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Respiratory System Adaptations to Exercise

This page highlights the specific adaptations made by the respiratory system in reponse to the types of training that place the greatest demand on this system.

Personal Training Respiratory Adaptations imageAerobic fitness, anaerobic fitness and muscular endurance training place larger demands on the lungs than any other types of training.  Over time these demands result in adaptations to the respiratory system such as:


Physiological Adaptation

Ventilation / Breathing rate

  • Breathing rates increase with higher intensity training (this is more an adaptation from anaerobic fitness and muscular endurance training or higher intensity aerobic fitness training).  This enables more air to move in and out of the lungs enhancing gas exchange.

Lung Capacity/ Volume

  • Lungs increase their ability to expand enabling a greater quantity of air to move in and out (this is a similar adaptation to the increase in stroke volume in the cardiovascular system).

Respiratory Muscles

  • The strength and endurance of the diaphragm and intercostal muscles improves.  This results in an improved ability to breathe in more air, for longer with less fatigue.
  • Aerobic training tends to improve the endurance of respiratory muscles
  • Anaerobic training tends to increase the size and strength of respiratory muscles

Capillarisation in the lungs

  • More capillaries are formed in the lungs over time allowing more blood to flow in and out of the lungs.  This improves the uptake of oxygen as there is a greater surface area for blood to bind with haemoglobin. 


  • The numbers of alveoli in the lungs increase to enable more gas exchange to occur.

Gas Exchange

  • The exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide improves as the gradient between each becomes larger.  This occurs because the more oxygen used in the tissues and the more carbon dioxide produced creates a larger difference/gradient between the blood and tissues.
  • Aerobic fitness training tends to improve the efficiency of the body’s tissues at absorbing O2 and removing CO2, while anaerobic fitness and muscular endurance training tends to improve the capacity for this gas exchange.

Other training types such as hypertrophy training may also result in some minor adaptation occurring in the respiratory system. 

For example you may notice your breathing rate increase after each set during hypertrophy training where the work period is 30 seconds or more and rest period is similar.  Over time this may result in some respiratory adaptations, however the degree of adaptation with this type of training will be less significant.

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