you also have your abs. A lot of people don’t realize it, you use your abs to breathe especially when you’re exhaling, especially when we’re working really, really hard. And there’s what’s called the accessory muscles which are the muscles up and around through your neck so the scalene, the sternocleidomastoid, and other muscles up and in through your neck, so there’s actually a… huge part of the body’s musculature is devoted to breathing.
Ben: Wow. Okay, got it. So you explained about these spring-loaded resistance training devices and then you said there was another way people can do this, a second way?
Greg: Exactly, and the other way is endurance training for your muscles called hyperpnoea training. So that’s basically high ventilation for an extended period of time. You’re breathing really hard as fast as you can, no resistance, just trying to handle the high ventilation rates. And the challenge there is if you do that to sort of sit in your chair and hyperventilate for a little while, you blow off all your carbon dioxide and get really dizzy, it can actually be quite dangerous. So some of the hyperpnoea training devices that are out there stores some CO2 so you breathe in and out of a bag, for example. To keep your CO2 levels high so you don’t pass out and get sick, or pass out and hurt yourself, I should say. So those are two main different ways of doing it, either strength training for your breathing muscles or hyperpnoea training for your breathing muscles.
Ben: And you said hyperpnoea training, how do you spell that?
Greg: Like hyper, so that’s the term in science we use to say more, hyperpnoea… hyper, sorry, and then apnea which is breathing so hyperp- with a p and noea.
Ben: Gotcha. Now in addition to your Respiratory Muscle Power Before and After Training paper, and I’ll put a link to that by the way in the show notes over at bengreenfieldfitness.com for people who wanna read that, for the nerds out there. Can you tell us what other studies or what other type of research has been done on this resisted muscle training?
Greg: I think one of the coolest studies that were done was by a group out of Wisconsin, Jerome Dempsey’s group. And what they did was really interesting, they actually did a study that showed that if your breathing muscle becomes fatigued, they preferentially steal blood away from your arms and your legs, so the harder your breathing muscles work, the less blood flows to your arms and your legs coz the body will protect the heart, brain and the lungs before anything else. It doesn’t’ care if your arms and legs get tired, it just cares about being sure that you can keep breathing. So it was a really interesting study that they did that I think is really applicable because if you think about it and you’re out for a ride, you’re going for a run, and you’re at threshold and all of a sudden asks you a question and you start talking to them and increasing your breathing, that’s enough to throw you off and push you over that threshold. And so it was a really fascinating study that speaks the importance of controlling breathing especially when you get to the higher intensities.
Ben: Okay, so how would doing something like that hyperpnoea training that you talked about or using a spring-loaded resisted breathing device be any different than doing something like getting a straw and just breathing in and out of a straw?
Greg: Yeah, it’s a little bit different. If you’re breathing out of a straw, you’re breathing through a very narrow tube so that’s creating resistance as well, that’s one way of doing it, it’s very hard to control. The cool thing that I liked about the PowerLung in my research was that we could actually change the resistance. There’s dials that you could use to increase or decrease the resistance inside the device. Important product for me to say at this point in time… like I get no money from PowerLung and I never had. They donated some units for me in my Ph.D. research, something I didn’t quite believe. I’m not getting any financial benefit out of it whatsoever, so when you’re losing this PowerLung device you can actually change the resistance as you get stronger just like in the weight room. As you get stronger you gotta keep increasing the weights that you’re using to continue to stimulate adaptation in the muscles, you can do that on this one, whereas if you use the straw, it’s not gonna happen and that’s probably not enough. Using the PowerLung almost like you would as part of a strength training routine. If you’re going into the gym and you know that you’re doing, some bench press, some back arches, or squats or single leg lunges, I just throw in a set of PowerLung on that as well and I just treat it exactly like I would any exercise.
Ben: Okay, got it. Now I’ve seen a lot of other devices out there like resisted breath training devices, and from what I understand, some of them are indeed like breathing in and out of a straw, and some of them are more of these spring-loaded devices. Can you explain what exactly the difference is in terms of what some of these devices that are indeed like a straw are doing versus what a spring-loaded device is doing?
