How to Increase Your Lung Capacity

Learn how to increase your lung capacity, improve your VO2 max, and breathe easier during exercise.

Ben Greenfield
3-minute read
Episode #23

How to Increase Your Lung Capacity

Let’s face it. Big lungs aren’t sexy. You don’t see commercials on TV with big-lunged people traipsing through an exclusive nightclub, and you don’t generally brag about your lung size at parties. But if you have ever gotten out of breath climbing a flight of stairs, become frustrated with your inability to run up a hill during a 5K or marathon, or found yourself constantly sucking oxygen on the treadmill or in the gym, then you know that oxygen capacity is a very important component of fitness. But the benefits don’t stop there, since there’s a direct link between a higher oxygen capacity, and reduced risk of death!

What Is Oxygen Capacity?

Technically, your oxygen capacity is actually defined as the maximum amount of oxygen you can use, and is also known as VO2 max. To keep it comparable among different ranges of fitness, oxygen capacity is defined in milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of body weight per minute--but you may also find it listed at liters per minute. For example, the average male athlete has a VO2 max of 3.5 liters per minute and somewhere close to 50 milliliters per kilogram per minute. Lance Armstrong, who happens to be pretty good at cardiovascular exercise, has an oxygen capacity in the high 80’s. You can measure your own oxygen capacity by going to an exercise physiology lab and getting a VO2 max test, or by approximating with a field test. Examples of common field tests include the Astrand six minute bicycle test and the Queens College step test. Don’t ask me where they get these names. One of my favorites is the one mile jog test. Click here for the instructions for the one mile jog test.

What Limits Your Oxygen Capacity?

It turns out that performing very hard exercise for 3-5 minutes, separated by complete recovery between each hard effort, is a perfect way to increase oxygen capacity.

There are two ways that your oxygen capacity can be limited. First, your muscle tissue may not have the chemical ability to actually use the oxygen that it is getting from your lungs and heart. For example, if you have low levels of mitochondria--tiny components of your muscle tissue cells that allow your cells to turn oxygen into energy--this will limit your oxygen capacity.

The second way that oxygen capacity can be limited is due to an inability of your heart or lungs to actually transport the necessary amounts of oxygen to your muscle tissues. For example, your heart may not be able to pump enough blood with each beat--and since blood contains oxygen, this limits oxygen capacity. Or your muscles or lungs may not be able to fill with as much oxygen as your muscles need, which would also limit oxygen capacity.

How to Increase Oxygen Capacity

Now that you know what limits oxygen capacity, it should seem pretty logical how to increase oxygen capacity. You can either improve the ability of your muscles to use oxygen, improve the ability of your heart and lungs to deliver oxygen, or do both!

[[AdMiddle]Although oxygen capacity will naturally decline with age (at the rate of about 1% per year after the age of 25), with proper training, you can elevate your oxygen capacity by 10-20%!

Fortunately, since it’s so crucial for athletes to have a high oxygen capacity, there’s been a lot of research done on how to increase oxygen capacity as quickly as possible. It turns out that performing very hard exercise for 3-5 minutes, separated by complete recovery between each hard effort, is a perfect way to increase oxygen capacity. Ideally, if you’re serious about improving your oxygen capacity, you should do these very hard exercises three or more times in a single workout, and try to do at least two of these type of workouts per week. Of course, this type of workout should sound very similar to something I’ve talked about before: interval training!

A Workout to Increase Oxygen Capacity

So how would this type of oxygen-capacity-improving workout actually be structured? Here’s a sample bicycle workout to increase oxygen capacity:

  1. Warm-up 5-10 minutes by pedaling easy.

  2. Prepare the body for the oxygen capacity efforts by doing five hard 30 second efforts, each separated by 60 seconds of recovery.

  3. Now, on to the good stuff! Perform three to five efforts of three to five minutes of very hard pedaling, with three to five minute of easy pedaling after each effort. Each of the hard pedaling efforts should be at your maximum sustainable pace.

  4. Cool-down until you’re breathing easy.

With just a few weeks of this workout, performed twice a week, you may actually find yourself bragging to your friends about your big lungs, getting stopped on the street by complete strangers who want to know your oxygen capacity secrets, or filling out the registration form for the Tour de France. OK…maybe not! But at least you’ll have the confidence that any cardio effort will suddenly become easier, and you’ll burn more calories and have more energy.

Lungs image from Shutterstock

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ben Greenfield

Ben Greenfield received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from University of Idaho in sports science and exercise physiology; personal training and strength and conditioning certifications from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA); a sports nutrition certification from the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), an advanced bicycle fitting certification from Serotta. He has over 11 years’ experience in coaching professional, collegiate, and recreational athletes from all sports, and as helped hundreds of clients achieve weight loss and fitness success.