We don’t usually think about lungs as muscles that should be trained and strengthened – but the lungs can be a treasure trove of untapped gains, a key to making faster progress in your training.
I'm about to reveal some things that most people haven't heard of. It will give you an edge. If you’re interested in your fitness, or if you coach athletes, keep reading.
Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. The same way as you may have some strong muscle group, there are people who have naturally powerful lungs – lungs that adapt fast from the stimulus of regular training and high-rate breathing efforts.
If your lungs adapt faster than other things, the lungs themselves will not be the limiting factor, right?
When we say "lungs" we mean the inspiratory muscles. The muscles that help us breathe.
Now, if those muscles adapt slower than other things, the lungs will become the limiter and hold you back – they’ll become the bottle neck – more on this in a second.
Consider two athletes: the first has lungs that adapt faster than her other muscles (they get stronger), the second has lungs that don’t adapt as fast.
Who has better access to their ‘fitness’? And why?
I’ll tell you something counter intuitive: for healthy folks, the lungs almost never limit oxygen transport. That’s not what we’re trying to improve with lung training … so, what do strong lungs do for you if they don’t help take in more oxygen?
That’s the million dollar question...
Having strong lungs prevent a built-in evolutionary protective mechanism from kicking in and sucking away your fitness.
That mechanism is called the inspiratory (or respiratory) muscle metaboreflex (IMR) – google it if you like. Read this for a quick overview.
“What’s a metaboreflex? When muscles work very hard, metabolic by-products, such as lactic acid, accumulate within them. These metabolites stimulate receptors inside the muscles that send signals to the brain and trigger a reflex shutdown of the circulation, including the blood supply to locomotor muscles. What are the implications of changing the blood flow to muscles in this way? Restricting blood flow restricts the supply of oxygen and impairs the removal of exercise metabolites from exercising muscles. As a result, muscles fatigue more quickly, and exercise performance is impaired. Indeed, this is precisely what has been found; changing the work of breathing to hasten or delay the onset of the inspiratory muscle metaboreflex changes leg fatigue and exercise performance in a highly predictable way – that is, increasing inspiratory muscle work hastens metaboreflex activation, accelerates limb fatigue, and impairs performance (reducing inspiratory muscle work does the opposite). It is thought that this metaboreflex may be a protective mechanism that forces people to slow down or stop in order to prevent catastrophic levels of breathing fatigue.” Breathe Strong, Perform Better, pg. 32 (emphasis mine)
Summary: a metaboreflex is a natural protective mechanism that shuts off blood to your limbs. When you do a workout that fatigues your lung muscles, you speed up the rate at which that metaboreflex turns on.
If your lungs aren’t strong enough, you simply will not be able to gain access to your fitness.
Your lungs will be the bottleneck.
Most of us never think about our inspiratory (lung) muscles being a limiting factor. We ignore them, thinking that regular training is going to take care of everything automatically. That’s wrong.
But read the book Breathe Strong, Perform Better and you'll learn how to train your lungs specifically.
Have you ever seen an "elevation mask?" They don’t mimic elevation (if you’re wondering) but they cane help strengthen the lung muscles. You can also use other tools like an Expand-a-Lung, or Spiro Tiger.
This youtube video of Professor Alison McConnel’s presentation on “Inspiratory muscle training: history and putative mechanisms.” is an absolute must watch if you're interested in this subject. Read her book too (linked above).
Her research is solid and it shows rather incredible improvements in time to exhaustion efforts (limit of tolerance: Tlim), or in time trial results.
Resistance-Based Inspiratory Muscle Training (IMT) Results
Endurance-Based Inspiratory Muscle Training (IMT) Results
There are two type of IMT, resistance and endurance, as you can see above.
It’s safe to say that even if you DO have strong lungs, training them specifically can only make you better. If you have trouble with high-breathing, high powered type workouts, you’ll want to put a priority on this training as soon as possible.
The best thing is that results come FAST (in weeks), and time commitment is low (<20 minutes/session).
If you haven’t heard of any of this before, you might be wondering … Why didn’t I know about this. Don’t worry, now you do and you have a big advantage.