Like Dumbbells for Your Diaphragm
Improve endurance, lifting performance, blood pressure, endothelial health, and even sleep apnea with inspiratory muscle training.
IMT: Inspiratory Muscle Training
For a long time, my body was too stupid to breathe. It was a lot like the cartoon I saw as a kid of two bipedal dogs that were pals. One, the bigger of the two, was alarmingly stupid, while the smaller one was the tough talkin’, street-savvy dog that steered their misadventures.
Occasionally, the big dog would stop in his tracks and grab his throat. His eyes would grow huge and threaten to burst from their sockets. His face would turn blue. This was when his buddy would back-slap him across his face as hard as he could and scream, “Breathe, dummy! Breathe!”
Poor dog was so dumb that he kept forgetting to breathe.
That was me. Kinda. What I had was a condition called “paradoxical breathing.” It meant that my diaphragm sometimes moved in the opposite direction it should when inhaling and exhaling, especially during exertion.
While I didn’t have to be slapped into remembering to breathe, I didn’t breathe very well. While I could ride my bike without too much of a problem, deadlifts knocked the snot out of me. Just plain walking sometimes winded me, and I often had trouble reading a sentence out loud.
Part of the paradoxical breathing probably had to do with some unresolved childhood trauma, like maybe the time my older brother told me that I should ignore the warning on the dry-cleaning bag and place it over my head so I could be “Captain Martinizer,” but equally culpable were my weak inspiratory muscles, i.e., the diaphragm and external intercostals.
I’ve since fixed it, though, using a simple device called the POWERbreathe IMT (inspiratory muscle training). It’s like using dumbbells for your diaphragm and intercostals. It’s not just for respiratory defectives like me, though. The POWERbreathe is possibly one of the greatest training tools there is for athletes in any sport where oxygen efficiency is important (i.e., just about every sport other than golf, bowling, or pickleball). High-resistance IMT may also be a cure for the sleep apnea that plagues so many lifters and big guys in general.
And none of this is marketing malarkey; there’s a solid body of evidence to support its use.
What is the POWERbreathe?
While there are plenty of ways to train your inspiratory muscles, the POWERbreathe device appears to be the easiest to use.
It’s a small, plastic, relatively inexpensive device that looks a little like a toy ray gun. On one end is a mouthpiece. Inside is a calibrated, spring-loaded valve that pops open once you reach the requisite pressure threshold by generating enough inspiratory power (inhaling hard enough).
You just place your lips firmly around the mouthpiece, resolve to suck some mighty air, and inhale as hard as you can. If you generate enough force, you’ll hear a satisfying “thunk” sound. Then, you simply exhale and repeat the forceful inhalation.
Once you’re able to do it 30 times in a row without taking a rest, you increase the “resistance” by a one-fourth turn of the plastic knob on the bottom (the resistance levels – 1 through 10 – are clearly marked on the clear plastic chamber that houses the guts of the device).
Do 30 reps twice a day for around six weeks and your breathing muscles will have strengthened to the point where you’re getting a lot more oxygen into your system. That means you’ll actually need less oxygen while exercising, which results in more oxygen being available for your working muscles. As a bonus, you’ll increase lactate clearance rates too.
The device is available in the strengths: Light Resistance (green housing), Medium Resistance (blue housing), and Heavy Resistance (red housing).
What’s the Research Say?
As I said, there’s significant research to back up the benefits of IMT:
- POWERbreathe enhances exercise and recovery (Manchatto-Gobatto et al 2022).
- POWERbreathe stimulates sports performance and increased pulmonary function in sports (Fernandez-Lazaro et al 2021).
- POWERbreathe reduces lactate levels (Rozek-Piechura et al (2020).
- POWERbreathe improves 800-meter running performance (Chang et al 2020).
- Inspiratory training reduced whole-body effort during exercise (Tong et al 2008).
- Inspiratory muscle strength improved by 31.2% (Caine et al 1998).
- POWERbreathe improved all lung ventilation variables, respiratory muscle strength, and performance parameters (Rozek-Piechura et al 2020).
