The profile of respiratory muscle training devices – the small plastic apparatus produced by brands such as ‘PowerBreathe' and ‘PowerLung' – has experienced something of a resurgence in recent times.

While they've been around for a number of years now in various guises, much of the early research had been carried out ‘in-house' with small sample sizes and poor controls, and this along with the widely held belief that the respiratory muscles were not a limiting factor in exercise lead to the apparatus having being somewhat overlooked by many athletes and S&C professionals.

A study published last year however collated and examined a huge volume of the research that has been carried out on these products, and came up with some interesting and potentially positive conclusions for squash players interested in improving their performances.

A meta-analysis is a systematic combination and statistical examination of the findings from multiple studies into the same area, to seek solid evidence of significant trends. In this most recent meta-analysis into the effects of respiratory muscle training on performance in athletes, 6923 citations in the scientific literature were narrowed down into the 21 best studies (consisting of a combined 426 participants) to be examined in more detail and to establish what (if any) conclusions could be drawn.

The researchers found that there was good evidence to suggest that respiratory muscle training can improve sport performance for some individuals (in both top class athletes as well as more recreational level competitors), and that when used correctly the various apparatus can notably increase respiratory muscle strength and endurance.

Athletes across a range of sports were studied, and the majority showed at least some improvement in key markers – interestingly diving and swimming were two of the only sports that didn't show any improvements at all. The good news is that the repeat sprint performance so characteristic of squash was shown to be particularly subject to consistent benefits from respiratory muscle training, with performance on the Yo-Yo Test (a useful squash-specific repeat-effort endurance test) one of the assessment results demonstrated to show solid improvements after a programme of respiratory muscle training in a number of the individuals studied. Rate of perceived exertion, or how difficult exercise ‘feels' was another element that showed positive benefits from respiratory muscle training, which will also no doubt be pleasing to hear for many squash players!

All this is not to say that sitting and blowing into one of these contraptions can replace any kind of ‘proper' physical training, but it could certainly have some benefits as a supplement to it.

Effects may well vary between individuals, but even a small positive improvement can provide a noticeable benefit over time. As with almost any conditioning training, specificity is a vital consideration – researchers concluded that benefits will most likely be greatest when training parameters such as breathing depth, duration, and speed were as closely matched to the relevant sport as possible.

Ultimately, a wide range of different complex factors go into determining sporting performance, but respiratory muscle training has increasingly been shown to have the potential to moderately increase certain athletic performance attributes, along with enhancing specific respiratory muscle strength and endurance. If you're looking for a novel and potentially useful boost to your on-court endurance that you can train in the comfort of your living room, a respiratory breathing tool may well be worth a look.

 

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Gary Nisbet - B.Sc.(Hons), CSCS, NSCA-CPT, Dip. FTST 
Squashskills Fitness & Performance Director

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