If you want to be an expert mountaineer, then you are going to need strong lungs. There is no way around it. But how do you get there in the first place? That is a good question to make me think. Hmm… It is why I wrote this article, 8 Exercises to Increase Lung Capacity Naturally for High Altitudes. After reading this article, you will be breathing better in no time flat.
Just so we are clear and have an understandable definition moving forward, lung capacity is the total amount of air you can have in your lungs at any given time. The good news for you is that you can change and improve on your existing capacity no matter your level. You have opportunity in your lungs.
Why Practice Breathing Exercises in the First Place? Can’t I Get the Same Effect from Jogging?
Yes, you can get the same effect from jogging (in fact it’s one of my recommendations), but there are a number of important reasons to practice breathing exercises.
First off, better lung capacity helps all athletes, most importantly and who this article is geared towards, mountaineers and backpackers. If you are a javelin thrower, you will be able to sprint better and sling your javelin. If you are a fencer, you can lunge better. If you are an MMA fighter, you can better outlast your foe. In other words, while your opponent is catching their breath, you can steal victory from their grasp. If you are less competitive and only want to beat your past self, you can do that too.
Second, you minimize the effects of negative health ailments like smoking, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or asthma. Not all of us have perfect lungs. Some people took in a lot of smoke or were born with breathing issues. It is not the end of the world though. You can breathe better and minimize those detrimental health effects.
Third, larger lung capacity leads to a longer life. You do want to live longer don’t you? Studies suggest reduced oxygen reserves increase the chances of stroke and heart attack. Your body needs all the oxygen it can get.
Fourth, you improve your sleep. As a university student who spends a lot of time studying and compiling information, I need all the sleep I can get. Airway pressure decreases when you have a higher lung capacity, so your body does not need to work as much when you sleep.
Now let us go to the task at hand, what you came for, the exercises.
1. Aerobic and Cardio Exercise Are Tried and True
Running, biking, walking, hiking, wrestling, soccer, and the like are all exercises to increase lung capacity. If it works your muscles and makes you breathe hard, then it is an exercise that helps to increase lung capacity. Of course these all do not specifically focus on lung capacity, but only forms a component part of all the benefits you will receive.
Compared to all the other exercises listed here, this one is the most fun. For me at least, rock climbing, Muay Thai, hiking, and swimming are all enjoyable exercises to increase lung capacity. You actually want to do them. If the exercise is fun and you enjoy it, you are more likely to stick with it and, as a consequence, increase your lung capacity.
2. Diaphragmatic Breathing, the Largest Improvement Opportunity
One of the problems with most breathing is that it is done through the chest, not the belly. As a result, chest breathing takes in less oxygen. You have more volume in the lower part of your lungs than in the upper part. That is just a statement of anatomy, so you need to practice breathing through your belly. This exercise strengthens your belly breathing and your diaphragm which sits above your stomach.
- Lay down on your back with one hand on your belly and your other on your chest.
- Breathe in through your nose, hold your breath, and exhale through your mouth.
- Squeeze your abdominal muscles when you feel yourself nearing the end of your exhale.
- EXERCISE VARIATION: if you want more out of this exercise, elevate your legs. You can either lift them up, but I prefer a pillow.
Here is a video I found helpful to practice diaphragmatic breathing. The steps listed above start at the 1:28 mark.
3. Workout at Higher Elevations
It takes the body about two weeks to get used to higher elevations. In most places you do not even need to travel far to find higher elevation. If you are in a low-lying area and have to travel quite far to get to a higher elevation, this exercise is not much of an option for you.
4. Let it All Out and Bring it All in to Max Out
- Standing up straight and erect, let out all the air in your lungs.
- Breathe in as much as you can slowly and hold it in for fifteen seconds.
- Then let the air out slowly at a steady pace.
- EXERCISE VARIATION: if you want to go farther, then waist stretch while you do this exercise. In other words, you rotate your hips while you hold in the air.
5. One Nostril Breathing
This exercise works well at inducing sleep. It helps to relax the mind, increase your concentration, reduce stress, and cleanse the blood. Yoga people, also known as Yogis, use this exercise.
- Placing a finger on one nostril to close it, breathe in with the other (no mouth either) for four counts.
- Hold it in for eight counts.
- Exhale with the other nostril for four counts.
- Repeat for an even number of sets.
Here is a video which goes into extensive detail about this exercise. I found it helpful. The actual exercise and discussion starts at the 0:52 mark.
6. Water Based Exercises
In a water environment, your movement is restricted, forcing your muscles to work more. You also cannot breathe underwater, so your body has to make do with the oxygen you are swimming underwater with. For these exercises you need to be in at least neck deep water. For these, you can do the breast stroke, freestyle, butterfly, and practice holding your breath underwater.
