Aquaman Lung Training for Enhanced VO2 Max, Breath Holding, Cognitive Function and More

By on October 8, 2019

A perfect man breathes as if he is not breathing.

Lao Tzu

Controlling your breath and being able to take in more oxygen as needed, are two methods of increasing performance that are largely neglected in modern training. The term VO2 Max refers to the maximum amount of oxygen that a person is able to breathe in and utilize during training. By increasing the size, efficiency, and strength of the lungs, you can give this a huge boost.

Aquaman Lung Training

While elite athletes practice such things as running while holding their breath, it is a practice that has yet to venture into the mainstream. That’s a shame, as this form of training can benefit everyone, in the gym, in the office, and at rest.

Being able to take in and use more oxygen is crucial for improving your cardiovascular performance, as well as your “work capacity.” The latter refers to the amount of work you can do in the gym, which in turn translates to greater strength gains and hypertrophy. Simply put: if you tire out before your muscles fatigue, then you can’t push yourself as hard as you otherwise could.

Elite athletes practice such things as running while holding their breath.

But increasing your oxygen intake on each breath has other less obvious benefits too. For one, it helps you to increase oxygen supply to your brain. That results in a sharper intellect, greater focus and awareness, and even a better mood!

What’s more, is that once you can control your breath, you can also take control of your autonomic nervous system. This is how the Wim Hof method works: using breath to stimulate the vagus nerve and thereby trigger a sympathetic response. “Box breathing” works similarly, helping users to regulate their breathing to achieve a sense of calm.

Breath holding

What if you could control your breathing to the extent that you would gain near total control over your autonomic nervous system? And what if your unconscious default breathing was so efficient as to keep you in a permanent state of calm focus?

What if you could control your breathing to the extent that you would gain near total control over your autonomic nervous system?

Or to put it another way, what if we were to train our lungs like Aquaman? What you will learn over the course of this article is that we are actually designed to thrive by spending more time submerged in cold water. We all have untapped potential that is unlocked by spending time underwater, or simulating it with breath training. And the results of incorporating this training can be truly profound.

Lung Training

Aquaman is able to breathe underwater and remain their indefinitely. Unfortunately, we cannot achieve quite that same level of comfort underwater. However, there are many ways to learn to take in more air and to control it for longer.

Breath hold underwater training

One less obvious method for training your VO2 max, is to train your lungs themselves. Or more specifically, to train the intercostal muscles and diaphragm that help to expand and contract your lungs. This can increase the amount of air you’re able to breathe in with each attempt, thereby filling your blood with more oxygen.

One way to do this is with something called Inspiratory Muscle Training (IMT). This involves using an apparatus or other method to add resistance to your usual breathing. The result is that your lungs need to work harder to achieve the same level of oxygen saturation. Something similar can be achieved with the altitude masks that you see people wearing in the gym. These products came under fire due to false advertising – they don’t actually simulate a high altitude environment in all respects. What they do do however, is to help strengthen your lungs and improve oxygen delivery during intense exercise.

With time, this will allow you to take in more oxygen on every single breath. You can easily purchase devices called breath trainers online, and these will help you to conveniently engage in this type of training anywhere. Or wear the masks during training – just keep in mind that you won’t be able to work as hard, meaning that you’ll leave some gains on the table during those workouts. This is something to use “as and when.”

Or you could just put a straw in your mouth and breathe through that, that works too!

IMT is often recommended for patients suffering with breathing difficulties such as asthma, but studies have also shown benefit for athletes, and the general public. has been heralded as a “five minute” exercise that can lower blood pressure, boost cognitive performance, and enhance cardio fitness (reference).

In one study, this was shown to improve rowing performance (study). Another demonstrated potential benefit for distance runners, although this one failed to produce significant results (study).

Breath Holding

Want to take this a step further?

Practicing breath holding might be an exercise that can offer benefits on a par with the Wim Hof technique or even meditation. In fact, breath holding was traditionally practiced by yogis, but has gradually been “forgotten” by many.

Breath holding can further strengthen the intercostal muscles and the diaphragm. It also helps to teach the body to become more efficient in its use of oxygen, increases carbon dioxide tolerance, boosts mitochondrial density, and raises EPO levels. In short, it teaches you to be able to perform with a lower oxygen content in your blood, which makes you more efficient at using it. This is why some athletes now practice running and engaging in other physical activities while holding their breath.

How to Train Your Breath

Another huge advantage is that it teaches you to become more resistant to high levels of CO2 in your blood. This is important, seeing as CO2 is actually a very useful substance that helps us to extract oxygen from blood cells.