- IMT training increases lactate clearance (Brown et al 2008).
Does Inspiratory Training Help with Any Medical Conditions?
Aside from improving athletic performance, IMT training appears to be useful in treating various conditions, some of which are associated with poor breathing/poor oxygen exchange:
- High Blood Pressure: Researchers found that 6 weeks of IMT lowered systolic blood pressure in people with above-average blood pressure by 9 mm of mercury, i.e., dropping it from, say, 140 mm to 131 mm (Craighead, et al 2023). That kind of reduction is clinically significant because it’s associated with a 30% to 40% lower risk of cardiovascular disease. It’s also equivalent to what you might see with incorporating healthy lifestyle practices in general, like starting aerobics classes, but IMT only takes 30 minutes a week and you don’t have to scrounge around the bottom of the laundry basket looking for a relatively inoffensive leotard to wear.
- Endothelial Function: The same study found that IMST substantially increase nitrous oxide (NO) levels, which “robustly improves vascular endothelial function, as indicated by a 45% mean decrease in FMD – fibromuscular dysplasia, a condition that causes narrowing of the arteries” (Craighead, et al, 2023).
- Asthma: IMT appears to be more effective than conventional breathing exercises in improving the respiratory muscle strength of asthma patients (Chung et al 2021).
- Sleep Apnea: IMT appears to improve sleep quality and mitigate cardiovascular dysfunction in patients with obstructive sleep apnea (Nobrega-Junior et al 2020).
So, What Exactly Did IMT Do for Me?
I recently moved to someplace with a high altitude – about 6200 feet above sea level – so learning to breathe strongly and efficiently was particularly important. Using the blue “medium resistance” POWERbreathe helped me do that. No more paradoxical breathing. My “wind” and my exercise efficiency have also increased tremendously.
Hell, I could now fight Spock while he was deep in the throes of plak tow, without needing Bones to inject me with a tri-ox compound to compensate for the thin air. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, though.
But in general, I just feel more “oxygenated,” which is a good feeling, and my gym endurance has increased exponentially, which makes the roughly 70 bucks I spent on the POWERbreathe a pretty good investment.
- Brown PI et al. Inspiratory muscle training reduces blood lactate concentration during volitional hyperpnoea. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2008 Sep;104(1):111-7. PubMed.
- Caine MP et al. The Inspiratory Muscles can be Trained Differently to Increase Strength or Endurance Using a Pressure Threshold, Inspiratory Muscle Training Device. Eur. Respir. J. 12:58–59, 1998.
- Chung Y et al. 12-Week Inspiratory Muscle Training Improves Respiratory Muscle Strength in Adult Patients with Stable Asthma: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021 Mar 22;18(6):3267. PubMed.
- Craighead DH et al. Time-Efficient Inspiratory Muscle Strength Training Lowers Blood Pressure and Improves Endothelial Function, NO Bioavailability, and Oxidative Stress in Midlife/Adults with Above-Normal Blood Pressure. J Am Heart Assoc. 2021 Jul 6;10(13):e020980. PubMed.
- Fernández-Lázaro D et al. Inspiratory Muscle Training Program Using the Powerbreathe: Does It Have Ergogenic Potential for Respiratory and/or Athletic Performance? A Systematic Review with Meta-Analysis. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021 Jun 22;18(13):6703. PubMed.
- Manchado-Gobatto FB et al. Complex Network Model Reveals the Impact of Inspiratory Muscle Pre-Activation on Interactions among Physiological Responses and Muscle Oxygenation during Running and Passive Recovery. Biology (Basel). 2022 Jun 25;11(7):963. PubMed.
- Rożek-Piechura K et al. Influence of Inspiratory Muscle Training of Various Intensities on The Physical Performance of Long‐Distance Runners. J Hum Kinet. 2020 Oct 31;75:127-137. PubMed.
- Tong TK et al. The effect of inspiratory muscle training on high-intensity, intermittent running performance to exhaustion. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2008 Aug;33(4):671-81. PubMed.
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