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Am I Breathing Wrong?

Posted on 11 May 2015
Am I Breathing Wrong?

Is it Possible to Breath Incorrectly?

The answer requires us to look back at how we used to breath ... all the way back to our infancy.  If you have ever observed the way babies breath while on their back you'll notice the belly expanding with each inhalation.  This increase in abdominal girth is due to the excursion of the diaphragm as it drops into our belly.  This not only allows our body to draw air into our lungs but also is responsible for creating the architecture of the entire top of our 'core'.   As infants, this is what produces the core strength that enables us to roll over, stand up and begin taking our first few steps ... on our way over to knocking everything off the coffee table!

How Does Breathing Increase Our Core Strength?

For starters, the infamous 'core' is best understood if we visualize it as a ball that is sitting in our belly.  The tighter the ball, the stronger the core.  In order to prevent this ball from becoming more of an oval or a bean bag, we need to tighten all the sides around the ball equally and as strong as we can.  These sides consists of the pelvic floor muscles forming the bottom, the 3 layers of abdominal muscles as the sides and that big breathing muscle we call the diaphragm forming the top.  We've all heard the benefits of having a strong core which include but are not limited to; fewer injuries, improved recovery and significant endurance and strength gains in the extremities.

Why is it Bad to Breath With My Chest?

When we use our chest to breath, we're activating muscles called the accessory breathing muscles.  These include the scalenes, sternocleidomastoid and those troublesome upper trapezius muscles which are a frequent source of neck and shoulder tension. When these muscles are used repetitively the muscles begin to get strained and develop increased tension and tone.  In case you were wondering, the typical adult can breath in anywhere from 18,000 to 30,000 times a day!

In addition to creating neck tension, chest breathing can have adverse performance effects for our amateur and high performance athlete.  Chest breathing results in a much shallower breath so less oxygen is inhaled and delivered to those muscles in an oxygen deficit.  Additionally, if we recall the role that the diaphragm has on forming the top of the core, when engaged can create a stable fixed point to generate momentum in our limbs for a golf swing, baseball pitch, tennis serve, etc. Lastly, with an engaged diaphragm and stable core, our lumbar spine and SI joint are more adequately stabilized in different spinal positions, which means less injuries and less time away from the field!

For those with current chronic low back pain, a study published in the European Spine Journal compared proper breathing patterns in normal healthy adults and those with chronic low back pain during simple motor tasks.  The result was that a significant amount of those with chronic low back pain demonstrated a dysfunction chest breathing pattern.  Which means that changing the breathing pattern in chronic low back pain sufferers could result in less painful symptoms during regular activities.

Can I Strengthen My Core by Breathing Properly?

Yes, but it's not quite that easy.  As we now know, the diaphragm is only 1 component of the 'core'.  Strengthening the abdominals through neutral spine exercises such as the plank, side bridge, bird dog, squat, lunge, and even that frighteningly named deadlift!  Keep in mind some of these exercises can be challenging and are best learned during a personal training session with a fitness professional or a visit to a physiotherapist or chiropractor.

How Do We Learn How to Breath With Our Diaphragm?

The important thing to note is that changing a motor pattern used as habitually as breathing requires some patience.  One such exercise that is commonly used to begin diaphragmatic breathing is called 'crocodile breathing'.

  1. Start laying on your belly with your arms beside your body or on the ground overhead.
  2. Place a book/magazine on your low back.
  3. Begin breathing inhaling while at the same time elevating the book or magazine laying on your back.
  4. Perform for 2-3 minutes of crocodile breathing twice a day for 1 week.

The next step is to progress this same breathing pattern (belly moves outward during inhaling and collapses with exhalation) to laying on your back, sitting, standing, and finally while performing exercise.  Be sure to speak with your physiotherapist or chiropractor regarding the proper exercises to do while incorporating this breathing technique. Happy Breathing!






Kolar, Paval. "Postural Function of the Diaphragm in Persons With and Without Chronic Low Back Pain." Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy 42.4 (2012): 352-62. Print.

Kolar, P., J. Sulc, M. Kyncl, J. Sanda, J. Neuwirth, A. V. Bokarius, J. Kriz, and A. Kobesova. "Stabilizing Function of the Diaphragm: Dynamic MRI and Synchronized Spirometric Assessment." Journal of Applied Physiology 109.4 (2010): 1064-071. Print.

Roussel N et al. "Altered Breathing Patterns in Chronic Low Back Pain." European Spine Journal 16 (2009): 1066-020. Print.


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