Moreover, it teaches you to control your own response to physiological stress, and improves your overall mind-body connection. If you’re going to reach impressive breath-hold times, then you need to learn to relax your body and mind in the face of stress.

It teaches you to control your own response to physiological stress.

Over time, these changes can drastically improve your athletic performance, lower your resting heartrate, and significantly reduce anxiety. And you’ll start seeing notable benefits within one month.

There are two primary ways to train breath holding. One is by gradually increasing the amount of time you hold your breath in one go, which is known as O2 training. This uses a fixed recovery period – usually around 2 minutes – to expel all CO2, and the aim is to improve the body’s efficiency when working with low O2. Over time, you’ll increase the challenge.

The other is to train by reducing the amount of time between breath holds, known as CO2 training. Here, you will keep the breath hold consistent at around 1-2 minutes (this should be about 50% of your static PB), but will gradually decrease the rest in between from 2 minutes, to about 15 seconds. This results in a build-up of CO2, which teaches the body to improve CO2 tolerance, and thereby overcome the “burning desire to breath.”

Ninja Meditation

Typically, you’ll follow CO2 and O2 “tables” respectively, which will provide you with a guided structure for gradually building up each practice. But at the same time, you should base this on your own current ability level and not push yourself too far.

The great thing is that this is also highly meditative and is fantastic for building tremendous will-power and focus. Listen to your own physiological responses to the drop in blood oxygen, and use this opportunity to practice taking calm control over those reflexes.

Mammalian dive reflex

Make sure you are somewhere safe when practicing breath holds. Interestingly, you can actually improve your performance further when diving thanks to something called the mammalian diving reflex, which kicks in in response to cold water on the face (where we have special receptors). This reflex lowers the heartrate by 10-25%, increases blood flow to the vital organs, contracts the spleen to release more blood, and alters internal pressure. It’s quite amazing, and shows that we all have an untapped genetic heritage that would allow us to swim more like Aquaman.

It also means that Wim Hof was right about combining cold showers with breath training.

You can actually improve your performance further when diving thanks to something called the mammalian diving reflex.

For our purposes though, “dry training” as it is known, is safer and more practical for the most part. But we can occasionally tap into these innate Aquaman abilities as needed.

Breath Holding While Running

Advanced level coaches are now introducing this kind of training for their sprinters, cyclists, and more.

Book recommendation: The Oxygen Advantage by Patrick Mckeown

But in the interests of SAID – Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands – they also train breath holding during their workouts. As reported in The Oxygen Advantage, runners are tasked with such challenges as holding their breath during the last 30 meters of a 400 and 800 meter sprint. Author Patrick Mckeown recommends athletes to hold their breath after exhalation, rather than after inhalation as with the methods just described. This significantly decreases the blood oxygen saturation and ups carbon dioxide concentration. This is ideal for stimulating the production of red blood cells, and it can also reportedly improve the lactate threshold.

Tired Sprinting Breath Training

Mckeown recommends sprinters to practice jogging 80-100 paces while breath holding with six repetitions and a minute rest in between. He suggests doing this daily.

I’d love to tell you to try doing this while performing deadlifts, but the chances of breaking your spine are just too high. That said, with careful exercise selection, this could be cautiously integrated into a training program. My recommendation is to use it at the end of a large set of push ups, battle ropes, or perhaps resistance machines on a lower setting where there is no risk of getting crushed.

Footballer Johan Cruyff described how his team received coaching from a professional opera singer.

You can learn breath control from other less expected places too. In his autobiography, footballer Johan Cruyff described how his team received coaching from a professional opera singer to help them “gain the optimal return from each breath.”

Oxygen Packing

Want to go even further beyond?

If improving your ability to hold your breath has cognitive and athletic benefits, then surely we should be looking to the people who are able to hold their breaths longer than anyone else?

And who would that be?

Free divers! Free divers who regularly hold their breath for over ten minutes. The word record – held by German freediver Aleix Segura – is an amazing 24 minutes and 3 seconds! Magician David Blaine achieved a similarly impressive feat when he trained himself to hold his breath for 17 minutes and 4 seconds during a televised stunt.

Free diving breath holding training

We have come a long way since Houdini’s then-amazing breath hold of 3 minutes, 30 seconds!

What strategies do they use to achieve these superhuman feats?

One answer is something called oxygen packing. This involves breathing in to take in as much oxygen as you possibly can… and then breathing in more on top of that. The logic is that you are physically stretching your lungs and increasing lung capacity that way.  Usually, we actually leave a large amount of space in our oxygens untapped when we inhale.

When attempting your personal best, incorporate this method in order to see how it might facilitate greater results. Over time, it may have long term advantages.

