How Deeply do you Breathe?

Author: Kara Schuft, PT, DPT

Take a big breath in. Hold it there a second. Now breathe slowly out. Ever think about the mechanics involved in breathing? It turns out that most of us are breathing the wrong way.

Diaphragmatic breathing

We have a major muscle that controls breathing, called the diaphragm. It lies under our rib cage, separating our thorax from our abdomen. With proper breathing, the diaphragm should lower during an inhale, allowing air to fill up the entire space of the lung. You should see your stomach rise slightly during a breath in. This can show the diaphragm has dropped and you are fully expanding your lungs. During an exhale the diaphragm rises back up and our stomach should flatten out back to resting position.

Paradoxical breathing

Many people breathe quite shallowly rather than using their diaphragm to control respiration. Shallow breathing can result in increased stress and tension involving our neck and shoulder muscles. During paradoxical breathing you inhale and have the stomach muscles hold inwards instead of relaxing out. Think of it like breathing in and sucking in your stomach at the same time. Then you relax out during the exhale. This is the OPPOSITE of diaphragmatic breathing. This does not allow the diaphragm to do as good of a job and we automatically breathe more shallowly. Most of the air only enters our upper chest and it does not allow the lungs to fully expand. This limits how much oxygen we get to our tissues. We also begin to use other muscles that are not meant to be the primary work-horses when it comes to breathing. These are muscles of our neck and shoulders, typically referred to as accessory muscles of respiration. When they start working harder it adds to shoulder and muscle tension.

So how do we learn how to breathe deeply?

 Courtesy of  my.clevelandclinic.org

Courtesy of my.clevelandclinic.org

Actually using our diaphragm to take a deep breath is pretty easy to learn how to do. Lie down in a quiet place with one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach.

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    my.clevelandclinic.org

Courtesy of  my.clevelandclinic.org

Take a nice, slow breath in, and try to make the hand resting on your stomach rise upwards. Limit the amount of movement of the hand on the chest.


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    my.clevelandclinic.org

Courtesy of  my.clevelandclinic.org

 Breathe out slowly and the hand on the stomach should now lower back down. This can feel very strange at first if someone has been used to shallow breathing and never taking a fully deep breath. It may seem like you are forcing the air down towards your abdomen, feeling quite unnatural, but with practice, it will get much easier.

But WHY change the way I’m breathing?

Breathing by using your diaphragm has a host of benefits. Diaphragmatic breathing:

  • Reduces stress – this is the bread and butter of diaphragmatic breathing benefits. Deep breathing is in almost every form of relaxation and meditative practice. 
  • Reduces blood pressure
  • Decreases tension placed on our neck and shoulder muscles
  • Aids in digestion – helps to get the contents of the intestines moving
  • Improves the mobility of the abdomen – skin and tissue can get tight especially after abdominal surgeries
  • Reduces motion sickness – especially if you breathe OUT longer than you breathe in by 2-3 seconds

More questions about breathing? Come see us at Whole Body Health Physical Therapy for an assessment.