Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
20 Apr

How to Breathe Correctly

Unless the afterlife has wifi, I can presume that you’re alive and reasonably well if you’re reading this post, so I’m going to assume you’ve been successfully breathing for some time. You get enough oxygen into your blood to support your physiological requirements and power your limbs, organs, and muscles. You know how to inhale, and exhaling is a breeze. You even know how to breathe through your nostrils like a champ. In other words, you can breathe well enough to live. What could you possibly be missing?

There’s a pretty good chance you aren’t breathing correctly. At rest, when sleeping, while running – you can probably breathe different and breathe better. Okay, you’re willing to accept that, as a whole, we’ve missed the mark on a host of supposedly mundane activities – eating, exercising, sitting, sleeping, standing, washing, heck, even pooping – but breathing? You’ve gone too far this time, Sisson. You’re firmly in the deep end. I breathe just fine.

Hear me out, and before you read any further, I’m going to have you take a deeeeep breath, so I can show you what you’re doing wrong. Don’t skip ahead; no cheating.

Put your right hand on your chest and your left hand on your abdomen. Take a big breath by inhaling through your nose or your mouth (whichever is most natural for you), slowly. Really fill your lungs, and note which hand rises more. Did your right hand move first and most, with your left hand lagging behind – if it moved at all? Did your shoulders go up? Did your traps rise like you were shrugging a couple dumbbells? Congratulations, you are a chest breather.

Now, procure an infant, preferably one with an exposed, protruding belly. Gender matters not. Got one? Great. Lay your infant on its back and watch how the kid breathes. Does his chest rise and rib cage expand? Maybe a little, but the bulk of the action is happening in the belly button region, right? That kid is “belly breathing.” In other words, he is using his diaphragm, a sheet of muscle located between the thoracic and abdominal cavities that (if you do it right) draws oxygen into the lungs upon activation. When it contracts, it moves down into the abdominal cavity, pushing the belly out, increasing the capacity of the lungs while lowering the air pressure, thus spurring the influx of oxygen. The external intercostals, muscles located between the ribs (flex your core with a finger on your ribs and you’ll feel the intercostals fill the gaps), also assist with respiration, but the diaphragm is the prime mover.

If your right hand rose first and most prominently in the previous exercise, you did not effectively utilize your diaphragm. Like the office worker with inactive glutes from too much sitting, you have an inactive diaphragm. Your synergist muscles – the helper muscles that assist the prime mover – are forced to take over. Without the diaphragm contracting and opening up the lower half of the lungs, less space is available for incoming air. Not only that, but according to some, the lower half of the lungs is also by far the most efficient at delivering oxygen; the bottom 13% of the lungs brings in 60 mL O2 per minute, while the top 7% only brings in 4 mL per minute. Chest breathing to the exclusion of diaphragmatic breathing (and that bottom 13%), then, is highly inefficient because it squanders added capacity and more effective tissue.

To really accentuate the inefficiency and help you understand how exclusively chest breathing limits your oxygen, let’s try a couple quick exercises. Stand tall and shrug your shoulders up toward your ears. Hold that position and take a deep breath. Or, rather, try to take a deep breath. You can’t do it. You can take in some air, but not a lot, and what you can take in sounds labored. There’s a big whooshing sound that just doesn’t feel right. It feels… weak.

Next, hunch over at the thoracic spine. Imagine you’re typing away at the computer (shouldn’t be too hard, seeing as how you’re probably reading this post on a computer) and let your chest cave in, your shoulder blades spread out, and your head droop forward. In other words, give yourself the type of terrible posture that millions of us sport each day. Hold that position and try to take a deep breath. It’s belabored, right?

Finally, suck in your gut. Flex those abs and flatten that belly. Inhale, and note how thin and ineffectual your breathing sounds and feels. Your diaphragm is pinned against your contracted abdominal muscles. It can’t go anywhere. It can’t do anything, and your breathing suffers for it.

These seemingly exaggerated scenarios actually are not. Realize that a good portion of people go about their day with tight traps, shrugged shoulders, rounded backs, and caved-in chests, constantly sucking in their stomachs as they try to breathe. You see them every day. You work with them. You might even do it yourself without realizing. It’s anything but rare. It’s normal! Alan Watts writes of this “normal” breathing as “fitful and anxious,” with residual air “always being held and not fully released.” Folks hold onto their air and simply pile more on top with the next breath, rather than breathe completely in and completely out each time. They get new air mixed in with the old stuff, enough to function but not enough to thrive. You’ll notice that the only time they truly expel everything from the lungs is when some stressful event elicits a massively audible sigh. That sigh clears everything out and brings a fresh supply of air back in, thus giving a boost of oxygen to the blood and helping us deal with the stress. In other words, most of us can’t even figure out how to breathe deeply in and out on our own to promote relaxation. We rely on our subconscious to do it for us.

