April 30

Scuba diving breathing exercises for a better air consumption and airway control: A methodical approach

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How to improve systematically air consumption to enjoy longer dives

Do you always have to finish your dive before your buddies? Did none of the advises you got to improve your air consumption worked out? Read this and change your diving forever!

In this article I will introduce a methodical approach in scuba diving to practice breathing, airway control and body awareness. This can help to perfect scuba diving skills like air consumption and to intensify the experience of diving itself. I will also provide examples of specific exercises that can be used for practicing breathing techniques and body awareness on land between your dive vacations.

The actual situation about practicing breathing in scuba diving training 

So far there is no methodical concept to practice breathing in dive training. The airways are explained focusing on equalization and rudimentary about the interconnection between lungs and buoyancy control. 

I encountered with my students and guests very often similar problems

  • Having a hard time to descend, but then being overweighed during the dive 
  • Issues to clean the mask because they don´t  realize if they exhale through mouth or nose
  • Mask filling up with water because they always exhale through the nose - except when they want to clean the mask
  • Buoyancy issues due to not exhaling enough -and up goes the balloon 
  • Very high air consumption
  • Opening the lips and sucking in water when they inhale
  • Having trouble to stay at depth with low tank pressure during safety stop or other shallow water conditions

Most likely every instructor can add some points to that list (let me know them in the comments, please!). All of those problems are connected to breath- and airway control. I know very well PADI, SSI and TDI SDI, I have seen manuals from different other agencies, but none is explaining in detail the exact physics of breathing and its interconnection with buoyancy control and air consumption. I found no explanation what exactly is the difference between normal breathing and breathing from a regulator - regarding the breathing, not the effects of the ambient pressure. 

I talked to instructors way more experienced than me how to teach students better air consumption, but the notorious reply is "it comes with practice, they need to go diving". 

Breathing exercises in freediving

That´s different in freediving training. Breathing techniques are the foundation of apnoe. I´ve seen a few attempts to adapt those practices to scuba diving. The practices are mostly derived from Yoga and usually taught together with Yoga stretching exercises. Do you want to practice Yoga stretching for scuba diving? Most people don´t.

Nevertheless Yoga offers very useful breathing techniques for both, apnoe and scuba, so maybe we can learn something from that. An important question is: Which one to pick for which discipline? But also how to adjust it for scuba diving?

To understand that we should have a closer look ad the differences.

Difference between scuba and apnoe breathing

What´s the most important rule in scuba diving? Never hold your breath.

What is another name for freediving? One breath diving.

Do I have to say more? Yes, definitely! Let´s have a look a the different goals of breathing practice for the two disciplines:

Apnoe breathing goals

  • Hold the breath as long as possible
  • Increase lung volume
  • Increase oxygen level

Scuba breathing goals

  • Controlled, constant diaphragm breath
  • Adjust to regulator breathing
  • Conscious airway control

As we can see the goals are entirely different. And before the freedive community is bashing me: I´m aware that airway control is also utterly important for freediving. Ear and mask equalization is a demanding skill, besides the airway control during the breathing preparation before a dive. But this is very different to the airway control in scuba diving, so I hope you can accept my reason to present it the way I do.

Even if we find some exercises that are useful for both, it is necessary to create a set of breathing exercises with the mindset of a scuba diver. The good thing for doing this job is that I have no idea about freediving, but I know scuba diving. And breathing, I´m doing that all of my life and I bet all my dive gear - you as well.

Where can we find useful breathing exercises for Scuba Diving?

There are actually many breathing exercises for many different purposes. I learned my first breathing exercise for example when I was practicing trombone as a kid. It was an exercise to practice diaphragm breathing, which is not only helpful for playing a wood instrument, but also for scuba diving.

Another rich source of breathing practice are disciplines like Yoga, Qigong, Tai Chi and many other marital arts styles.Or to train your lungs for singing. Fur us more interesting is to look at disciplines that use exercises really specialized for practicing certain skills used in this particular activity.

Finding exercises is not a problem, we just need to decide which ones are helping in our purpose to improve breathing related skill in scuba diving and adjust them to our needs.

How is breathing practice useful for scuba diving?

So far we discussed in general why it makes sense to have a closer look at breathing practice for scuba diving.

Now we dive deeper into the practical implementation of breathing practice in scuba diving training.

Breathing in scuba diving

Breathing is an essential part of scuba diving, as it directly affects air consumption, buoyancy control, and overall comfort underwater. We can use breathing exercises to increase lung capacity, improve breathing efficiency and airway control, as well as enhance relaxation.

Breathing from a scuba regulator is different from breathing normal in several ways.

Difference between normal and scuba regulator breathing

A key point for improving the breathing technique in scuba diving is to fully understand what are the differences compared to breathing normally on land. 

