The diaphragm is a large muscle that bisects our bodies at the base of the rib cage. When it is relaxed it forms a dome shape that arches up inside the ribs, and when it contracts it drops down, pulling air into the lungs. It is our primary breathing muscle, yet many of us struggle to improve diaphragmatic breathing. We can gradually reset this relationship by understanding diaphragmatic breathing and how it works, and by using seated exercises and self-massage to change the way that we breathe.
What is the Diaphragm Muscle?
The diaphragm is the top part of the soup can of core muscles that make up our mid-section and dictate the posture of our upper bodies. We often think of posture as a static position, but because we are always moving through our breathing patterns, our posture is always moving too. The way that we breathe has a profound effect on our posture and therefore on our flexibility too.
Because the diaphragm is on the inside of our body and most of the time it works without us paying attention to it, it’s easy to lose track of our relationship with diaphragmatic breathing. Just as breathing affects posture, so posture affects breathing and the way that we sit and stand influences our diaphragm. Especially if the rest of our core muscles are sleepy, the diaphragm gets neglected, and can become tight and over-active. Read more about that in my last post on how breathing affects posture and spinal flexibility.
What is Diaphragmatic Breathing?
Diaphragmatic breathing means that, as you breathe, the diaphragm is able to move through its full range of motion. As you inhale, the diaphragm drops into a deep, powerful contraction, pulling in air. As you exhale, the diaphragm relaxes, doming up into rib cage. This dynamic improves your ability to move air in and out of your lungs for deeper respiration, more relaxed posture, and potential mobility benefits.
This doesn’t mean that the diaphragm is working alone. In fact, for diaphragmatic breathing to go well, a number of other muscles have to participate.
Muscles that Support the Diaphragm
- The intercostal muscles lengthen on the inhale and contract on the exhale to allow the entire rib cage to expand and contract with the breath. This is one of the major improvements that happens when you improve diaphragmatic breathing
- The “meat corset” muscles (the transversus abdominus or TA and internal/external obliques) contract on the exhale to support the body and drive air out of the lungs. These muscles stay engaged and lengthen eccentrically as you inhale (see below about belly breathing)
- The pelvic floor works dynamically with the diaphragm to support the pelvis and keep the integrity of the mid-body throughout the breath cycle
- The hamstrings are also important to the breathing process. If the hamstrings are working to anchor the pelvis, the act of inhaling and lifting the rib cage can pull the pelvis into an anterior pelvic tilt, shortening the hips and putting pressure on the lower back
The muscles that would preferably NOT participate in diaphragmatic breathing, unless you are exercising, are the muscles of the upper back, neck, and shoulders. If you are experiencing tension in those areas, look to see if your back arches, shoulders rise, or if your neck visibly contracts as you inhale. If so, you may want to work to improve diaphragmatic breathing.
Diaphragmatic Breathing is NOT Belly Breathing
This point may be somewhat controversial according to many of the breathing tutorials you’ll find on the web, but belly breathing does not strengthen the diaphragm and does not benefit your posture.
While there will always be some movement in the abdomen when we breathe, pushing the belly out to inhale disrupts the vital postural function of the TA and obliques, which should have a constant inwards pressure, especially if you are doing anything dynamic like walking, running, dancing, or lifting something heavy. A dependence on belly breathing can compromise your ability to get those core muscles working optimally, without doing much for your diaphragm.
Instead of pushing the belly out on the inhale, the TA and obliques should resist the outward pressure, working eccentrically as the diaphragm drops. They are not squeezing as much as they would on the exhale, but they are still doing their postural job. The expansion to accommodate incoming air happens primarily in the rib cage, where the lungs are located.
Exercises to Strengthen the Diaphragm
It is very difficult to improve diaphragmatic breathing without first having some sense of your diaphragm muscle. The video below shows a self-massage technique to get your fingers into this hard-to-find muscle and give it a gentle massage, in part to release the muscle and in part to know what it feels like to engage it.
Then we will go through a series of seated exercises to improve diaphragmatic breathing that mobilize the spine and rib cage while limiting movement in the neck and shoulders. These exercises may feel challenging at first, especially if you are used to either neck breathing or pushing out your belly to inhale. It may feel very hard to breathe. But with time and practice you may find that your respiration will feel more powerful and relaxed.
This earlier video on breathing techniques for back and neck pain has even more tools for feeling that core muscle relationship and how it enables our diaphragm to move through its full range.
Pro Tip: The Best Way to Improve Diaphragmatic Breathing
Inhale through your nose.
Because your have to work a little harder to pull air in through your nostrils rather than your mouth, nasal breathing biases your most efficient inhale muscle: the diaphragm.
Nasal breathing has many well-documented benefits, especially while exercising. One of those benefits is that it makes it easier to feel and properly use your diaphragm. This is why folks with blocked nasal passages are prone to underutilization of the diaphragm. If this is you, hope is not lost. Even a small amount of nasal breathing every day can make a difference in your muscle engagement.
So to maximize the efficiency of your exercises to improve diaphragmatic breathing, inhale through your nose!