Take a Deep Breath

This is a request I often make of patients. Most people don’t breathe correctly. Correct breathing is a learned behavior. You can learn it too.

What I see:

When I ask the patient to take a deep breath, they are lying on their back. I observe their abdomen and their chest. In proper breathing, the abdomen raises alone for about the first 50% of the breath. Then, gradually, the chest starts to expand with the abdomen to complete the breath.

Many people do not use their abdomen and diaphragm at all. Some start with the chest muscles and gradually recruit the diaphragm. There are all sorts of patterns.

How it should be:

In total, 70% of the breathing is done with the diaphragm – the muscle under the lungs, and the rest (30%) is done with the expansion of the chest.

How it works:

The diaphragm is a dome shaped muscle positioned under the lungs, connected to the lower ribs. When it is relaxed, it is shaped like a dome and the lungs are mostly empty. When the diaphragm is contracted, it becomes flattened, allowing the lungs to expand downward and the abdomen expands outward.

The chest expansion is done with the many muscles attached to the ribs including some neck muscles.

Why we do it wrong:

Many of us have learned, for various reasons, that expanding the abdomen is not desired. So we do all our breathing with the chest muscles.

Why you should care:

Improper breathing can lead to many problems:

Underuse of the diaphragm can lead to:

  • Lung problems – all kinds. I’ve never seen an asthma patient that initially breathed properly.
  • Weaken the diaphragm, leading to hiatal hernias (digestive disorders) and hiccup problems.
  • Reduced lymph flow (abdominal breathing is the main mover of lymph in the body) –
    thus reduced immune system. Can affect virtually all disease processes in the body.
  • Stagnating internal organs – each breath, if done right, massages your internal organs – keeps them happy.

Overuse of the chest muscles can lead to:

  • Over tight scalenes (neck muscles in the front) which can cause you to stick your head forward leading to poor posture, neck tension, headaches, etc.
  • Tight pectoralis muscles (front chest muscles) which can cause stooped shoulders and arm numbness (often miss-diagnosed as carpal tunnel syndrome).
  • General rib aches in the front or back of the thorax.

How to practice proper breathing:

  • Lie down.
  • Place one hand on the center of your chest and one on your abdomen (over your navel).
  • Practice breathing in, contracting your diaphragm and pushing out your stomach with the diaphragm (don’t use your stomach muscles).
  • The hand on your chest is to remind you not to use your chest muscles – your chest
    should not rise.
  • When you exhale, relax your diaphragm, expel the breath and let your abdomen fall.
  • Be gentle with yourself. If you haven’t done this properly in a while, it will be difficult and won’t feel right.
  • Retraining may take up to a year until it feels right and normal.


Good luck! It is well worth doing and can lead you one step closer to whole health.