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Learn to Breathe Again - The Right Way!

By Hannah Alderfer, BA, CPT, FMSC, Pre/Postnatal Performance Training Specialist

“To breathe fully is to live fully, to manifest the full range of power of our inborn potential for vitality in everything that we sense, feel, think, and do.”

When was the last time you thought about the way you breathe...especially during exercise? When you are working out, maybe your only thought is that “I NEED more oxygen ASAP!” But did you know that most adults have trained their bodies to breathe improperly? Watch a resting infant “belly breathe,” utilizing the diaphragm to inhale and exhale. Their bellies rise and fall with each breath. They are deep and slow breaths. They take full advantage of their lungs by using the diaphragm to draw in the most amount of oxygen possible. Most adults, however, breathe using their chest, expanding the rib cage, and using more energy, smaller muscles, and taking quicker, shallower breaths. This type of breathing can lead to a variety of issues, including poor core stability, chronic neck and shoulder pain, and possibly running related injuries (for those who run). The diaphragm has two roles in the body: breathing and core stabilization. It works in unison with other core muscles (the transverse abdominis and the pelvic floor muscles) to produce the stabilization the spine needs to move properly through intra-abdominal pressure. But when a person becomes a neck/chest breather (not a belly breather) other muscles must be recruited. This is called backwards breathing. Muscles in the neck (scalenes) shorten, the head is pushed forward craning the neck, the upper back begins to round, and the scapula begin to wing to the sides. It becomes the classic elderly person hunch, which results in a variety of postural problems and eventually pain points. It can result in possible injury during exercise because your body chooses to breathe from the chest (and not the diaphragm) leaving the core unstable. You might end up with chronic neck pain, shoulder tightness, or low back ache. So how do you know whether you are a belly breather or a chest breather and how do you learn to breathe right again?

  1. Check your natural posture. Do you tend to push your head forward? Is your upper back rounded? Do you hunch your shoulders? If so, you might be breathing improperly.

  2. *Place your hands around your lower rib cage. Inhale through your nose, sending the air into your rib cage so that your rib cage expands 360° and pushes into your hands in all directions (front, sides, and back). Your shoulders should remain relaxed and down.

  3. Exhale fully through pursed lips (extending for as long as you can so that no air is left in your lungs), feeling your navel draw toward your spine as a result of the exhale. It should feel as if you are tightening a girdle around you.

  4. Make sure the expansion is not just in the belly. Intentionally pushing the belly outward when inhaling can increase intra-abdominal pressure. Your belly will naturally expand as you inhale, without you having to think about it. Focus more on the lateral and posterior expansion (sides and back) and your belly will naturally expand with it.

  5. Maximize the exhale – breathing out as long as you can to get all the air out. This increases TVA activation on the exhale and increases diaphragm activation on the inhale (since this allows a deeper inhale).

Sometimes a good visual helps better understand proper breathing. Check out these videos from PROnatal Fitness: *Breathing Instructions from PROnatal Fitness

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