Greg: So if you’re breathing in and out of a straw or a device with a very narrow tube, you can breathe regardless of the pressure. So if you just inhale a tiny little bit, you will get some flow through that straw, and the faster you try to inhale, the harder it’s gonna become because when you generate flow through a little, tiny tube there’s resistance and there’s just not enough space for the air to get into your lungs. So it makes it very, very hard but there’s no threshold. You can breathe with a tiny, little effort and you’re actually gonna inhale. The difference with some of the spring-loaded devices is that until you reach a certain threshold pressure, you actually don’t get any ventilation, any air at all. It’s like a cracking pressure so you have to sort of… if you put it in your mouth and you start inhaling, you have to generate a certain resistance, push-push-push, and then as you’re sucking the air hard, and then all of a sudden it’ll crack, it’ll open up, and then you can generate flow. And you have to maintain that pressure all the way through the inspiration, and then do exactly the same thing on the exhale. So it’s a little bit more controlled, you can actually hit target intensities, target thresholds before you’re actually generating any ventilation. I also find it to be a lot more controllable and a lot more precise. I ended up using it quite a while ago with quite a bit of success with a lot of the competitive national and international level swimmers that I was working with and it worked really well for them.
Ben: Yeah, that’s actually what I noticed when I started using the PowerLung and didn’t know what I was doing was I tried to breathe into it and couldn’t get any air in and out, and realized that I actually had it on the highest resistance possible and so it just didn’t move air at all. And so that’s something that folks should know about, is actually once you have one of these, you wanna start at a relatively low resistance, that’s at least what I found. After a couple of months of training, I’m pretty much rocking it at the highest resistance I can dial in, but initially you can’t even move that resistance, you can’t even move air through it unless you just really put your whole body into it, it’s pretty amazing.
Greg: Yeah, it’s shocking how hard it is and it’s shocking how fast you adapt to it.
Greg: And so, another cool application of it actually is the rowing team from U.K. was using it, found it was great before warmups. So you could actually do it before you go on the water to warm up for your race, it actually lowers lactate levels during the race so it’s almost like a… you can also use it as a warm up for your workouts.
Ben: So how is this any different than hypoxic training? Like lowering the partial pressure of oxygen or using a hypoxic tent or something like that?
Greg: Yeah, they’re completely different. So there’s hypoxic training which is going to bed at night and sleeping in a tent and lowering your oxygen levels. That’s gonna stimulate your body to produce more red blood cells via the EPO response. There’s also hypercapnia training which is when you’re doing controlled frequency breathing when you’re swimming for example, like breathing 3-5-7-9 or something like that. That’s gonna increase your carbon dioxide levels in your body, it doesn’t do much to your oxygen levels, a bit of a misunderstood thing there. And that’s changing the levels of gases in your blood which does all sorts of very positive things in terms of triggering adaptation inside your muscles.
Respiratory muscle training is a specific, targeted training for the muscles of breathing, and so it really targets the diaphragm and it really targets the muscles throughout the ribcage. And we now know that breathing muscles can adapt, you can adapt your breathing, you can become fitter, your breathing can become less stressful when you’re working at VO2 Max. The fitter your breathing muscles become, the less challenge they’re gonna pose to your arms and legs in terms of competing for blood flow. So yeah, it’s quite a bit of a different thing even though both are “breathing related.” One is the hypoxic and hypercapnic training really have to do with changing oxygen and CO2 levels in your blood, whereas respiratory muscle training really targets specifically the muscles of breathing, themselves.
Ben: So you talked about how you used something like this in the weight room. Can you give me an example of a typical workout that one would do with the resistant breath training device?
Greg: One of the things you can do if you wanna increase the strength of the breathing muscles is just do three sets of 8-12, the same way that you would do strength development exercises in the gym. You just do three sets of 8-12, complete breaths in, complete breaths out on a PowerLung. Another thing that we’ve done is 30 breaths at very, very low resistance three times before we do warmups. You do three sets of 30, very low resistance, warm up the breathing muscles, get in warmup with both swimming and cycling. Another really cool thing that we did, in swim training actually, was… it was particularly cruel when I was watching, we would use it and athletes would have to recover on it in between when they’re going ten 100s.
Greg: Freestyle, when you hit the wall, you grab the PowerLung, you breathe on it for 30 seconds, put it back up, and start swimming again.
Ben: That’s a good idea. So I could keep this poolside and just set it up over the pool?
Greg: Oh yeah.
Greg: We’ve done it a lot. A buddy of mine used to use it on the bike, but you gotta be really careful coz you don’t wanna get dizzy, but he’s a very hardcore cyclist, he’ll do sets of it while he’s out on the bike because it immediately steals blood from your arms and legs and can be really, really challenging. So you might wanna, not try it out on the road, but certainly on the trainer, it could be a really cool thing to do.
Ben: Have you ever used one of those altitude training masks? Not the hypoxic training masks but the… they’re called elevation training masks that resist your breathing.
Greg: I personally haven’t. We’ve taken athletes to altitude camps, I know that there’s a back and forth debate about whether or not altitude’s effective. We obviously believe high training load seems to be the consensus.
