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. Great article.
    Pretty sure my chest-breathing has occasionally compounded minor anxieties and also prevented me from being able to fall asleep in any reasonable amount of time…

    Less sleep and less oxygen than I should have been getting, no wonder my focus has felt lacking… I feel better already.

    bob wrote on July 19th, 2012
  2. The stressed out ‘sigh’ is very interesting. Our own body has to ‘parent’ us and override are unconscious abuse.

    I have been reading a lot on correct breathing lately. I must admit I am a chest breather and also a mouth breather to add! The mouth breathing should be fixed soon thanks to nasal surgery I am due, but the chest breathing is going to have to start with me constantly reminding myself to breath with the diaphragm.

    Its especially important to me as I practise a Martial Art called ‘Brazilian Jiu Jitsu’ which is kind of like wrestling and Judo combined. It is one of the most physically demanding sports I have ever experienced and its vital to stay relaxed so you get the most out of the gas tank you have, when in some pretty cramped conditions. Correct breathing I hope should help me a lot here. Its quite common to find yourself hunched and crunched into some uncomfortable positions (knee on belly), so being able to remember to breath properly often goes out of the window.

    I have also been using a foam roller for practise outside of fighting. I use it against my back, where the first reaction is to clamp down on the breath or breath lightly and constricted, instead I try to focus on belly breathing.

    Thanks for some great writing, Luke

    Luke wrote on September 17th, 2012
  3. For a while now I’ve been sensing that something wasn’t “alright” with my posture or my breathing, but I couldn’t figure out exactly what the problem was.

    Today, I sat up and tried breathing while looking in the mirror and I became alarmingly lightheaded within a matter of minutes. Thanks for making this article, I think there are a lot of people who would benefit from explanations and breathing exercises like these

    Francisco Mendoza wrote on October 11th, 2012
  4. I just landed here after googling “proper breathing”, but I’ve been lurking here for several months now and enjoy the blog posts and comments.

    I’ve just had my 54 y.o. mind blown by something totally unexpected: a Russian breathing technique, which if it correct, means everything we’ve ever been told about breathing is wrong.

    In a nutshell, they say “The deeper the breathing, the less the amount of oxygen delivered to the tissues” !!!

    I’m not trying to cause trouble but that site is loaded with references, specific conditions improved by “correct breathing”, charts and graphs, YouTube videos, MD testimonials from several countries, detailed how-to’s, etc. There’s no hocus-pocus, just facts, supposedly tested and confirmed by plenty of level-headed people.

    The story has everything, a insightful medical doctor persecuted for his message, conspiracies, mysterious deaths, millions using the techniques. How do we not know about this?

    I’m not saying it’s right, but what if it is? Anyone else willing to check it out and weigh in here?

    Greg wrote on October 22nd, 2012
    • hmm… a little more reading around the web and I’m questioning some of the claims. Also I didn’t notice the high priced book with the “complete protocol”. Oh well, it’s always interesting to question dogma in the search for truth, even if the answer is “not completely true”.

      Greg wrote on October 22nd, 2012
  5. WOOOOW!!!! I was having problems getting a full breath. I went on google and stumbled upon this page and started laughing hysterically that everybody in my house thought I was crazy. It worked immediately and I could feel the difference like night and day. It just felt so surreal that I was suffering for weeks and not knowing what to do about it and it just went away for after the first few tries. I love Mark!!!!! My first time ever posting but I thought it would be great to write my very first post on Marksdailyapple.

    Alex Fernandez wrote on December 3rd, 2012
  6. Nice post, I really liked how you used children’s breathing to observe because majority of the time they are breathing right! Breathing right reaps many benefits.

    Captain Perl wrote on December 4th, 2012
  7. I’ve been sitting at desks for years.. thinking i was breathing correctly by lifting my chest.

    I suffer IBS and lower back pain, not uncommon i’m sure.

    its really hard to shake the holding breath and shallow chest breathing.. going to stick with it and see how it helps. feel calmer after doing the exercise to start with.

    Desk Jocky wrote on March 1st, 2013
  8. I am a terrible insomniac, and I have recently been using self hypnosis recordings to go to sleep. It works great, but one of the things they have you do to relax, of course, is to do some deep breathing. They keep saying things like “Be aware of your chest moving up as you breathe in.” Well, I have to say, I got a little worried because my chest was not moving, but my belly was going up and down like crazy, so I thought something was wrong with my lungs. I am so glad I found and read this. I’m a belly breather. I feel so much better now.

