What Is Diaphragmatic Breathing? + 2 Diaphragmatic Breathing Exercises

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Whether you are trying to quell a bout of anxiety or improve exercise performance, you may have come across the recommendation to try diaphragmatic breathing exercises.

But, what is diaphragmatic breathing, and how do you do it? What are the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing exercises?

In this article, we will discuss what diaphragmatic breathing is, its benefits, and how to do diaphragmatic breathing exercises.

We will cover the following: 

  • What Is Diaphragmatic Breathing?
  • Will Deep Breathing Exercises Improve Breathing?
  • Benefits of Diaphragmatic Breathing
  • How to Do Diaphragmatic Breathing

Let’s dive in! 

A person doing diaphragmatic breathing.

What Is Diaphragmatic Breathing?

Diaphragmatic breathing is a specific breathing technique that falls under the umbrella of breathwork exercises. It is intended to help you learn how to properly and effectively engage the diaphragm while breathing.

The diaphragm is a large, flat, dome-shaped muscle located at the base of the lungs at the top of the abdominal cavity.

It is an instrumental breathing muscle and is often considered the upper bounds of the core muscles as well.

Diaphragmatic breathing is often called deep belly breathing, abdominal breathing, or deep diaphragmatic breathing because the goal is to breathe not just by expanding your lungs but by filling your entire belly with air by stretching the diaphragm to allow for maximal lung expansion.

A person holding their chest.

Will Deep Breathing Exercises Improve Breathing?

As mentioned, the diaphragm sits at the bottom of the lungs. When you take shallow chest breaths, the diaphragm only stretches somewhat, pressing down into the abdominal cavity to allow for the lungs to expand with inhaled air.

Diaphragmatic breathing challenges your brain, diaphragm, and lungs to fully engage the diaphragm, maximizing the strength and range of motion of the contraction.

When the diaphragm contracts during conscious efforts, such as with diaphragmatic breathing, the muscle stretches much further down into the abdominal cavity, allowing the lungs to fill up completely with inspired air.

This not only improves lung capacity but also improves the strength and neuromuscular connections with the diaphragm muscle itself.

This, in turn, enhances the ability to rely on a greater tidal volume (volume of air coming into the lungs with each breath) during everyday life and exercise outside of your deliberate diaphragmatic breathing practice.

A person sitting and holding their chest.

Benefits of Diaphragmatic Breathing

Let’s take a look at the diaphragmatic breathing benefits:

#1: May Improve Aerobic Exercise Capacity 

The diaphragm and intercostal muscles, which are the small muscles in between your ribs, help control breathing. 

At rest and during low-intensity exercise, such as easy walking or gentle cycling, inhalation requires the diaphragm and intercostal muscles to contract to help the lungs take in air by expanding the rib cage.

However, at rest, exhalation is mostly passive and does not really require muscular exertion.

As exercise intensity increases and you inhale and exhale more forcefully and more deeply, the muscular workload for these breathing muscles increases. 

Even exhalation, which is normally relatively passive and requires little muscular work, begins to require energy and contractions from your breathing muscles.

In other words, breathing harder during running or high-intensity exercise is more work for the body and can be tiring in and of itself (without even factoring in the demanding nature of the exercise on your skeletal muscles and heart).

A person breathing deep.

As your cardiovascular fitness improves, your lungs, diaphragm, and breathing muscles will become stronger and more accustomed to breathing deeply and rapidly.

Additionally, according to the Cleveland Clinic, diaphragmatic breathing training can also increase the amount of oxygen in your blood and enhance the removal of carbon dioxide, which is a metabolic waste product that we eliminate from the body during exhalation.

Again, these particular benefits can improve exercise performance because greater oxygenation will allow your muscles to have access to more oxygen at higher levels of intensity.  

This would allow you to continue exercising aerobically without crossing over your anaerobic threshold, after which significant fatigue and metabolic byproducts accumulate.

To this end, studies show that the relative concentration of carbon dioxide in your bloodstream is a large determiner of your breathing rate. 