Normal breathing

  • Air pressure varies with the breathing
  • Breathing through nose and mouth
  • Natural lung breathing pattern

Scuba breathing

  • Air is delivered at a constant pressure
  • Breathing through a mouthpiece
  • Conscious diaphragm breathing
  • The air delivered through the regulator is at a constant pressure, unlike breathing on land where the pressure varies with the altitude and the breathing pattern. This means that the diver must adjust to the sensation of having a consistent stream of air entering the lungs.
  • The diver must breathe through a mouthpiece, which also feels different from breathing through nose and mouth. The mouthpiece is held in place by the diver's teeth and lips, hence it is not possible to control the air flow while inhaling using the tension of the lips. Instead, pressing the tongue against the gum is an additional help to diaphragm control.
  • Breathing from a scuba regulator requires the diver to use their diaphragm to inhale and exhale, which can feel different from breathing on land. When breathing through the nose and mouth, the air is drawn in and expelled by the muscles in the chest and abdomen. When using a scuba regulator, the diver must consciously use their diaphragm to control the air flow, which can be a new experience for some people. The diaphragm is the primary muscle responsible for breathing, and it must be engaged to ensure a steady flow of air into the lungs. This can take practice and can feel tiring at first.

Basic breathing techniques

After all of the theory let´s get into practice! I will introduce now three breathing techniques that are targeting exactly the needs for scuba diving.

Lung breathing

The first and most basic breathing technique is lung breathing. Yes, simple as that. It is the usual breathing pattern, where the chest protrudes during inhalation and contracts during exhalation. In an unimpaired lung respiration, besides the front of the chest also diaphragm, flank, and back muscles move. Many people have developed such extremely shallow or one-sided breathing patterns that it is necessary for them to learn to use their breathing muscles again and normalize their breathing. That´s what I meant before when I wrote that diaphragm breathing can be a "new experience for some people".

Lower belly breathing

One of the most important breathing techniques is “lower belly” or deep abdominal breathing. This involves breathing deeply into the lower belly, expanding it like a balloon, while allowing it to contract with each exhalation. This type of breathing helps to increase oxygen intake and improve the overall efficiency of the respiratory system.

Diaphragm breathing

Diaphragm breathing, also known as "belly breathing", involves using the diaphragm muscle, which is located beneath the lungs and helps with breathing. When you inhale deeply, your diaphragm contracts and moves downward, allowing your lungs to expand and fill with air. When you exhale, your diaphragm relaxes and moves upward, pushing air out of your lungs. If we can control our diaphragm properly, we can control the duration of exhalation, making it nice and slow to reduce the air consumption.

The main difference between abdominal and diaphragm breathing is the focus on the belly versus the diaphragm. Abdominal breathing emphasizes the expansion and contraction of the lower belly, while diaphragm breathing focuses on the movement of the diaphragm muscle. Both movements are important for buoyancy control.

How to adjust breathing practice for scuba diving

How I figured it out 

At the age of 6 I started playing trombone. Especially for young kids it is important to train the lungs when they learn a wood instrument. I learned three exercises with the following goals:

  • train lower belly breathing
  • train diaphragm breathing
  • train lung breathing
  • increase lung volume
  • strengthen breathing related muscles
  • gain perfect airway control

During the last 5 years I tried to figure out how to teach my students proper breathing skill. I experimented by letting them try different little things I observed on myself. It mostly didn´t worked, except of one thing, very obvious and easy, that made me finally understand. From there it was very logical and easy to develop my program of breathing exercises for scuba diving.

The Problem

 All breathing exercises available from other disciplines are missing the point for scuba diving. The reason is that only in scuba diving we are breathing compressed air delivered in a constant flow and pressure through a regulator. Without taking credit to that, a breathing exercise has no or very little effect to improve air consumption and buoyancy control

The Solution

I developed a set of breathing exercises, based on exercises for wind instruments, fully adjusted to the needs of scuba diving. Besides the positive effects on lung volume and training of breathing related muscles that they have in common with all breathing exercises, mine contain special elements that take into account regulator breathing -without actually using a regulator. Means you can practice them at home, anytime.

Do you want to learn exercises to practice the 3 types of breathing? Sign up and stay updated for some free video lessons I will release soon!

The effects of these breathing exercises

We learned now about three different types of breathing, but how can that be applied to scuba diving? 


So far the theoretical descriptions of breathing and the three presented techniques are nice to look at, but the connection is missing to understand the application in "real" diving.


Let´s put the pieces together and look at the whole picture!

Problem 1:

The air delivered through the regulator is at a constant pressure, unlike breathing on land. This means that the diver must adjust to the sensation of having a consistent stream of air entering the lungs.

Breathing through a mouthpiece feels different from breathing through nose and mouth. The mouthpiece is held in place by the diver's teeth and lips, hence it is not possible to control the air flow while inhaling or exhaling using the tension of the lips. 

The Solution:

In normal breathing we "suck" the air into our lungs, To control the constant airflow of the regulator we use the diaphragm to "push" against the flow instead of "sucking".

During exhalation we can compensate the missing support from our lips with diaphragm control and our tongue. 

