Breathing Exercises to Increase VO2 Max: Will They Work?

Amy20MD 1

Medical reviewed by Amy Rogers, MD MPH FACPM

Preventive Medicine, Public Health, Lifestyle Medicine, Pandemic Response, Global Health

Imagine unlocking a higher level of endurance, better athletic performance, and enhanced cardiovascular health by simply breathing. Does this sound too good to be true? Yet, with the right breathing exercises to increase VO2 max, this could be your reality. 

In this guide, we will dive into the heart of VO2 max – explaining its significance, unraveling the mystery behind its enhancement, and providing a practical toolkit of top breathing exercises designed to elevate your VO2 max to new heights. Whether you’re a seasoned athlete or a fitness newbie, understanding and improving your VO2 max could be the game-changer you’ve been looking for.

What is VO2 max?

Imagine your body as a high-performance engine. Like any engine that needs fuel to run, your body needs oxygen, especially during exercise. That’s where VO2 max comes into play. It’s like the horsepower of your cardiovascular system. 

Officially, VO2 max is the maximum amount (volume) of oxygen your body can use during intense exercise. It’s measured in milliliters of oxygen used in one minute per kilogram of body weight (ml/kg/min) (1).

VO2 max is more than just a number. It tells us about the efficiency of your heart and lungs. The higher the number, the more oxygen your body can use, and effectively, the fitter you are.

Why should you care about VO2 max?  Because it’s a fantastic indicator of your overall health and fitness. A higher VO2 max is linked to a strong heart, efficient lungs, and a lower risk of heart disease. 

For athletes, a higher VO2 max can be the difference between good and great. It’s the foundation of endurance. This means you can run faster, cycle longer, and swim stronger without feeling like you’re about to pass out because your body is more efficient at using oxygen to produce energy.

For non-athletes, having a higher VO2 max can also benefit our health. We might feel more energetic, less winded, and more robust and healthier after a flight of stairs (2).

For example, a study found that heart failure patients who improved their VO2 max over three months had a lower chance of dying or being hospitalized, indicating its benefit to cardiovascular health (3).

VO2 max chart

Now, let’s make this practical. Here, we provide a VO2 max chart that lays out what’s considered good, average, and excellent based on age and gender. This chart isn’t just for showing off to your friends. It’s a tool to help you understand where you stand and how much room for improvement you have.

Remember, while genetics play a role in your VO2 max, it’s not all set in stone. With consistent training, almost anyone can improve their numbers. And that’s the beauty of it – VO2 max is a tangible measure of your fitness journey, showing how far you’ve come and how much further you can go.

VO2 max chart women
VO2 max chart men

Top 5 breathing exercises to increase your VO2 max

Ready to turbocharge your breathing and boost that VO2 max? We’ve got five breathing techniques lined up for you. From the belly-boosting power of diaphragmatic breathing to the steady beat of paced breathing, each method is a game-changer in its own right. 

Breathing Exercises to Increase VO2 Max Will They Work 01

Diaphragmatic breathing

The diaphragm is a big, dome-shaped muscle at the base of your lungs, and when you bring in your abs for support, it’s like giving your lungs an extra push to empty fully. This is what diaphragmatic breathing is, also called “belly breathing.” Here’s how to do so:

  • Find your comfort zone: Start by lying down or sitting comfortably. The key here is to relax. 
  • Hand placement: Place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. This can make sure you’re breathing correctly. You’re going to want to feel some movement under these hands.
  • The inhale: Now, breathe in deeply through your nose. Feel your belly push your hand up. Your chest should move, but your belly’s the one that is mainly moving.
  • The exhale: Exhale slowly – through your mouth or nose. Feel your hand go down with your belly. This part is like letting the air out of a balloon, slow and steady.
  • Rinse and repeat: Aim for 5-10 minutes daily. 

This pre-workout exercise helps improve oxygen flow, gets you focused, and prepares your body for the physical activity ahead (4).

Furthermore, diaphragmatic breathing isn’t just about improving VO2 max; it’s a game-changer for overall well-being. You’re training your body to use its breathing apparatus more efficiently, which can have ripple effects on your stress levels, sleep quality, and even digestion (4, 5).

Paced breathing

Paced breathing is like the metronome of your workout. It helps turn your breath into a rhythm harmonizing with your body’s movements. This technique is especially nifty during exercises like running, cycling, or brisk walking.

Picture this: You’re running. Instead of random breaths, you inhale for two steps and exhale for the next two. That’s the essence of paced breathing. It’s about creating a pattern that syncs your breathing with your movements.

This rhythm can vary depending on the intensity of the exercise. A 2:2 (breath, two exhale 2) ratio is a good starting point, but feel free to adjust. If you’re sprinting, maybe you switch to a 1:1 ratio; if you’re on a leisurely cycle, maybe a 3:3.

