Take a deep breath through your nose, then exhale. Did your chest and shoulders rise and fall? If they did, you may not be breathing in the best way for your body.
It seems strange: can we really breathe incorrectly? As it turns out, breathing with the chest and shoulders is common, and has many repercussions for the body.
Why is it bad to breathe with the chest and shoulders?
First, we need to understand how the body gets air in and out of the lungs. The lungs sit inside the ribcage and are shaped like a pyramid, with the base near the bottom rib and the top of the pyramid near the collarbone.
In order to inhale, our body needs to make the space around the lungs bigger. This creates a vacuum and sucks air from outside into the lungs via the nose or mouth. There are two main ways to accomplish this.
Using the muscles of the chest and shoulders
One way of creating the space is to lift the upper ribs using the muscle of the chest and shoulders. If you saw your chest and shoulders rise when you took a deep breath, this is the method you were using. It’s hard work for the muscles, and it draws air into the top of the lungs. This region, also called the apex, is the smallest part of the lung. As a result, it’s the least efficient place for the necessary gas exchange to take place.
Apical breathing (breathing into the apex) should only used by our body when oxygen demand is high, and we need to use every part of the lung. If we breathe like this at rest, the muscles of the chest and shoulders can become overworked, which may result in shoulder, neck, upper back, and abdominal dysfunction. We also get less oxygen, which can result in increased levels of fatigue, stress, and metabolic dysfunction.
What’s the right way to breathe?
The most efficient way to breathe is to use the diaphragm, a large muscle that sits at the bottom of the ribcage. It’s shaped like a dome, and becomes flat as it contracts. This creates space and draws air into the bottom of the lungs. It also pushes the abdominal organs downward, making the belly rise and fall with each breath.
If your belly rose when you took your deep breath, congratulations! You were using your diaphragm.
Diaphragmatic breathing has many benefits. It draws air into the largest part of the lungs, which improves the efficiency of gas exchange. This means we get more oxygen and blow off more carbon dioxide, reducing levels of fatigue and stress hormones.
It also plays a role in core stability. When the diaphragm is engaged, the muscles that control the spine and pelvis are more active. This can help with issues like back pain, incontinence, and underdevelopment in the glutes and core.
Where do we go wrong?
We were all babies once, lying on our back with our bellies rising and falling. Somewhere along the line, many of us lost the connection with our diaphragm. How does this happen?
Basically, we tense up. For the diaphragm to work effectively, the bottom ribs need to be able to expand as air is drawn into the lungs. If we’re hunched over, or tight through the abdomen and thoracic spine, the ribs can’t move and the diaphragm doesn’t work effectively.
Tension in the chest and shoulders can also contribute. For many of use, these muscles are already tense from our daily activities. Because they are already active, our body automatically uses them to breathe, unless we consciously engage the diaphragm.
How to change your breathing pattern
Relaxing the shoulders and engaging the diaphragm can be difficult at first, but it’s worth the effort. The Phyx app contains a range of stretches designed to unload the chest and shoulders, and video tutorials which will guide you through the process of engaging the diaphragm and unlocking the ribcage.
Once you’ve engaged the diaphragm, you are well n the way to improving control around the spine and pelvis. After these fundamental steps, building muscle strength and flexibility anywhere int he body is much easier. Use the momentum, and let Phyx help you achieve results with whichever body parts you want to improve.
Relying on the muscles of the chest and shoulders to breathe while at rest can lead to physical and metabolic dysfunction. Using the diaphragm by making the belly rise and fall with each breath is more efficient and can have widespread benefits. Stretching the trunk and shoulders coupled with conscious activation of the diaphragm can help to establish this as a regular breathing pattern.
Challenge: Activate the diaphragm
Place one hand on your belly button and one hand on your chest. Take a breath through your nose. Use the breath to lift the bottom hand, with no movement in the top hand.
Were you able to do it? How many tries did it take? Let us know in the comments!