By practicing diaphragm breathing we learn exactly that - without regulator or water, wherever, whenever.

Problem 2:

Uncontrolled and unaware breathing leads to uncontrolled buoyancy, uncontrolled buoyancy leads to fear, and fear leads to the dark side. Or just a judging look from your dive instructor. 

The Solution:

By learning to use consciously all different types of breathing we increase our self awareness. We learn to use our lungs controlled, that leads to awareness of the effect of breathing on our buoyance which leads to a better control of our buoyancy. 

For a low air consumption master to control your breath you must, young padawan!

Wisdom of master Yoda

The secret of low air consumption

Let´s do a little calculation: If we assume we have 100 breaths for one dive available and our goal is to maximize the dive time, we only can stretch the duration of each breath to influence the dive time.

If we breath uncontrolled, the airflow is filling our lungs fast and we exhale fast, total duration of one breathing cycle 5 seconds. The duration of our dive would be 

100 x 5 seconds = 500 seconds = 8ish minutes.

But we practiced already a few times those awesome breathing exercises and now we can control the air flow. We inhale and exhale more slowly. Total duration of one breathing cycle 20 seconds

Dive duration 100 x 20 seconds = 2,000 seconds = 33ish minutes!

Is the value of 20 seconds unrealistic? No, I stopped my breathing cycles and I can stretch them to 27 seconds without bouncing significantly up and down due to the changed buoyancy. On land by inhaling and exhaling completely it can be stretched even further, but that makes no sense during a dive.

And that is the main reason why some people in your dive group come up together with you from the same dive with 100 bar/ 1500 psi, while suck on your last 20 bar/ 300 psi. 

But to be able to stretch your breath like that you need to calm down your movements and swim efficient, otherwise your body demands faster breathing to deliver the oxygen for your muscles.

Air Consumption and breathing practice

Air consumption is an important factor in scuba diving, as it determines the length of the dive and the amount of air remaining for safety stops and emergencies. Again we can use breathing exercises to improve breathing efficiency and reduce air consumption.

Practicing different types of breathing helps to increase body awareness, it calms down the heart rate and leads to a lower but very natural lung breathing. The more calm we are during diving, the less oxygen our body needs, the less we have to breath.

Body Awareness in Scuba Diving

Body awareness is also an important aspect of scuba diving, as it helps to improve buoyancy control, trim, and movement efficiency underwater.

Body awareness and breathing

If we force ourselves to breath less to achieve a low air consumption, for example while fighting a current, it ends in a bad headache because we don´t release CO2 and receive new Oxygen fast enough. Body awareness also means to feel what breathing pattern is necessary according to the natural demand for oxygen. It means to adjust our breathing to the situation.

It is necessary to be

  • aware and able to control the speed of inhalation and exhalation
  • aware how much air in which part of the lungs we have
  • aware if we are negative, neutral or positive buoyant
  • aware how we can influence our buoyancy with our breathing

If we plan our dives and our gas reserves we also need to be aware that there can be a huge difference between our perfect and the real air consumption, for example due to an unexpected change of conditions or equipment problems.

Being aware of our breath also means being aware of its limits, our limits.

We can use breathing exercises to increase body awareness and improve movement control.

Body awareness and movement control.

To achieve a nice horizontal trim, clean fin kick techniques, or master any other task and skill underwater, movement control is important. And everything becomes much more easy if we are aware of our movements, because only then we can adjust them, control them.

Water has a much higher density compared to air, which affects our movements significantly:

  • moving the same distance at the same speed takes more muscle effort due to displacement of objects underwater
  • mass inertia works also different, we can´t stop a movement as easy as in air

The better our body awareness, the easier we recognize those effects and adjust our movements accordingly.

Another example is using the inflator of our BCD to adjust neutral buoyancy. There are three components we have to be aware of:

  1. 1
    How much air we have in our lungs?
  2. 2
    Are we sinking, ascending or hovering?
  3. 3
    How long we have to press which button of the inflator to add/ release air?

More examples for body awareness in diving

I will list especially those that are known to cause problems.

  • Deploying a surface marker device properly
  • Maintaining proper trim
  • Find proper weighting
  • Fulfill more complex tasks like compass or line navigation
  • Taking pictures or videos underwater
  • Efficient propulsion – Clean fin technique and god balance of speed and effort

Conclusion

Awareness of our body is the key to control our body. 

Practicing breathing is the key to improve body awareness.

Breath control is the key to scuba diving.

There is a gap in scuba training because there is no systematical, methodical training for breathing included, neither theoretical to teach the physics of breathing, nor practical to actively train and learn breathing.

My concept of breathing practice can not only be used as a stand alone course for people that somehow found it. Breathing practice can be implemented in any dive training, starting with the very first lesson. 

We don´t have to teach immediately the “full package”, but just raising awareness how many different ways we have to breath and a quick explanation of the new sensation of regulator breathing is done in 5 – 10 minutes and helps a lot to prevent problems underwater. 


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