How to keep your Diaphragm fit

This morning I went mountain biking. A great way to get in a better shape. But does it train my breathing muscles and in particular my diaphragm. It does, but only partly. When practicing sports your nervous system sends the energy to the periphery of your body, where it also needs oxygen to burn that energy. You start breathing faster. However, usually high up in your chest. That does not train your diaphragm to its maximum. On top of that, during the day we may also not use our diaphragm optimally due to stress and our busy lives.

So, have you ever considered that your main breathing muscle may need some extra training? And Covid-19 may even be another motivation to train your diaphragm a bit more. 9 months in the Covid-19 pandemic, I know several people suffering a long recovery after Covid-19. They mainly suffer from shortness of breath and fatigue. Recent research* has shown that the diaphragm can be damaged by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The diaphragm is known as a muscle that recovers very slowly when injured.

Muscles of Respiration

Your diaphragm is your main breathing muscle, but not the only one. Part of your respiratory system are also the muscles in your rib cage and between the ribs. And the muscles in your abdominal region and at the height of your clavicle and neck. However, since the article shows how Covid-19 can damage your diaphragm and there is so much to do about breathing these days, I like to focus on the diaphragm.

The diaphragm is the horizontal muscle that separates your abdominal cavity from your chest where your lungs and heart live. It is attached to the abdominal wall, spine, lower ribs, sternum and pericardium. It contracts and goes down when you inhale and relaxes and goes up when you exhale. It’s probably the most unappreciated muscle in your body.

What influences the fitness of your diaphragm

Besides SARS-CoV-2, there are also other factors that influence the fitness of our diaphragm. It can be influenced by stress, wrong posture, sitting behind your computer a lot or a chronic wrong breathing pattern. Your diaphragm can stiffen or stick together with other tissue. This prevents it from a full and free movement. This can cause a shallow, fast and high breathing pattern. Leading to feelings of stress and restlessness.

How to train your diaphragm

You wouldn’t only train your diaphragm for the sake of this one muscle. When trained, your breathing will consume less energy like with every muscle. Which is great news for athletes.

The question is how to train your diaphragm. It’s actually very simple. Below you find some simple, but effective, touch and breathing exercises.

At the bottom of this blog, you also find a video where I show the exercises.

1. Massage your diaphragm

It is possible to self-massage your diaphragm at the front. You have access to the deep myofascial tissue. Although on the picture I am standing up. You better lie down on your back, bend your knees and put your feet flat on the floor. Relax your abdominal muscles. Place your fingertips under your ribs, like you holding your lower ribs in your hands. You do not need to use much pressure, for many people this is a very sensitive area. Breathe slowly when you are massaging yourself. In case you encounter pain points, stay there for a little while and softly breathe in this place. Don’t try to eliminate the pain, that will be hard in only one session. Breathe, notice, relax and accept. Take it easy, massaging this area can cause pain or feeling of anxiety.

2. Breath with resistance

I will explain two ways how you can put resistance on your breathing and stimulate your diaphragm to be engaged in your breathing.

a) Lay down on your belly on the floor and try to breathe into your belly. Use the resistance you experience to train your diaphragm.
A mattress or something soft won’t work, since you will sink into the material. 

b) Blow up a balloon
Hold your balloon ready. Lay down on your back, bend your legs and put your heels on a chair. Your legs are bend approximately 90 degrees. Lift your hips 5 cm of the ground. Hold the balloon in one hand and put the other arm next to your torso. Blow up the balloon in a few breaths. Empty it and repeat 2 or 3 times.

3. Stretches

In this exercise you combine stretches with breathing that engages your diaphragm. The exercise will help you to sustain your breath and use full lung capacity.

Step 1: stand with your feet together, heals and toes touch. Interlace your fingers and place your hands under your chin, while keeping your elbows together. Your thumbs touch your throat.

201219 Diaphragm stretch step 2 klein

Step 2: Inhale in 6 counts, while lifting your elbows sideways and lower your chin into your knuckles.

201219 Diaphragm stretch step 3a klein

Step 3: On your 6-count exhale you push your elbows together higher than your shoulders, drop your head back and your hands together under your chin.

201219 Diaphragm stretch 3b klein

Repeat this breathing 10x, take a small break and repeat another 10x.


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