When it comes to water based exercises, be careful. You do not want to drown.
You can also lift weights while in the water. With any exercise in the water, take quick, snappy breaths to get the most out of each exercise you try. It increases the efficiency of your lungs.
7. Get Tools to Increase Your Lung Capacity
The first one (pictured right) measures your pulse rate and monitors the amount of oxygen in your blood. When you know what is going on in your body, you can then respond with an appropriate exercise to affect that bodily condition.
The spirometer is used by COPD patients to help with their breathing. It monitors and increases their lung capacity. If you use this tool on a regular basis, I guarantee you will increase your lung capacity. If it works for COPD patients, it is bound to also work for you.
Finally, you can also get the PowerLung trainer, this device works best for those who do sports. If you are a mountaineer or backpacker, I am talking to you.
If you noticed, I did not mention the training mask because it does not specifically focus on your lungs. I also do not recommend a training mask because, while it does strengthen the pulmonary muscles, it takes oxygen away from your other muscles when you are exercising. In other words, most people use the mask while also exercising. You can get it, but I do not believe it will work as well as the other options you have available.
8. Pursed-Lip Breathing Isn’t Just for COPD Patients
This exercise has been recommended for people with COPD. It is the most common breathing exercise among mountaineers. You also address shortness of breath with this exercise.
- Relax your shoulders and muscles while standing up.
- Inhale through your nose for two counts.
- With a pursed or “kissy face” mouth, exhale through your nose for four counts. You want the opening from your mouth to be as small as possible.
- EXERCISE VARIATION 1
- Before inhaling place your hands on top of your shoulders.
- When you are exhaling with your arms in the same position, rotate them in circles.
- EXERCISE VARIATION 2
- Put your hands together and lift your arms to shoulder height.
- Rotate your arms to one side and then the other while exhaling.
Here is a video I found helpful at explaining this exercise.
9. Compounded Breathing Works Just Like a Bank
In this exercise, you pack your lungs to the brim and beyond your limits.
- Start by just inhaling and exhaling.
- Without exhaling, inhale through your nostrils in short, snappy breaths.
- Inhale again and raise your arms in front of you until they reach shoulder level.
- Take your arms wide and parallel to level ground.
- Raise your arms above your head.
- Exhale slowly bringing your arms back to the starting position.
10. Numbered Breathing – You Need to Count for This One
- Close your eyes and take a deep breath.
- Exhale until your lungs are empty.
- Inhale again and think of number 1.
- Hold your breath for a few seconds and then exhale.
- Inhale thinking of number 2, hold for a few seconds, and then exhale.
- Repeat this exercise until you reach number 8.
My Top 5 Tips with These Exercises
1. Your Breathing Needs to Be Slow and Steady.
Some of these exercises say otherwise. Follow those instructions to the T. Otherwise, exhale completely whenever an exercise says to exhale.
2. Relax Your Muscles and Bodies While Doing These Exercises.
You get more out of the exercise when you are relaxed and focus solely on your lungs. It helps to stretch beforehand if you want to be more relaxed.
3. Splashing Water on Your Face Helps to Calm You Down and Speed Up the Bradycardia.
When I wake up in the morning, I go to the bathroom and splash water on my face. It helps to calm me down and gets me ready for the day. It wakes me up.
4. Starting with Small Reps and Sets Builds Big Muscles.
People set New Year’s Resolutions to start exercising on a regular basis, rush to the gym, and only to then fail because they went all out to start with. By February their goals and regime have completely fallen apart. You need to start small, but also dream big. You can reach your goals with consistent effort. As you get better and better, you are more than welcome to increase the number of counts you hold your breath in for and let out.
5. Always Follow Necessary Safety Precautions.
Breathing exercises can be, well, dangerous. Never over exert your body. Keep it within your limits. When it comes to the water exercises, do not swim if you do not know how to swim. There is no point in trying until you have had an instructor teach you in person.
Check Out One of My Other Articles!
You have a lot of options available to you. Practice these exercises for ten minutes a day and you will be rampaging up to the summit like a mountain goat in no time flat. I can see it now. Your chest looks a lot bigger after doing all these exercises and people look to you for mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
Undoubtedly, you are reading this article because you are preparing for a mountaineering or backpacking trip. If you are looking for a backpacking backpack or are just curious, then I suggest you check out one my previous articles, The Best Backpacking Backpacks of 2019. (Don’t worry if it’s 2024 and the title reads 2019 because I update those article on a yearly basis :)). Check it out and you will go a long way in supporting this site.
If you have any thoughts, questions, or think I missed anything, do not hesitate to comment below and please share the article. Thank you so much and I hope you make it a great day!