I say, why wait for our subconscious to kick in? Why not practice proper breathing at all times and reap the benefits without having to wait till stress accumulates and does it for us? Why not do some diaphragmatic, or belly breathing?

You can do this lying down or standing up. To start with, I prefer lying down because it lets you really relax and focus on the movement of the diaphragm. Place your hands on your belly, or even lay a book with reasonable heft on your belly (this will give you something to brace against). Now, take a deep breath and let your belly expand as your diaphragm asserts itself. Your chest and shoulders may rise and your ribs may expand, but this is totally normal and expected as long as the belly moves first. Next, slowly exhale while tightening your core and contracting your abs. As the abdominal muscles contract, they’ll push the diaphragm back up. This will reduce the volume of the thoracic cavity, increase the air pressure, and expel the air contained therein. Continue to take deep diaphragmatic breaths for a couple minutes. Inhale three seconds, exhale six to ten seconds. Big, deep, slow, relaxing breaths.

Do you feel the difference? The relaxation? You might even fall asleep if you’re not careful. While there appear to be objective benefits to making this your default setting, like increased oxygen supply (great for general living and athletic performance), and I’ve already gone over how deep breathing can enhance a healthy lifestyle, the real allure of breathing with your diaphragm is simply using your respiratory as it was meant to be used. The benefits we get from breathing this way – like a reduction in hypertension – stem from eliminating the short, rapid, vapid breaths of chest breathing. We’re not getting “more” or “extra” oxygen; we’re just getting the amount of oxygen that our body “expects.” Nay, that it deserves.

How did belly breathing work for you? Were you a chest breather, or are you way ahead of the curve to begin with? Practice it enough, and eventually it’ll become second nature. Let me know your thoughts in the comment section!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I’m a belly breather!!! I think thats one of the few natural things my body has done right off the bat.

    Aaron (Grok Mendoza) wrote on April 20th, 2011
  2. I see and hear so much contrasting information about breathing and I’m still on the fence about which way is better. Recently I started a yoga class and they said that as your lungs are beneath your rib cage it should be your rib cage expanding when you breath in and not your belly, now here there is contrasting info.

    Personally I feel that so long as you have good posture then there is no better way to breath. Try blowing up a balloon with nothing hindering it, the whole balloon expands not just a bit of it. I’m imagining that your lungs are exactly the same therefore fresh air will fill the entire lung not just the top or bottom.

    Steve wrote on April 21st, 2011
  3. Well, actually from what I’ve read recently “deep breathing” actually seems to be kind of conventional wisdom…
    If you Google “healthy breathing”, “optimal breathing” and things like that you will notice that many of scientific methods actually show that breathing deep doesn’t necessarily mean getting more oxygen in your blood and in fact the opposite be true. It’s especially emphasized in widely successful Buteiko method for example.

    Yes, belly breathing, yes, slow breathing. But deep breathing is at least debatable from what I’ve learned.
    I am by no means an expert but would love to learn more details about this topic.

    BTW, some systems of yoga teach almost the opposite. In Ashtanga yoga for example you should contract your abs and breathe deeply but in your chest.

    So, it seems to be more complicated…

    Maxim wrote on April 21st, 2011
  4. This is what i’ve always thought of as how to breath, thanks to tai chi. It’s interesting to note that Esther Gokhale seems to promote a very different style of breathing in her book?

    BCR wrote on April 21st, 2011
  5. Mark, it’s real important for everyone to know that it’s the exhalation part of breathing that drives the cycle. You don’t breathe so much to bring oxygen in (we inhale 21% O2 and exhale 16%) as to blow CO2 off. The CO2 produced by cellular respiration builds up in the blood, causes a pH shift to the acidic side. The respiratory center monitors for the shift and triggers a breath cycle to get rid of the CO2 and raise the pH back to a more suitable level.

    A normal breath is about 1/3 inhalation and 2/3 exhalation. When practicing deep breathing, it’s critical to mimic this proportion. Too rapid breaths blow off too much CO2 and raise the pH. That light-headed, tingly, I-think-I-may-pass-out feeling is the effects of the pH shift . You CAN pass out, and if you do you’ll stop breathing until the CO2 builds up, your pH drops, and your respiratory center kicks off the drive again. You won’t die, (your respiratory center is pretty darn reliable), but you’ll scare the heck out of yourself unnecessarily.

