Is the way you breathe adversely affecting your health?

 People generally breathe one of two ways:

  1. Chest
  2. Diaphragmatic

Chest Breathing

Chest breathing refers to breaths from the top lobes of the lungs that use the chest muscles to inflate the lungs by pulling on the rib cage.

In chest breathing, the chest expands and contracts with each breath while the abdomen does not.

These breaths tend to be short and quick, using only a small portion of the lungs and delivering a relatively minimal amount of oxygen to the bloodstream.

Chest breathing is often associated with hyperventilation and a sensation of feeling out of breath, as you attempt to take in oxygen quickly, despite the low air volume from each breath.

Diaphragm Breathing

Diaphragm Breathing, refers to breaths that use your entire lung capacity.

The diaphragm and abdominal muscles pull down on the abdominal cavity to fully inflate the lungs. The chest expands very little if at all while stomach breathing, whereas the abdominal area expands significantly.

Breaths taken while stomach breathing are slow and deep, taking longer to inhale and exhale and delivering a significantly larger amount of oxygen to the bloodstream.

The larger amount of air intake also allows you to exhale a larger amount of carbon dioxide, eliminating it from your body at a faster rate.

Respiration 101

The most important muscle of inspiration is the diaphragm, which is also considered the only skeletal muscle essential for life.

This thin dome shaped muscle inserts into the inferior ribs and is innervated by the phrenic nerves (C3-C5).

As the diaphragm contracts, the abdominal contents are forced downwards and ribs lifted outwards. This reduces intrapleural pressure and results in expansion of the lungs.

Expansion of the lungs reduces intrapulmonary pressure below atmospheric, thereby allowing for airflow into the lungs.

Essentially, the diaphragm enables one to take a greater breath in, thereby filling up more of the lungs and allowing for more systemic oxygenation.

During normal quiet breathing, the diaphragm performs most of the work for inspiration, however during exercise, accessory muscles provide assistance.

These include the: external intercostals, pectoralis minor, scalenes and SCM.

Collectively, these muscles assist the diaphragm in increasing the volume of the thorax to aid in respiration.

Can poor posture affect breathing?

Postural distortion patterns, such as the Upper Crossed Syndrome (forward head carriage, increased thoracic kyphosis and rounded shoulders) can have abhorrent effects on respiration.

The Upper Crossed Syndrome (UCS) characterized by overactive (short) pectoralis minor, scalenes, SCM, upper trapezius and suboccipitals, crossed with underactive (long) longus colli and posterior scapular stabilizers,  can result in inefficient breathing, i.e. chest vs diaphragmatic.

UCS can result in up to a 30% loss of vital capacity (The maximum amount of air a person can expel from the lungs after a maximum inhalation).

It is very common in individuals who sit for long hours at a computer desk or people who perform exercises on machines and in one plane of motion

Forward posture also results in a loss of cervical lordosis which can affect the action of surrounding muscles that operate to lift the first rib out of the way during inspiration.

By relying primarily on accessory muscles, one will ultimately deplete energy sources sooner, especially during physically demanding activity i.e. shallow breathing leads to ineffective perfusion of the tissues.

Over time, a chest breather’s poor posture will shift in order to accommodate altered breathing, further compromising  the already poor posture and leading to additional dysfunction.

Health consequence of chest breathing

Dysfunctional breathing can disrupt homeostasis y and lead to or exacerbate a variety of negative psychological, biochemical, neurological and biomechanical problems. Some of which include:

  • Respiratory Problems
  • Cardiovascular Problems
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)-
  • Pain
  • Headaches
  • Stress Incontinence
  • Anxiety
  • Asthma
  • Allergies
  • Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) and Fibromyalgia

Are you a chest or Diaphragm breather?

Put your right hand on your chest and your left hand on your abdomen. Inhale slowly and try to fill your lungs. Note which hand rises more. Did your right hand move first and most, with your left hand lagging behind and/or your shoulders elevate? If so, you are a chest breather and you’re not effectively utilizing your diaphragm.

Breathing exercise

  • Lie on your back with your hands on your belly
  • Take a deep breath and let your belly expand as you engage your diaphragm
  • Your chest and shoulders may rise and your ribs may expand, but this is  normal and expected as long as  your abdomen  moves first.
  • Slowly exhale while tightening your core and contracting your abdominal muscles
  • Continue to take deep diaphragmatic breaths for a couple minutes.
  • Inhale three seconds, exhale six to ten seconds. Big, deep, slow, relaxing breaths.

Aside from practicing diaphragmatic breathing, correcting the upper crossed syndrome is essential. This involves:

  1. Manual therapies and stretching  to release tight/overactive/short muscles
  2. Strengthening exercises to activate underactive/weak muscles


Better health is only a breath away…  (and a few corrective exercises)

About the Author

Dr. Geoff LecovinNaturopathic Physician/Chiropractor/Acupuncturist/Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist/Corrective Exercise Specialist/Performance Enhancement Specialist/Certified Sports Nutritionist/View all posts by Dr. Geoff Lecovin