    Faye Gentry Combs wrote on April 8th, 2013
  9. I will be fairly certain We’ve see this same form of statement somewhere else, it needs to be gathering popularity with the people.

    self worth wrote on April 8th, 2013
  10. I have been suffering with terrible back since my early 20’s and I am not almost 30. I don’t know what started my chest breathing in the first place, but I sure can tell you from just a few minutes a correct breathing, most of my pain disappears. I attribute a lot of my chest breathing to the narcotic pain meds and muscle relaxants I have taken in order to relieve some of the pain. Narcotics and other meds that affect the central nervous system will affect your respiratory system as well. I constantly felt starved for air just standing! I was always changing positions every few minutes because I could not get comfortable. Over the years I developed muscle imbalances due to improper breathing. Funny thing is, when I thought about things I could do to change my situation, I observed an infant; how the infant moved and breathed and slept. I guess I would call it going back to the basics.

    Shelby wrote on May 24th, 2013
  11. I’ve just bought a book called “Relief from snoring and sleep apnoea” by Tess Graham (Australian) and she mentions fluctuating blood sugar levels stimulating the breathing via stress hormones via imbalanced co2/oxygen. I never linked this feeling to the carbs…till now. Tess recommends more fat and protein in the diet, and is generally very Primal friendly. I’d love to see an update to this article going into the very motivating details in this book. She links stress hormones to food and breathing and subsequent problems very well. She also details the best breathing practice, and it is nose/belly, but also as gentle as you can given the activity level. I now know that even when I nose/belly breathe I can still over breathe, and that I can achieve a better co2/oxygen balance, which is very calming, and my theory is it may explain why meditation is so effective.

    Julie wrote on May 29th, 2013
  12. After years and years of horrible breathing, I’ve just recently found out (ON MY OWN) how to breathe. Nowhere online does it say HOW exactly to breathe deep. I was manually using ab muscles to breathe in and out, pushing and pulling. Incorrect. All you have to do is simply tighten your ab muscles and not use them in any particular way. Just tighten, then imagine air going in and out of your lungs. This is it. Might help someone. Take care.

    rm wrote on July 14th, 2013
  13. loved this article. I had always known I wasn’t breathing right, specially because I run out of air easily when i walk, run, or even talk. Thanks for the tips!

    maria wrote on July 19th, 2013
  14. I am having a throat hurting problem since 3 years now, ent are able to treat the symptoms but they don’t know why my throat hurts. the pain increases as I talk more, if i keep quite pain decreases gradually. lets hope this breathing helps me out. anyone having similar problem?

    amit wrote on January 21st, 2014
  15. I… I’ve always done this. I didn’t know I was breathing ‘properly’ to me I’ve always just been breathing :P It’s not even like I’m super fit it ever had a need to learn deep breathing exercises, I guess I’m just a… naturally good breather? Okay that sounds weird.

    Andy wrote on February 15th, 2014
  16. I have had trouble breathing for a while and when I breathe shallowly I get a few pains shot in the left side of my chest when I move or breathe it goes when I breathe deeply. Is this a bad sign?

    Catt wrote on April 29th, 2014
  17. I did the opposite (left hand on chest and right hand on belly)
    The moving hand was the right on stomach.
    when I was little, teachers always taught me that when you breath your chest move and your shoulders go up, but mine never moved. Back then I found that thing weird. Until recently I was unaware about that. My parents are both belly breathers, and when I was 5 I liked to lay down and seeing my belly rise while breathing, just like my parents.

    Nordlys wrote on August 4th, 2014
  18. Download Breath Pacer free for controlled breathing! I use it on my iPhone and iPad!

    D33pThoughts wrote on August 7th, 2014
  19. Thank you for this article. I was in marching band and a singer so I knew how to breathe correctly, but years of working at a desk gave me bad habits. I got a foam roller and started working my back and naturally just realized I had been breathing terribly. I looked it up and you are spot on. Now I feel like I can really improve my athletic performance.

    Marie wrote on October 28th, 2014
  20. This works so well for me. I have to say. I suffered from suvvier pneumonia and that destroyed my breathing patern completely. I felt faint a lot and i just dont feel alive anymore because of it. I sound like i keep hiperventilating as i breathe and that causes me headaches and much more, such as numbness in my limbs,both lower and upper jaws and tongue. It is quite scary as stress is a big part of it. I have visited this website today and it already helps. Thanks so much

    marche wrote on December 12th, 2014
  21. How long would this take to become second nature if I practice everyday? I suffer from anxiety, which I think is mainly because I always chest breathe to the point my chest hurts most of the time.

    Emma wrote on January 8th, 2015
  22. Awesome quote…

    really breathing is a struggle…
    very effective method mentioned…


    Vineet Nair wrote on January 11th, 2015

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