If you can help expel carbon dioxide more efficiently by improving diaphragm strength and breathing mechanics via specific exercises, you can theoretically breathe more slowly and comfortably at higher levels of physical exertion.

A person doing diaphragmatic breathing.

#2: May Improve Breathing Efficiency 

Diaphragmatic breathing exercises are another way to improve the efficiency of the diaphragm for breathing.

Diaphragmatic breathing trains your mind-body connection to properly use your diaphragm to help take in as much oxygen as possible with efficiency.

Much like weightlifting in the gym increases the strength of your muscles, diaphragmatic breathing exercises increase the strength of the diaphragm muscle. 

This allows for stronger, more forceful contractions, improved muscular endurance, and better breathing efficiency and economy.

Therefore, consistent training with deep diaphragmatic breathing exercises can potentially reduce the effort and energy required for breathing, especially during high-intensity exercise.

A person doing diaphragmatic breathing.

#3: May Reduce Blood Pressure and Stress

Aside from improving exercise performance and cardiovascular functioning, there are other benefits of deep diaphragmatic breathing exercises.

For example, diaphragmatic breathing benefits also include reducing blood pressure, decreasing heart rate, decreasing breathing rate at rest and during exercise due to increased strength and efficiency of the diaphragm, decreasing stress, and inducing relaxation.

Given the benefits of deep breathing and diaphragmatic breathing exercises, consistently practicing belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing may help reduce symptoms associated with anxiety, asthma, COPD, stress, and poor cardiovascular exercise tolerance.

How to Do Diaphragmatic Breathing

So, how do you do diaphragmatic breathing?

There are a couple of different diaphragmatic breathing exercises or positions, but the best beginner diaphragmatic breathing technique is to lie on your back.

A person doing diaphragmatic breathing.

Supine Diaphragmatic Breathing

Here are the steps for how to do diaphragmatic breathing for beginners:

  1. Lie on your back on your bed, couch, rug, or exercise mat. The surface should be flat but comfortable. Place your feet flat and your knees bent as if you were going to do abdominal crunches. You can place a pillow or rolled-up towel under your knees if it is more comfortable and you need support.
  2. Lay one of your hands on your upper chest under your collar bones and the other hand just below your rib cage where your belly begins.
  3. Slowly breathe in through your nose, trying to fill your belly with air such that the hand that is on the belly is moving up towards the ceiling. You want to try to keep the hand on your chest as still as possible so that the air is not really coming through and filling your chest but really being pulled deep into your body to fill your belly.
  4. Pause and hold once your belly is filled with air for 2 to 3 seconds or longer if you can.
  5. Slowly begin to exhale but do so in a deliberate way such that you are tightening your stomach muscles as if sucking in your stomach towards your spine and exhaling the air through pursed lips. The hand on your belly should begin to drop inward towards your spine. Again, the hand on your chest should remain as still as possible because the air should be escaping from your belly, not your chest.
  6. Start with just 60 seconds. After 60 seconds, take a break and breathe normally for a minute or two and then try again.
  7. Perform three sets. Gradually build up to 5 to 10 minutes at a time, several times daily. 
A person doing diaphragmatic breathing.

Seated Diaphragmatic Breathing

This is a more advanced diaphragmatic breathing exercise. Here are the steps:

  1. Sit comfortably with your knees bent and feet on the floor. Keep your upper body relaxed while maintaining good posture. 
  2. Lay one of your hands on your upper chest under your collar bones and the other hand just below your rib cage where your belly begins.
  3. Inhale slowly through your nose, trying to fill your belly with air such that the hand that is on your belly is being pressed outwards. Again, you want to try to keep the hand on your chest as still as possible and just bring the air you breathe in deep into your belly.
  4. Purse your lips as you exhale through your mouth, tightening your stomach to slowly expel the air in your belly. Keep your hand on your chest still.
  5. Build up to 5-10 minutes at once. 

You can perform these breathing exercises as many times as you want to during the day when you want to relax, calm your body and mind, and train your breathing muscles. 

To learn more about decreasing stress and anxiety, check out our guide to decreasing cortisol levels here.

A person raising her arms and smiling.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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