Ben: Well I don’t mean like the altitude training in terms of hypoxic training. I mean these devices that you’ll find in MMA websites and they’re really popular among a lot of crossfitters and gym junkies that they strap these masks to their face and they basically restrict oxygen flow. Have you seen those?
Greg: Oh really?
Greg: Yeah, I have not had any experience with that. I’ve had a little bit of experience with the altitude tents and with altitude training camps and stuff like that, but in terms of actually decreasing the amount of oxygen that’s consumed during using one of those masks, I haven’t seen that yet.
Ben: Yeah, what I’ve found, and I call that more like restricted breathing coz what it does is just like breathing through a tiny, tiny hole, I find that it feels way different coz I’ve worn it a few times. It feels way different than doing something like restricted breathing plus something like a PowerLung.
Ben: Or I think the reasons that you just outlined, you have to reach a certain threshold before the PowerLung even moves at all versus an elevation training mask. You can breathe no matter what, it just restricts the amount of air that comes in and out.
Greg: Right. What they might be doing there, and sort similar to the myth around controlled frequency breathing and swimming, sort of breathing 3-5-7-9 sets and stuff like that is that by restricting breathing during exercise, we think of it as hypoxic training when in fact what’s really happening there, what really makes it uncomfortable is that you’re building up CO2 inside the body. Your muscles are working, they’re producing carbon dioxide. It’s the buildup of carbon dioxide that actually gives you that urge to breathe, that sensation of breathlessness. That comes from high CO2, and that’s causes a change in pH levels, your blood will becomes more acidic, the acid, the hydrogen ions will get into your muscles and cause problems with muscle contraction and speed up fatigue. So I can see how that can be really useful for MMA for sure, and if you’re doing sprint events or anything that requires greater intensities, then that can be beneficial as well. You just have to be really careful with how you use it.
Ben: Interesting. Okay, got it. So as far as this PowerLung device, I’ve seen… if I go over to your websites, I’ve seen that there are different ones. There’s one called an AireStream… or it’s not your website, I guess the PowerLung website. But it’s the AireStream, the BreathAir, the Trainer… I know that you don’t work for PowerLung but do you know the difference between these different devices?
Greg: Yeah, it’s really cool seeing the evolution of all of those different products. When it first came out, there was the PowerLung Sport and then of course as you know when you, as an athlete, you put it in your mouth the first time like “oh my God, this is so hard.”
Greg: And then an easier version came out, a version that’s very easy to breathe in and out of, for people with respiratory diseases who need to improve their lung function, people with asthma, COPD, etc. Then there was another version that came out that was only inspiratory in nature and then another version that came out to help musicians. So it’s really interesting to see them expand the number of offerings that they have. So if you really are getting into it, take a look coz there’s lots of different options for you depending on what fitness level you’re at or where you’re starting from.
Ben: Yeah, I just use this green… I believe it’s the Sport model which I think is the one that’s kinda designed for athletes.
Ben: And it is tough, so I’ve been using it about twice a week and honestly, all I’ve been doing is, when I’m sitting around, like I mentioned I do the breath training and I’ve just been doing ten sets of 3 seconds out-3 seconds in. And just that alone has made a pretty big difference for me in terms of my respiratory strength and the main areas that I’ve noticed it is swimming in the pool, and then also just my core strength when I’m doing core sets, it seems to have somehow improved core strength. Is that something that you’ve noticed, is like a direct crossover into things like swinging a tennis racket, torso strength… are you using a lot of those muscles if you’re doing the breath training?
Greg: Yeah, the experts already saw it for sure, and that’s the one difference between PowerLung and most of the other devices on the market is that PowerLung actually trains both inspiration and expiration and I found some specific benefits to training the expiratory muscles in my research. And the expiratory muscles are largely your core muscles, all of your abdominals. So if you get those working better, if you work the nervous system and how to activate those muscles, absolutely it’s gonna help you. And if you look at the moment of explosiveness in many sports, like hitting a tennis ball or the moment when you’re actually in the power phase of your swimming stroke for the very best swimmers in the world who are starting in track and field. People exhale at those moments because exhalation matched with muscle contraction can be more powerful. Surprising to see that by working on your expiratory muscles and linking that to your sport performance that you’re finding improvements in what you’re able to do because that’s definitely what a lot of the world class athletes across a variety of different sports do.
Ben: I think you can do it the wrong way though, I’ve found. I’ve noticed that I can move the dial on the PowerLung by doing almost shallow chest breathing, but I’m way stronger and I feel like I get a better workout when I focus on breathing from within my belly. So is it actually possible to use these things the wrong way?