Here’s a pro tip: When things get tough, focus on your exhale. Pushing that air out fully can make the next inhale more effective.

Paced breathing keeps your oxygen supply steady. This is crucial because your muscles need a constant supply of oxygen to keep working smoothly (6).

Interval breath training

Interval breath training is like the HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training) of the breathing world and can be a game changer for your VO2 max.  Here is  how it works:

  1. Warm-up: Just like you wouldn’t sprint without a light jog first, don’t dive into breath-holding without warming up. Start with a few minutes of normal breathing. This can be a light walk or a gentle jog – just enough to get the oxygen flowing.
  2. Interval breath holding: After your warm-up, take a normal breath, then hold it for a few seconds – let’s say start with 2-3 seconds. It’s like pressing pause on your breath. Then, resume normal breathing for a couple of minutes.
  3. Progression is key: Like leveling up in a video game, gradually increase the duration of your breath. Maybe add a second each session or each week. The idea is to challenge your lungs and diaphragm to adapt to these small stressors, increasing their capacity and endurance.

With Interval breath training, you’re essentially training your respiratory system to handle higher levels of carbon dioxide, a key factor in respiratory endurance. A study found that using various breathing exercises, including 2-3 sec breath holds along with diaphragmatic breathing, deep breathing, and other techniques before training, can significantly increase endurance performance (7).

However, a more recent review study pointed out that training in maximum voluntary breath-holding (in which you hold breath as long as you can before needing to breathe or “apnoea breathing”) does not boost significant changes in VO2 max. They suggested that while breath-holding might boost your ability to perform in short, intense bursts, it doesn’t seem to have much effect on your overall endurance (8).

The beauty of interval breath training is that it can seamlessly integrate into your cardio workouts. Whether you’re a runner, a cyclist, or a swimmer, throwing in these breath-holds can add a new dimension to your training. It’s like giving your lungs a  workout.

Remember, the key here is gradual progression and consistency. Don’t go holding your breath for a minute straight off the bat. And as always, listen to your body – it’s your best guide.

Respiratory muscle training

Here, we will explore how to train your breathing muscles with one specific technique: The Sandbag Breathing Exercise. This method is backed up by Alison McConnell, a top breathing expert whose clients include Olympic athletes. This exercise strengthens your diaphragm – a crucial muscle for breathing, especially during intense physical activity.

  • First, lie down in a relaxed pose with a small sandbag (or any creative weight like a large book) on your belly.
  • Now, breathe naturally. Feel your belly rise and fall under the weight of the sandbag. This isn’t a competition to see how high you can lift it; it’s about control and endurance.
  • Aim for about five minutes per session, but listen to your body. If you’re gasping too much, it’s time to take a break.

Yoga-based breathing techniques

The breath (or “Pranayama” in the yoga lingo) is the heart of yoga, and it’s got some cool tricks up its sleeve for boosting your VO2 max and much more. Here are two yoga breathing practices that can help you inhale better.

Kapalbhati (Skull shining breath)

  • Sit comfortably, take a deep breath, and then forcefully expel the air through your nostrils. Your stomach will naturally go in with each exhale. Keep the inhales passive and focus on the exhales.
  • Start with a minute or two and build up. Doing it in the morning can kickstart your day like a double espresso without the jitters.

This practice can be a brain-boosting, energy-revving session. Kapalbhati is known to improve lung function, concentration, and mood (9).

Nadi Shodhana (Alternate nostril breathing)

Unlike the rigorous breathing of Kapalbhati, Nadi Shodhana is about balance and calm.

Use your right thumb to close your right nostril and inhale through the left. Then close the left nostril with your fingers, open the right nostril, and exhale. Inhale through the right, switch, and exhale through the left. That’s one round. Five minutes of daily practice can be a good start.

The Alternate Nostril Breathing is like a spa session for your nervous system. It’s shown to lower stress levels, enhance concentration, and improve respiratory endurance (10, 11).

We’ve introduced five key breathing exercises to elevate your VO2 max. They include diaphragmatic or belly breathing for deep breaths, paced breathing to sync your breath with movement, interval breath training for a workout-style breathing challenge, respiratory muscle training for strengthening the diaphragm, and yoga-based techniques like Kapalbhati and Nadi Shodhana for both energizing and calming effects. These methods are great for not only boosting VO2 max but also enhancing overall well-being, impacting everything from stress levels to mental clarity.

Other tips to improve VO2 max

There are different ways besides breathing exercises when it comes to boosting your VO2 max. It’s like a puzzle, and every piece matters – from what you eat to how you train. Let’s break it down in an easy way to chew on.