    So when deep breathing, whether back (my preference) or belly, count 2 in, pause, count 6 or more out, RELAX, and enjoy.

    Nannsi wrote on April 21st, 2011
  6. As a horn player and vocalist, I learned belly breathing before I could drive. It was interesting to note that I still belly breathe 30 years later. I’m only an occassional singer now, but the breathing style has stayed with me. I also have noticed over the years that generaly take fewer respirations per minute than most people around me. Curious, no?

    Jenn wrote on April 21st, 2011
  7. I’m sorry, but the idea of “belly breathing” is a joke. You actually waste time and energy trying to expand your belly. Considering this is what I do for a living, I’m going to say that back expansion works a lot better than “belly breathing.” A simple way to test this (at least what I do with kids) is what I call the pin wheel vs drawing a smiley face on glass test. Hold your hand up in front of your face and blow as if you were blowing a little pinwheel….it’s cold air that comes out and is coming from the upper portion of your lungs. Now blow on your hand as if you want to draw a smiley face on a pane of glass. It’s warm. Do it again and feel how low and back the breath feels. The key to getting a good breath is to think low (a lot of people in the operatic world even think down to their hips) and to think of pushing something from your back (a good way to check this is to try to push yourself away from the floor while on your back).

    It’s possible for me to rant on and on about this, but I’ll save everyone the torture. I will, however, agree with the face that a good exhale is important to a great inhale. And I can verify that nasal breaths/yoga fire breaths are easy ways to feel the low expansion.

    (You can also do exercises with a pvc pipe and a bread bag…if you’re looking to optimize lung expansion.)

    Cindy Hanna wrote on April 21st, 2011
  8. I learned this trick during a yoga class many many years ago in college. I also am an active singer, so it has helped a lot. My wife’s breathes at twice my rate.

    I can vouch for how effective it is during high intensity exercise.

    Damien Gray wrote on April 21st, 2011
  9. I am a singer/voice teacher/choir director, and it is AMAZING how many people are completely thrown off by trying to do abdominal breathing for the first time. It just goes to show how conditioned we really are to chest breathing, and how difficult it is to correct back to our natural deep breaths.

    Griffin wrote on April 21st, 2011
  10. Belly breather all the way…thanks to yoga!

    Andrea wrote on April 21st, 2011
  11. Great post and reminder that there are always things to think about and work on!

    I am a chest breather, I have always known that my breathing is too shallow and when I am anxious I hold my breath without knowing it…. until I have to sigh to suck in oxygen again. My best friend is always telling me to remember to breathe.

    Mary wrote on April 21st, 2011
  12. what is the proper way to breathe when exercising? I have trouble when doing crunches, I forget to breathe, well hold my breath…

    Keli wrote on April 21st, 2011
  13. As an opera singer there is SO much time spent on breathe tecnique. Even though I started studying at a young age there was still so much negative learned behavior to combat. The “baby example” is a great way to prove to people how unnatural most adults’ breathing habits are – breathe deeply and enjoy the benefits!

    Emily wrote on April 21st, 2011
    • Sorry, Emily, but the baby example is NOT a good way to prove correct breathing. Babies breathe that way because their diaphragm is well developed by then and but their chest muscle development lags behind.

      Henry Troyer wrote on October 20th, 2013
  14. Excellent (and timely) post, Mark.

    I’ve been stumbling over this whole “stomach-breathing” thing a lot lately, and that’s definitely justified.

    Since I began experimenting with different kinds of meditation to calm myself down and enhance my ability to focus, I’ve come to enjoy the benefits of improved breathing (that sounds stupid, but it’s true). So this is true gem!

    Dominik M. wrote on April 21st, 2011
  15. I’ve been playing trumpet since 1969 and so have been doing this forever. The deep breathing is also good to do just before going to sleep to help you relax and sleep well. And when you first wake up to get you going.

    Hatha Yoga

    Tony Pearsall wrote on April 21st, 2011
  16. I have read about belly breathing before and I believed that to be gospel until I got confused a couple of weeks ago when I borrowed Esther Gokhale’s 8 Steps to a Pain Free Back from the library. In some chapters, she suggests the reverse – that correct posture will result in breathing through the chest. Considering she is revered here in Grokland, did I misinterpret the book, or am I missing something here?