Greg: Just like every exercise, yeah. I mean imagine you’re doing a bench press, you’re doing 6 inch range of motion movements. It’s not nearly as good… with the bar for example, not nearly as good as if you grab some dumbbells and move yourself through an entire full-range of motion where you have the muscle fully stretching and then contracting. And it’s exactly the same way with PowerLung, you do not wanna be doing short, fast, shallow breaths. You wanna be doing complete, nice, deep breaths, expanding the lungs, building strength through an entire range of motion, and that’s when you get the real benefits.
Ben: Okay, got it. Well cool, what I’ll do over at bengreenfieldfitness.com in the show notes for those of you listening in, is I’ll give you a link to PowerLung but we’ve actually got a 25% discount which is actually really significant. I worked out for the PowerLung and they were kind enough to give that to us until… I believe it goes until the end of 2014. We might be able to get to extend that but the code over at powerlung.com you can use to get a 25% discount on one of these little portable breath-training devices is BGF as in Ben Greenfield Fitness, 025. So it’s BGF025 at powerlung.com. And furthermore, we’re gonna give some donations, 10% of the proceeds when you get a resisted breathing device over there at powerlung.com. They’re gonna go to the Sick Kids Foundation. Greg, can you tell me about the Sick Kids Foundation and what exactly that is?
Greg: Yeah, so I’m a scientist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and we’re one of the top research centers for children’s health. We deal mostly with complex diseases, mostly kids who we see have more than one problem… more than one disease at a time and tertiary care like, really complicated cases. And what I’ve been working on for the last two years at Sick Kids is actually using exercise to prevent, diagnose, and treat chronic diseases in kids like cancer and cystic fibrosis, and we’ve moved in to heart inflammatory diseases due to juvenile arthritis, other things like that. And so we’re really trying to promote exercise as a primary treatment for children with chronic diseases so we established the Exercise Medicine Fund. And that goes towards funding research into improving children’s health using exercise, specifically improving the health of children with a number of different chronic diseases. We just started our first cancer intervention study last week where we’re actually using exercise to treat children with cancer. It’s wild, it’s really, really cool and we appreciate everyone’s support. Huge coz it’s brand new and we need all the support we can get.
Ben: Okay, cool. So that’s the Sick Kids Foundation, and again 10% of the proceeds from your purchase of a PowerLung over at powerlung.com if you use the 25% discount code BGF025, are gonna go to the Sick Kids Foundation. So these PowerLungs are pretty cool, for those of you who are listening in, I’ll put a link to some of the studies that have been done on not just PowerLungs but respiratory muscle training in general. Really good way, again, even if you aren’t stepping foot into a gym, just while you’re kinda doing other things, to become a better athletes, to increase your VO2 Max, to help out with stuff like asthma and breathing issues, to strengthen your core and your abs. So I’m a big fan, and Greg, thank you for coming on the call today.
Greg: Oh Ben, my pleasure. Thanks so much and yeah, it’s great to be on your show, I’m a fan of your show and so thanks for all the great information.
Ben: Awesome. Well folks, this is Ben Greenfield and Greg Wells signing out from bengreenfieldfitness.com.
In the article “Underground Training Tactics For Enhancing Endurance – Part 1“, I introduce you to the concept of using things like resisted, restricted and hypoxic breathing to significantly increase your oxygen utilization, your lung power, your VO2 max, and your inspiratory and expiratory muscle strength and endurance.
In that article, I mention a “PowerLung“, which is a special portable restricted breathing device that I personally use when I'm driving around in my car, watching a movie, or waiting in line at the airport as a way to squeeze in a quick lung workout. I keep the Powerlung in my bag and just pull it out whenever I know I have a chance to boost my VO2max. It seems like cheating, but I can actually exercise my lungs just about anytime, anyplace.
But how does the PowerLung thing actually work, is it proven, and can you actually increase your VO2 max without exercising?
In today's audio podcast, I interview Greg Wells, Ph.D., the Assistant Professor of the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education at the University of Toronto and Associate Scientist of Physiology and Experimental Medicine at The Hospital for Sick Children.
During our interview, you'll learn:
-Which hidden muscles use over 15% of your energy needs during exercise…
-The 2 best ways to do resisted breath training…
-How your body pulls precious blood away from your arms and legs if you have weak breathing muscles…
-Why breathing in and out of a straw isn't a good idea…
-The sets and reps you should use for potent resisted breath training workout…
-How resisted breathing is different than hypoxic training…
-Why doing breath training the wrong way can increase body acidity…
-What kind of resisted breath devices to use if you have asthma or other lung issues…
-How resisted training could actually give you a six-pack abs…
-And much more!