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Deconstructing the Diaphragmatic Breath

Breathing is an under-appreciated aspect of our playing, posture, and daily lives. On average, humans take approximately 20,000+ breaths a day. Given that our body is constantly adapting and breathing quality and capacity has an impact on the shape of our bodies, one can see that this action could have influences and implications on our posture.

In my opinion, breathing can be classified movement - it has a full range of motion (aka the inhale and exhale)! Like any movement, you want to be able to access a full range of motion or compensation may occur. As the body adapts to daily life, performances, and other factors of being a musician, the body and breath start to adapt.

If you start to lose full expansion of your inhale then tension, tightness, and other movement adaptations will eventually follow. This can compromise your ability to align your rib cage, take a relaxed breath, connect to your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and recovery switch), and also affect shoulder health. It will also negatively impact your practice, performance and life.

As a musician injury coach, addressing breathing mechanics has been the biggest difference maker in helping people improve their posture (alignment) and quality of movement. Many people who come to me with back pain or shoulder pain, for example, are surprised on how quickly things improve when their breathing mechanics and patterns are working FOR them and not against them.

So without further ado - let's dive in!

What is a diaphragmatic breath?

To simplify, a diaphragmatic breath is an inhale that expands in the thorax and abdomen in all directions at the same time (thank you Bill Hartman for this definition - The ribcage will have a pump handle movement and a bucket handle movement. Essentially, your ribcage will expand laterally (left and right) and out and up.

Why is the diaphragmatic breath important?

  • It can influence posture, therefore influencing movement quality

  • It influences motor learning and programming

  • It can bias the body in a “fight or flight” state, compromising your ability to down-regulate in a high-stress performance situation.

How so?

To answer this question we have to look at the nervous system’s role in breathing. The nervous system is comprised of two major subdivisions:

The central nervous system (CNS): this system is made up by the brain and spinal cord. One of the roles of the CNS is to control our involuntary function to breathe. Although we have some control over our breath, this happens automatically.

Peripheral nervous system (PNS) : a system made up of axons (also called nerves) that carry messages back and forth between the CNS and the muscles, organs, and senses of the body.

If we take a further look at the peripheral nervous system, we can divide it into two categories:

Autonomic nervous system: system responsible for control of bodily functions that are outside of voluntary control such as breathing, heartbeat, and digestive processes.

Somatic nervous system: system associated with voluntary control of body movements via the use of skeletal muscles.

We can then divide the autonomic nervous system (ANS) into two more categories:

Parasympathetic nervous system: known for the “rest, recovery, and digestion” role. The basic goal of this system is to conserve energy to be used for later while regulating bodily functions such as digestion and urination.

Sympathetic nervous system: also known as “fight or flight” mode. This system is responsible for the involuntary response to dangerous or stressful situations. If we reflect on human existence, this is was a necessary evolution for the survival of our species. It would protect a hunter if they accidentally stumbled upon a nest of lions or if they took a wrong step and almost fell off a cliff.

Here is a picture that sums up the autonomic nervous system

To summarize for visual learners:

How does this information relate to breathing and movement?

Even though the central nervous system is in control of involuntary breathing, breathing capacity will depend on what state the autonomic nervous system is in. For example, when we are in a parasympathetic state (rest and recovery), our body is in restful-like state. This allows us to release relax, digest, and repair with slow and deep breathing.. When our body enters a sympathetic state, a “threat” is sensed by the brain, adrenaline surges through the body, and involuntary breathing becomes shallow and short.

Therefore, if you are in a compromised position where you lack significant ribcage expansion, your system could potentially adapt to a chronic sympathetic nervous system response. There are 3 major implications I want to acknowledge based on this information:

  1. In this state, the mind will be more likely to view certain movements as threats, sending a pain-like signals to your body in an attempt to “protect” itself from the threat.

  2. In this state, you are more likely to experience a higher level of anxiety and stress, as your system is in a constant parasympathetic state. This can negatively impact sleep, focus, energy, and recovery.

  3. In this state, you could lose the ability to down regulate (shift from parasympathetic state to a sympathetic state) in a high-stress performance situation. That means your ability to manage performance anxiety has a direct implication to your posture and breath.

Signs of breathing quality

There are a few signs to poor breathing quality:

  • Anterior pelvic tilt

  • Shallow, high-chest breaths lacking diaphragmatic movement.

  • Rounded shoulders (also known as upper crossed syndrome)

  • A flat thoracic spine restricting posterior ribcage expansion

  • Chronic belly breathing

  • Chronic tension in the neck due to poor diaphragmatic function, placing the accessory inhalation musculature under increased stress. This causes the neck to move forward over time.

  • Potentially chronic anxiety from being a constant sympathetic state. (Paulus, 2013)

What can I do to work on my breathing capacity?

Here is a short video series on an exercise that can help you build your diaphragmatic breath.

A few guidelines:

  • This can take anywhere from 3-10 minutes depending on how much time you want to spend, but if you have never done an exercise like this before, I invite you to commit to 5 minutes a day for a week. Making change in your body takes time and this will help give your body time to adapt.

  • Slowly breathe through the nose.

  • Exhale slow as you are fogging up a mirror. We want to have a relaxed exhale. If you feel yourself working, extend the exhale.

  • If you feel tension on the inhale you can slow down your inhale. If you have adapted to short chest breaths this is going to feel different.

  • Remember the definition of a diaphragmatic breath - full expansion in the chest and abdomen at the same time in all directions!

1️⃣Lay on the ground with your feet elevated (takes compression off of lower back).

2️⃣Place your hand on your stomach and take 4-8 breaths focusing on expanding that area. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Aim for at least a 4-4 tempo. Slow is key.

3️⃣Place your hand behind your lower back and take 4-8 breaths focusing on expanding that area. Again, through the nose, sighing through the mouth like you are fogging up a mirror.

4️⃣Place another hand on the side of your rib cage and take 4-8 breaths focusing on expanding your rib cage left and right (laterally) and forward.

5️⃣Place your hand on the top of your chest and take 4-8 breaths focusing on expanding this area.

6️⃣Lastly, you can spot check the areas that felt uncomfortable or didn’t have as much expansion you would like. It’s a great idea to combine different areas and try to expand them at the same time (in the above video).


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