Breathing Exercises and Overcoming Anxiety

As mentioned, breath control is also extremely beneficial when it comes to controlling your autonomic nervous system. We see this most clearly with the Wim Hof method and Tummo Meditation.

This is all possible because the way we breath is able to stimulate the vagus nerve. That nerve returns physiological information about our physiological state to the brain, in order to provide a two-way communication. In short, when we breathe quickly, it likely means we’re either training or in danger. This information is relayed to the brain via the vagus nerve, which leads to an increase in hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. That means greater strength and performance, but it also means you breathe even quicker and you place a strain on your body. When left unchecked, this can eventually lead to a panic attack.

Shaolin meditation

This is why it’s so destructive to spend all day in a state of chronic stress. And it’s why it’s so unfortunate that most of us also exacerbate this problem by using shallow breathing due to poor posture.

Belly Breathing

Throughout the day, it’s important to learn to use “belly breathing.” This type of breathing involves relaxing the abdominal wall in order to allow the diaphragm and lungs to expand into that space before being filled up at the top as well. In short, it increases the amount of useable oxygen space you have and helps to reduce stress throughout the day.

The Fourfold Breath/Box Breathing

Other breathing techniques allow you to control your breath and your mental state while also enhancing your CO2 tolerance and oxygen efficiency. One example involves using something called fourfold breath, or box breathing – a method used both by yogis and by military personal to attain a sense of calm.

If you check out my article/video on flow states, you’ll see that using these kinds of strategies to maintain a sense of calm might even be linked with achieving flow states during intense moments.

Box breathing

To breathe this way, empty the lungs for the count of four seconds, inhale while counting to four, hold while counting to four, and then exhale while counting to four. This can feel a little uncomfortable, but it not only regulates your breathing to thereby help prevent hyperventilation and fight or flight, but also forces you to fully inhale and exhale, thereby achieving a better balance of O2 and CO2. Over time, you can try increasing the number so that the two breath holds are slightly longer – 5, 6, or 7 seconds.

Breathe in through the nose to clean the air and increase nitric oxide, and breathe out through the mouth.

The Dead Breath

The dead breath is similar and involves simply breathing out gently until all oxygen has been expelled, and then letting the lungs “hang” empty. As soon as you feel any oxygen hunger, breathe back in. You can repeat this a few times to gain a sense of calm.

Minding the Gate

Minding the gate is another very interesting option. Here, the aim is to breathe very shallow, light, and gentle. You do this by only letting the oxygen move as far as the nostrils before breathing out, to massively increase your CO2 levels. Your breath should be almost imperceptible to outside observers.

This maintains high levels of CO2, and the truly die-hard yogis will even go as far as to maintain this practice for entire days at a time – which also has the added bonus of improving your awareness of your own breath.

You can attempt to follow suit, or you can use it as a form of quiet meditation that will have added benefits.


Of course, the Wim Hof Method uses an entirely different strategy. This more rapid shallow breathing is designed to intentionally trigger a fight-or-flight response by starving the body of CO2. This can result in short-term benefits such as increased strength and resistance to cold.

Wim Hof Method

To use the Wim Hof Method, you take 30 quick, deep breaths (in through the nose, out through the mouth), and then take a final deep breath, exhale and hold until you feel a breath hunger. Inhale again as fully as you can and hold for 10 seconds. Repeat as you like.

Closing Comments

So, if you want to train for Aqaman-like breathing, it’s more than possible. You can learn to hold your breath for potentially up to 20 minutes at a time, taking advantage of the body’s natural adaptability and affinity for the water.

Did you know that there’s a tribe in the Andaman Sea called the “Moken.” These people get a huge proportion of their food from the sea bed, and as such have actually adapted to be able to see clearly underwater. This is thanks to a unique ability to bend the lenses in their eyes in such a way as to counter the refraction of the water, while also narrowing their pupils to the limits of human performance. Unfortunately, it’s thought that this is only possible for young children.

Nevertheless, it demonstrates that the water like so many elements has the ability to transform our physical performance in surprising ways. Our lack of breath holding and water exposure is just another cause of our weakened, domesticated state.

Lung training benefits
Sportsman swims in a swimming pool

By reintroducing breath holding and breath control, we can potentially tap into profound improvements in our physical AND mental performance. Running faster for longer, staying calmer and more focussed, and enjoying greater health.

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

One Comment

  1. John Rossini says:

    Hi Adam, Great post on breathing! Do you have a recommendation for a training mask to wear over one’s nose. I prefer nose breathing to mouth breathing. Thanks! John R.

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