Updated: Mar 25, 2021
Breathing is something we do everyday, thousands of times a day without thinking about it, but are you breathing correctly and using your diaphragm?
The diaphragm is the primary muscle involved in breathing. Using the diaphragm and breathing correctly provides good mechanical function of the spine and pelvis, as well as affecting the pelvic floor/core. It also has the ability to affect the perception of pain and our emotional state.
However, often the diaphragm is not recruited properly and therefore abnormal loads are placed on the neck muscles. This can contribute to problems like neck and shoulder pain or headaches.
What does the diaphragm actually look like inside the rib cage?
The diaphragm is a dome-shaped sheet of muscle, which joins into the lowest few ribs, internally dividing the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity below. When it contracts it pulls itself down towards the bottom of the ribcage, causing the lungs to expand and fill with air.
An easy way to breathe better using your diaphragm:
Place your hands on your lower ribs and take in some deep breaths, notice how you breathe normally
Then try and keep taking those deep breaths while focusing on mostly allowing the ribcage to move side-to-side as if you are widening the ribs into the side-seams of your shirt.
Try to reduce too much rise of the chest or the belly.
As you exhale, notice how the ribs return close to the centre again.
How does my breathing coordinate with the other core muscles?
Your diaphragm works as the top of the deep system of core muscles surrounding your abdomen, with the pelvic floor at the bottom, the multifidus muscle at the back near your spine, and the transversus abdominus, or deep abdominal layer on the sides. This set of muscles forms a cylinder deep inside your midsection (your "deep corset"), working to support and stabilise the area.
Ideally, pelvic floor muscles will mirror the actions of the diaphragm.
So, when you inhale and the diaphragm lowers, your pelvic floor should relax and drop, and as you exhale and the diaphragm lifts, the pelvic floor muscles should also tighten and lift.
Try taking five deep breaths in a row, practicing your coordination of diaphragm breath with the deep pelvic floor contraction and relaxation.
Now try also gently drawing in the lower abdomen with the exhales as well, making the sides of your deep corset or cylinder work together with the top and bottom. Try this fully coordinated breathing pattern five breaths in a row.
In summary, this form of deep, wide, relaxed breath ensures your abdominal stabilisers wake up, which can in turn help with back and neck problems, improves your core strength, and will help with pelvic floor function. It is also the way we breathe when we are most relaxed, and helps with our mental well-being and pain/emotional state.