Breath Holding

17.01.2021 |

Episode #8 of the course Breathwork: Science and practice by David Urbansky


Welcome back. In the previous lessons, you learned slow and fast breathing techniques. But did you know that not breathing has plenty of health benefits as well? In today’s lesson, we will look into breath-holding.


Why Breath Holding Is Beneficial

When you hold your breath you shift the ratio of CO2 to O2 in your blood. Normally your blood is saturated with more than 95% oxygen. The longer you hold your breath, the lower the oxygen concentration and the stronger the urge to breathe. A low amount of oxygen is also called hypoxia, and induced correctly, it can improve your body’s function, especially when you’re an athlete!

You may have heard that endurance athletes like to train at higher altitudes. That is because the oxygen concentration in the air is lower and your body is trained to tolerate less oxygen [2]. This leads to improved anaerobic glycolysis (metabolism without oxygen) [3, 4], meaning that sprints or other high-performance stints above your VO2 max work better and your muscle fatigue is delayed. This has also been shown to be true for swimming performance [1] and improved running economy [16, 17].

Breath-holding strengthens your breathing muscles (diaphragm and intercostal muscles) [6]. During rest, the respiratory system takes up to 6% of available energy, but that goes up to 15% under maximal load. A stronger respiratory system reduces this consumption, which makes the energy available to other muscle groups (e.g. for running).

During breath-holding, the spleen contracts (because it senses lowering O2 levels) and releases more red blood cells into the blood. Training this long term will increase red blood cells by default [9]. It has been shown that just five maximum breath holds with two-minute breaks reduced spleen size by 20% [11] and the effect is already measurable with 30-second breath holds [12].

Breath-holding increases the production of EPO—a naturally occurring hormone produced in the kidneys that stimulate the bone marrow to release more red blood cells, leading to better aerobic performance [8, 13, 14, 15]. Results showed that EPO concentration increased by 24%, peaking at three hours after the final breath-hold and returning to baseline two hours later.

Furthermore, hypoxia induces NO production [8], and you have learned in previous lessons how valuable that gas can be for your body! Other studies have shown that breath-holding can prevent DNA damage and can therefore lessen the effects of aging and increase longevity [7, 8]. If you’re a man, you have the additional benefit of fighting erectile dysfunction [8].


Inhale vs. Exhale Retention

The urge to take another breath is not because of low oxygen in your system, but because of a high CO2 concentration! If you expel CO2, the urge to breathe will be lower. You can try this yourself by taking a deep breath and holding it. Once you feel the urge to breathe, slowly breathe out. This reduces the CO2 in your body and you can hold the breath a bit longer.



Now that you know that not breathing can be good for you too, let’s practice it. Plan in about twenty minutes for this practice session. It is super simple, just hold your breath as long as you can. Once you have to breathe again, breathe normally for two minutes before performing another maximum breath-hold. Do this for five cycles.

An even more intense version is to do three sets of five maximum duration breath holds, with each set separated by ten minutes of rest [13].

Congratulations, you have mastered slow, fast, and no breathing! This completes your toolbox. However, you will only reap the benefits if you actually do the exercises you learned. A couple of lessons ago, you wrote down some test scores for your breathing. Perform the exercises daily for two weeks and do the tests again. You will be amazed how quickly you can improve your respiratory system and do your body something good without any equipment, pills, or prescriptions!

Tomorrow we’ll look at some tips for how you can best incorporate breathwork into your daily routine. We also have a little surprise for you for making it so far! See you tomorrow.


Recommended video

How I held my breath for 17 minutes | David Blaine



[1] A. Hypoventilation Training at Supramaximal Intensity Improves Swimming Performance

[2] Breath-hold training of humans reduces oxidative stress and blood acidosis after static and dynamic apnea

[3] Repeated Sprint Training in Hypoxia Induced by Voluntary Hypoventilation in Swimming

[4] Effects of a 4-week training with voluntary hypoventilation carried out at low pulmonary volumes

[5] Repeated-sprint training in hypoxia induced by voluntary hypoventilation improves running repeated-sprint ability in rugby players

[6] Effects of hypercapnic-hypoxic training on respiratory muscle strength and front crawl stroke performance among elite swimmers

[7] Holding Your Breath for Longevity

[8] Nisshesha rechaka pranayama offers benefits through brief intermittent hypoxia

[9] Selected contribution: role of spleen emptying in prolonging apneas in humans

[10] Hematological response and diving response during apnea and apnea with face immersion

[11] Spleen volume and blood flow response to repeated breath-hold apneas

[12] The human spleen as an erythrocyte reservoir in diving-related interventions

[13] Increased erythropoietin concentration after repeated apneas in humans

[14] Plasma-volume contraction and exercise-induced hypoxaemia modulate erythropoietin production in healthy humans

[15] Does obstructive sleep apnea increase haematocrit?

[16] Controlled-frequency breath swimming improves swimming performance and running economy

[17] Hypoventilation Training

[18] Nasal nitric oxide in man


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