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:

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  1. Haha, I was a belly breather. Practiced belly breathing, read it in David Deida’s book ‘Way of the Superior Man’. This article helped clarify things even more. Thanks for sharing, Mark. I focus on my breathing on various random times a day as it is one of our bodies biggest needs, plus practice conscious breathing in meditation frequently.

    Edje Noh wrote on April 24th, 2011
  2. Good article. I too learned this years ago, when I began training in a kung fu class….so much emphasis is placed upon breathing this way to maximize your chi via oxygen intake and increased blood flow. An exercise we were taught was a 16-second breath. 4 seconds to inhale, hold for 4, exhale 4, hold for 4, that’s one rep. Do that for a minute or two, and that light-headed feeling you get afterwards comes from getting increased oxygen from breathing correctly, but also teaches your body to utilize every bit of oxygen you bring in with each breath.

    Peter H wrote on May 12th, 2011
  3. I learned about breathing with your diaphram from Mr. Pete Egoscue’s books. Everyone needs to read his books, they raise the awareness of yourself physically.

    Gavin wrote on May 31st, 2011
  4. (Not medical advice, just a personal relection!) My Internet literature search on drug-free asthma methods has now led me to the Powerbreathe device, which may be considered as a means of intensifying nose breathing. It is obviously scientifically indicated for asthma, more so in fact than the many crudely effective and merely symptomatic and non-curative asthma drugs presently officially part of the identity of westerners.

    With Powerbreathe and the many other similar gadgets inspiration is choked by breathing in through an adjustable aperture. The manufacturers speak of a training of the inspiratory muscles or “specific inspiratory muscle training” abbreviated as SIMT.

    However what obviously must occur to an asthma-minded person is that we here have a remedial exercise for correcting mouth breathing, which is a well known cause of asthma, the details of the causative mechanism not being relevant here.

    The manufacturers also show that not only nose breathing but also diaphragmatic breathing is trained.

    The devices simply divert all input breath via the nose and this is much simpler than learning pranayama, which incidentally does not measure anything on a scale like said devices.

    However, to put it in a nutshell, the purchase of a device is at least provisionally not required, because sucking air past/over a finger held between the lips but otherwise sticking to the devices’ instructions works just as well or better. In fact, the resistance to the inhale can be varied and the effect intensified toward the end so that diaphragmatic breathing is emphasized. RF

    Richard Friedel wrote on June 20th, 2011
  5. I am a serial chest breather. I have hunched shoulders suck in my belly, gasp and puff all the time. I have been a keen jogger for years but now can’t put one foot in front of the other. I know the problem but can’t seam to retrain myself. There is nothing medically wrong and I don’t think I am stressed just got bad habits from 2 frozen shoulders and from trying to keep my belly in!

    Caroline chapman wrote on April 14th, 2012
  6. Mark,
    I appreciate all your excellent health information, especially this superb article on “belly breathing”! As an internal martial artist studying tai chi, qigong, and bagua, I learned that “sinking into the lower dantian” is the best way to breathe. Thank you for your inspiration!

    Steve Solomon wrote on April 22nd, 2012
  7. This reminded me of the time I saw my eye doctor for dry eyes and she told me I needed to learn how to blink properly…

    Kristina wrote on April 22nd, 2012
  8. Breathe through your nose, not your mouth as well.,

    Nikhil wrote on April 23rd, 2012
  9. I don’t seem to be able to do it right. Only rarely I manage to get in lots of air which is relaxing but most of the time I end up having pain in my chest from the effort. What am I doing wrong?

    Chris wrote on May 16th, 2012
  10. 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
  11. 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
  12. 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
  13. 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
  14. 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
  15. 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

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