    Sachin Deshpande wrote on April 21st, 2011
  17. I knew i wasnt breathing correctly.This article is very informative.. I will benefit by this..Thank you so much!

    asif wrote on April 21st, 2011
  18. I am a belly breather, and I think i have to give props to my choir teacher for that. I thought it was weird how much my belly moved during breathing.

    Crystal L. wrote on April 21st, 2011
  19. I was yarning a lot too. Does that mean I haven’t been breathing right? I could have gone to sleep. I’ll do this tonite before falling asleep.

    Sunny T wrote on April 21st, 2011
  20. Hey Mark,

    You should give it a try this device called “Resperate”. I have bought a used one on ebay. It counts your respirations per minute and plays nice music in headphones. I’m in no way related with the manufacturer or anything, but it totally helped me get in the “zone” and be very careful about my respiration.

    I guess this could be one of the perks of living in the modern age

    Mike Paleovillage wrote on April 21st, 2011
  21. It would seem I belly breathe automatically, it’s funny as I find a few deep breaths gets rid of hiccups pretty quick so I guess those breaths get my diaphram back under control and that’s what stops them, never thought about that

    Caroline wrote on April 21st, 2011
  22. I was once told in Biology Class that men lean toward rib cage breathing and women more toward belly breathing.

    Donnersberg wrote on April 21st, 2011
  23. I sing too. If you live in Australia, check out “Sing Australia”, and join up. It’s all about singing & fun. No experience necessary. If your standard answer is: “I can’t sing”, then this group is for you!

    Isabella wrote on April 21st, 2011
  24. Great article. It’s amazing how important breathing is and how much we don’t pay attention.

    Dale wrote on April 21st, 2011
  25. Never knew about the nitrous oxide very interesting, as an osteopath I have been teaching patients to belly breath for years now with the reply from patients of why do I need to learn how to breath glad others have the same experience.

    Andy wrote on April 21st, 2011
  26. I was discussing breathing with a friend a few days ago. We new there was importance in the way you breathe, but were not really sure about technique.

    And WA LA! You post on the topic.

    Paleo Josh wrote on April 21st, 2011
  27. It would be interesting to get Esther Gokhale’s input on this, as she has promoted chest breathing on this blog: “…the upper part of the chest (the sternum) that is lifted – the result of a natural breathing pattern that puts a healthy stress on the ribcage with every inhalation” (April 6th, 2011, and at her site:

    Paleo Phil wrote on April 22nd, 2011
    • I would be interested to see her input on this as well, since I believe her daughter did a presentation at PrimalCon, and there has been an article on MDA here about her posture techniques, so I’m guessing Mark is familiar with her techniques. From what I’ve read by her, chest breathing is the best way to breathe,(unless you are singing/running etc need a really deep breath) as it spares your lower organs from being compressed and “massages” and stretches the ribcage and spine. I would definetly be interested in hearing more on this topic! =)

      Ika wrote on April 24th, 2011
  28. Chest breathing is, of course, not healthy or relaxing. But belly breath can be just as unbalanced. As a yoga teacher, I work with my students to develop complete breath – first into the top of the lungs and then, as the diaphragm contracts and the belly expands, into the lower part of the lungs. There are dozens of yoga techniques to make the breath longer and smoother. The purpose of these is not only to provide more oxygen and energy to the body, but also to make the mind calmer and more focused. All good stuff!

    Adam wrote on April 22nd, 2011
  29. You can’t compare a baby laying on his back to yourself in a standing position. The belly expands while laying down because the ribs are restricted and not able to expand. Look, when your diaphragm is fully engaged it doesn’t “drop” below the bottom of your sternum. It actually only moves a few inches. The outward expansion of the rib cage is where you get the most air. Remember : your lugs nor your diaphragm drop below your sternum.

    Rob wrote on April 22nd, 2011
  30. I know you are not a big fan of Yoga..but the breathing techniques of the Prana practice are very helpful in breathing correctly and controlling your breath as well. Becoming a breathing machine is important to the asana practice. Your article comes very close to this.

    rik wrote on April 22nd, 2011
  31. Not sure why there are posts that are negative about chest breathing. I am a rebirther and in rebirthing we breathe fully into the chest through what is called conscious breathing. Not only have I felt physically better, I am also more balanced emotionally and mentally as a result! My clients have reported the same results, with all the tangible positive life changes too. At the same time I do believe that ALL conscious breathing is good, and there is no ONE way.

    faizah wrote on April 23rd, 2011

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

© 2016 Mark's Daily Apple

Subscribe to the Newsletter and Get a Free Copy
of Mark Sisson's Fitness eBook and more!