Diaphragmatic Breathing. What’s all the huff and puff about?
Updated: Apr 12
Let’s start with the basics, what is your diaphragm? It is a large, dome-shaped muscle located at the base of the lungs. It’s the principle muscle of respiration and is the most efficient muscle of breathing. It also aids in compressing the abdominal organs
Commonly termed “belly breathing”, diaphragmatic breathing involves fully expanding and engaging the stomach, abdominal muscles, and diaphragm when breathing. This means you actively pull down the diaphragm with each inward breath. As you inhale your belly should expand and get bigger. Research has shown that this type of breathing helps the lungs fill more efficiently and also helps decrease cortisol levels (can you say stress relief?). Utilizing the diaphragm to breathe, we start to decrease the work of breathing by slowing down your breathing rate. It also helps decrease oxygen demand and uses less effort and energy to breathe.
+ We typically see two different types of breathing stereotypes.
1.The first style of breathing we most commonly see is the accessory breathing style or the Chest Breather.
With this style of breathing, when you take a big deep breath in, there is an expansion and upwards movement of the entire chest and shoulders. This type of breathing activates the secondary or accessory breathing muscles (the scalenes, upper trap muscles, SCM’s, levator Scapulae, etc.). This type of breathing doesn’t allow for full expansion of the diaphragm and actually is a less efficient way to fill the lungs.
This is the most common breathing style we see and is one of the biggest proponents of very tight upper back and shoulder muscles due to overuse of these accessory muscles. The reason we think as adults a majority of people become accessory breathers is due to the ever-changing societal norms. For example, the trend to suck in your stomach when sitting or standing to appear thinner is a major proponent for ditching the belly breathing and deactivating the expansion of the diaphragm when breathing. Therefore, we have conditioned ourselves to become accessory breathers. What this has done for us though is created suboptimal breathing patterns, core activation, and spinal stability.
2. The second type of breathing pattern we typically see is the optimal diaphragmatic breathing stereotype.
This type of breathing is naturally seen significantly less than its opposition. Have you ever watched a baby breathe? They are perfectly wired breathing machines. When they take a big deep breath in their stomach expands and gets bigger.
With this type of breathing, we have a widening of the intercostal spaces or ribcage, a little movement in the chest and sternum, filling of the entire abdominal cavity, and sufficient expansion of the diaphragm.
In this stereotype, there is no activation or overuse of the accessory muscles in the neck and shoulders. It takes practice, but you can get your breathing pattern into this optimal range.
This type of breathing again is ideal in order to breathe more efficiently, decrease overuse of neck and shoulder muscles, learn to activate the core and stabilize the spine.
The diaphragm when in the proper stabilization pattern, acts as a piston. Taking you back to high school physics class, the diaphragm creates a Boyle’s Law type reaction, decreasing the volume within the abdominal cavity, but increasing the pressure or intra-abdominal pressure. This allows us to activate your core muscles (not just your abdominal muscles but your muscles along the spine as well), but as the muscles are lengthened and activated instead of shortening. Over time through diaphragmatic breathing, we can begin to strengthen your core muscles, improve your postural stabilization, core stabilization, and breathing patterns.
+ So what we do we do about it?
In the office, you will see that we like to start with this breathing technique to train the patient to utilize their core, breathe more efficiently, and decrease the overuse of the accessory neck and shoulder muscles. All of these factors help create proper postural stabilization through the core muscle group and in turn proper stabilization throughout the spine during movement. We will tend to test your breathing patterns through several positions. We even have these nifty belts, called the core360 belt, that will help us make sure you are activating your core properly. Through different testing positions, we can point out where you may be deficient and show you ways to improve your breathing pattern.
So when’s the last time you sat down and thought about how you breathe? Yes, it actually takes practice to break our breathing patterns and to get back to the fundamental breath patterns we were so good at as infants.
+ Let's practice.
Lay on your back making sure it's flat on the surface. Place one hand on your chest and one hand at your belly button. Now taking in a deep breath let your stomach expand and push to the ceiling. Making sure at this moment that the hand on the chest is not moving up and down with your breath. You want all of the movement in the hand on the stomach. Keep practicing. Imagine your breath go in through your nose, down the back of the throat, down the spine, and out your butt.
When you get good at this try the clock method to ensure we are hitting 360 degrees of our core. Imagine your abdomen is a clock, your belly button is 12 o clock and your spine is 6 o clock. Place two fingers at 12 o clock and with an inhale try and push your fingers off your stomach. Repeat two times. Now move out 10 minutes on both sides and continue the breathing pattern until you reach 5 and 7 o’clock. This is ensuring we can breathe into all 360 degrees of the core.
Congratulations you just learned how to “brace”. You know the adage we have always learned about bearing down and sucking your belly button to your spine to prepare for lifting or a load? WRONG. Diaphragmatic breathing is how we brace our core and activate an entire 360 degrees to stabilize the spine and prepare for stabilization.