2.2 Breathing Exercises to Increase VO2 Max Will They Work 02

Diet tips

Your diet is like the fuel for your body’s engine and not all fuel is created equal:

  • Beets and leafy greens: These are superfoods for your VO2 max. They are rich in nitrates and help widen your blood vessels, improving blood flow and oxygen delivery to your muscles (12). Studies highlighted how beetroot juice can significantly enhance aerobic performance (13, 14). So, adding a beetroot smoothie or a tasty spinach salad to your diet can be a great way to improve your VO2 max.
  • Hydration: Dehydration is like putting sand in your gas tank. It slows you down and messes with your efficiency. Drinking water throughout the day is crucial, not just during or after workouts. Even mild dehydration can affect your VO2 max and overall performance (15). Remember, if you’re feeling thirsty, you’re already dehydrating.

Sample workouts

Alright, let’s get into the meat of improving your VO2 max with some killer workouts. Remember, it’s not just about going hard; it’s about going smart. Let’s break down these workouts:

High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) 

High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is brief, intense, and incredibly effective. It’s about going all-in for short bursts and then catching your breath. In those intense moments, your body demands more oxygen; over time, it adapts by increasing VO2 max. It’s like training your body to be more efficient at using oxygen (16).

To practice, sprint for 30 seconds, then walk or jog for 60 seconds. Keep this up for about 15-20 minutes. The idea is to push yourself hard during those 30 seconds. You can follow a HIIT workout on YouTube. 

Aim for 2-3 HIIT sessions a week. It’s not about doing it every day; it’s about making those sessions count.

Endurance training

Endurance training is about building stamina, pushing limits, and finding that sweet spot where challenge and enjoyment meet. The goal is to maintain a steady, sustainable pace. Here are two sample endurance training workouts:

  • Running workout: Start with a comfortable distance. Then, each week, add a little more. It’s not about speed; it’s about going a bit further or longer each time.
  • Cycling workout: Plan a route with different terrain, including hills, flats, and everything in between. Monitor your heart rate to ensure you’re in the endurance zone.

When should you consult a fitness professional?

Although you can read articles online and try to build an exercise and diet plan yourself, getting guidance from a fitness professional can help you find the right exercises, diets, and routines that suit your needs. But when should you consult a fitness professional?

  • New to exercise: If you’re a beginner, a fitness professional can teach you the basics, from proper form to effective routines. It’s crucial for avoiding injuries and setting a solid foundation.
  • Health concerns: If you have pre-existing health conditions such as heart issues, joint pain, or chronic illnesses, think of a fitness professional as a bridge between your doctor’s advice and your workout routine. They can tailor a program that aligns with your health needs, ensuring safety and effectiveness.
  • Hitting a plateau: A fitness professional can be the detective, uncovering what’s missing or needs tweaking in your routine. They bring a fresh perspective backed by experience and knowledge.
  • Specialized goals: If you have specific goals like running a marathon, building muscle, or enhancing your VO2 max, a fitness professional is like your specialized coach. They devise a plan that’s targeted, strategic, and aligned with your goals.

Does walking increase VO2 max?

Walking, especially when it’s brisk and gets your heart pumping, can indeed help improve your VO2 max. Regular brisk walking, especially when you throw in some hills or quicken your pace, challenges your heart and lungs, nudging up that VO2 max over time. Just don’t expect miracles overnight – consistency is key here.

Is 54 a good VO2 max?

A VO2 max of 54 is above average for most age groups. To put it in perspective, for a 30-year-old man, a VO2 max of around 42-46 is considered average. For women of the same age, it’s around 32-36. But remember, the ‘goodness’ of your VO2 max also depends on factors like age, gender, and fitness goals.

Why is my VO2 max not increasing?

Hitting a VO2 max plateau can be frustrating. There are a few potential reasons. Maybe your workouts have become too routine, and your body has become too efficient at them. Try mixing it up with different intensities or types of exercise. Also, consider factors like recovery, nutrition, and even stress levels. Sometimes, it’s about giving your body the right fuel and rest to climb higher.

Summary

We’ve journeyed through the world of breathing exercises to increase VO2 max, uncovering how vital VO2 max is for your fitness. You’ve got the lowdown on five breathing techniques, from deep diaphragmatic breathing to calming yoga practices. These are your secret weapons for a fitness level-up. And remember, smart training includes diet and hydration, not just hard work.

Now, you can apply this know-how to boost your VO2 max technique and soar to new fitness heights. Keep up those breaths, stay driven, and enjoy every moment of your journey to a healthier you.

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Amy20MD 1

Medical reviewed by Amy Rogers, MD MPH FACPM

Preventive Medicine, Public Health, Lifestyle Medicine, Pandemic Response, Global Health

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