Elevation Masks: The Facts
While it looks badass to train with an elevation mask, the physiological benefits are minuscule at best. Before we look at whether or not these masks have any significant training effect, let's go over exactly what they do and don't do.
1. Elevation training masks do NOT simulate high altitude training.
The composition of the air breathed in isn't different from the air surrounding you at whatever elevation you're at. The oxygen content of that air remains the same. Using a mask is the equivalent of just breathing through a straw or limiting air intake.
2. Elevation masks DO train the muscles of respiration.
Think of it as strength training for your breathing muscles. You may think that's beneficial because the more air you can move in and out of your lungs means the more oxygen you can take up. And while that seems logical it doesn't work like that. Respiration in healthy people is normally not a limiting factor in VO2max. In plain talk, that just means you can already take in more oxygen than your body is able to use during maximal exercise.
3. Elevation masks do NOT make a workout more intense.
They actually make the workout less intense because the difficulty breathing makes it feel hard but actually takes away from the quality of the workout.
Let's take a look at a recent study on the efficacy of the elevation training mask.
Twenty-three men who'd been lifting for at least two years and could bench press bodyweight and squat 1.5 times bodyweight were recruited for the study. Only twenty subjects finished the study though: two dropped out due to discomfort of the mask (struggling to breathe) and one because of severe dizziness and lightheadedness.
The subjects underwent two testing sessions: one with the elevation mask and one without a mask. In each session, they performed six sets of ten squats (or as many as possible, as the reps dropped as the sets progressed) at 85% of their 5RM with a seventh set to failure. They then performed six sets of ten reps on the bench press at 85% of their 5RM with a seventh set to failure. The final test was a 25-second sprint on a non-motorized treadmill.
Blood lactate, blood oxygenation, workout volume, peak and mean bar velocity during the bench and squat, and peak and mean velocity along with total work during the sprint was recorded. Ratings of focus, energy, alertness, and fatigue were also recorded.
- Peak velocity of the barbell was greater in the bench press and squat in the no-mask trial.
- Peak velocity of the sprint was greater in the no-mask trial.
- Blood lactate was significantly higher in the no-mask trial following bench press and sprint, and still greater but not statistically significant following the squat.
- Workout volume was equivalent, and blood oxygenation wasn't significantly different between trials with the exception of at one minute following squats, where it was significantly lower in the mask trial compared to the no-mask trial.
- Lastly, ratings of focus and alertness were significantly lower in the mask trial compared to the no-mask trial following squats, bench press, and the sprint.
The training mask decreases peak power, lowers focus and alertness, and does not elevate blood lactate levels more than training without a mask.
So while the volume of the workout isn't hindered, the intensity is (higher levels of lactate production is a strong indicator of intensity). This means you feel like you're going way harder when in actuality you're not.
Unless you're a masochist and just like making things hard for yourself, avoid using elevation masks. They offer little to no benefit physiologically and take away your focus and attention from quality reps and sets.
- Jagim AR et al. The Acute Effects of the Elevation Training Mask on Strength Performance in Recreational Weightlifters. J Strength Cond Res. 2018 Feb;32(2):482-489. PubMed.