Vital Signs: How to Optimize Your Breathing Patterns

It’s no secret that the key to using our bodies properly lies in breathing air efficiently. Whether swimming long distances or pushing through a 12-hour shift on the job, working to optimize the way you breathe can give you more energy throughout the day and help you sleep easier at night.

Consider your living and working environments – how is your posture while sitting at a desk or computer? Are the natural curves in your spine supporting your torso, neck and head all stacked comfortably on top of one another, or are you hunching forward towards the screen, causing your ribcage and abdomen to cave in, making it hard to comfortably inhale a deep breath? A relaxed breath should come primarily from the movement of the diaphragm, the large, balloon-like oval-shaped muscle attached to the bottom of your ribcage that assists your lungs to full inflation when inhaling.

If you can only feel and see your chest rising to the level of mid-ribcage, this is an indicator of limited, shallow chest breathing. What’s not so great about this style of breathing is that it puts more strain on the smaller muscles above the ribcage that assist in stabilizing the collarbone and top of the ribcage, which over time can cause trigger points to activate in these muscles and cause headaches or neck and shoulder pain and spasm.


Ideally, you want your torso to be as strong and stable as an aluminum can (see diagram of Thoracopelvic Canister), and filling your lungs should resemble filling up a can with water: from the bottom up. When you inhale, focus on letting your abdomen be pushed downward and ribcage expand in a three-dimensional way.

How to test for proper breathing muscle activation, while sitting or standing:

  1. To feel if you are activating your abdomen and chest muscles effectively, begin by holding your palm to your belly between the navel and the pubic bone and press inward gently, testing for muscle resistance while inhaling 2-3 breathes. By giving some resistance with your hand, this should encourage the abdominal muscles to activate and allow expansion of the abdomen when beginning an inhalation.
  2. Then, move your hand to just below the xyphoid process of your sternum at the bottom of the center of your ribcage, and in 2-3 breathes palpate the activation of your diaphragm.
  3. The next stop to test is on your back at the level of the 12th/last rib, to either side of your spine just below the ribcage. If comfortable to reach behind your own back, place either thumb just under the bottom edge of the ribcage close to the spine and gently press. What you want to feel is the ribs slowly pressing open and outward in this area similar to the way the ribs in front expand, indicating that you are breathing three-dimensionally and allowing the lungs to fully inflate. If you do not feel any movement, this may indicate a forward-flaring ribcage or highly tensed lower back muscles locking the ribcage from behind.
  4. The last stop is to place one or both palms just under the collarbones and feel the chest rise gently at the end of 2-3 cycles of inhalation. This spot should be the last to move during one intake of breath, and should rise gently after the abdomen and ribcage has expanded.

While breathing in and out, keep the muscles in your chest and neck as relaxed as possible because using these muscles will increase tension and waste energy. Also, try to make your exhalations twice as long as inhalation. To do this try counting silently – Inhale 1, 2, 3; Exhale 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

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