The other day, at the beginning of my outdoor class, I asked my clients to assess their breathing and check if they are using the diaphragm when they breath or if they use the upper chest. I was actually very surprised that a big majority (7 out of 10) used the upper chest and that’s what made me write this blog.
I’m an upper chest breather, too, and actually, just recently, I’ve realised that I have been an upper chest breather for years, which could contribute to my pelvic floor dysfunction. As a teenager, I had a bad relationship with food, scales, and my body in general, and I was always making sure that I had a flat stomach. And that meant sucking my tummy in and not letting it lift as I breathe in (and not using my diaphragm). I always had issues with breathing when I ran. I got out of breath very quickly, and I didn’t really know what my issue was until very recently when my women’s health physio pointed it out to me. I found it really difficult to use my diaphragm while I breathe, and I’m still working on it. What didn’t help, either, was my military posture.
To check if you are upper chest breather, do this exercise: Put one hand on your chest and your other hand on your belly. Take a big breath in slowly (through your mouth or nose—it doesn’t really matter). Really fill up your lungs and note which hand rises first. Which hand moved first and most, the one on your chest or belly? Did your shoulders go up? If the hand on your chest lifted first with your shoulders, you are a chest breather and do not utilize your diaphragm effectively.
So why does breathing matter? It all starts with your core. Your core has four components: transverse abdominis muscles (TVA, your deep abdominal muscles), diaphragm (dome-shaped sheet of muscles that separates the chest from the abdomen), multifidus muscle (muscles of your lower back that give support to the spine), and your pelvic floor muscles. All these muscles are connected and are all working together, so essentially, all need to be in a good shape and working properly for your core to function well and do its job. Normally, when you exhale, your diaphragm should elevate and the abdominal wall, pelvic floor, and the lower back should tense in coordination with your diaphragm. In upper chest breathing, the neck tightens while the chest and shoulders lift up. The belly and abdominal muscles are disconnected, and your diaphragm is not being used.
So if your pelvic floor is meant to work in coordination with your diaphragm and your diaphragm is not moving properly, that means your pelvic floor won’t be working properly either! Bad breathing will increase pressure in your abdomen and will have a negative impact on rehabilitation of your pelvic floor and diastasis. On top of that, upper chest breathing isn’t very effective at providing oxygen for the body. That’s why it’s very important to re-establish/re-train your breathing patterns.
Chest breathing is the least efficient way to breath and can lead to feelings of tension, anxiety, and stress. Plus, as mentioned above, it can put pressure on your pelvic floor. Belly breathing, where your inhalation and exhalation begin and end in your belly, is a more efficient way of breathing. And the next step is diaphragm ribcage breathing. So I have a couple of exercises for you.
Because belly breathing is easier than diaphragm ribcage breathing, we will start with it first. You can do it in any position, but let’s start lying down, as it’s much easier to focus in this position. Place one hand (or even a half-empty water bottle on your belly). Now, take a deep breath in, allowing your belly to expand (you lifting your hand or the water bottle with your belly). Now, exhale slowly and lift your pelvic floor. Continue belly breathing for a few minutes with nice, big, deep breaths.
Now, let’s move to diaphragm ribcage breathing. While still lying down on your back, place your hands on your ribs just under your chest (you can also wrap a scarf around or an elastic band, like in the video below). Now, take a deep and slow breath in and inhale into your ribs by expanding your ribs in all directions. The diaphragm will draw your lower ribs up and apart, and you will feel your hands moving away as your ribs move. Now, exhale slowly and lift your pelvic floor. Continue breathing like that for another few minutes with nice, big, deep breaths. You can check out the below video, where I talk through diaphragm ribcage breathing.
How did you find it? Practice it, and eventually, it will become a habit.