The diaphragm lines the bottom of the ribcage/thoracic cavity, separating it from the abdominal cavity. It has attachments to the lower 6 ribs, xiphoid process (end of sternum) and the upper 3 lumbar vertebrae. It also has connections to the psoas muscle and the quadratus lumborum.
This thin muscle does a lot of work!
- It is the most important and efficient muscle for the inspiration portion of breathing, allowing for about 70-80% of the work in a 3 dimensional movement (inferior/superior, anterior/posterior, medial/lateral).
- It is the roof of the “core,” allowing for stability in the lumbar spine when it contracts with the other “core” muscles such as the transverse abdominus and pelvic floor muscles.
- Lastly, when this muscle moves properly it helps to massage our internal organs and keep them moving properly (they need mobility too!)
Dysfunction means either not activating, lack of strength or lack of mobility around the muscle. This can be caused by a variety of things including asthma, stress/anxiety, smoking, lung disease, low back pain, pregnancy……the list goes on. The main thing here is to know that even if you’re injury free in this area, you may have a dysfunctional diaphragm from not taking deep breathes during your day because you’re stressed. Or you’ve just become used to using your neck muscles instead. Once I started paying attention to my breathing I noticed that I tend to hold my breathe a lot during the day, so it’s something I’ve been working on. Once you have a dysfunctional diaphragm, it causes you to go into a problematic cycle of increasing your initial issues. Those with back problems can’t activate their diaphragm properly, which in turn decreases the stability in the lumbar spine and increases the compression on that area. Bad cycle.
Going into more depth about the mobility around the diaphragm, imagine that you have a diaphragm that’s not working properly. So if you aren’t good at taking deep breathes, you still have to breathe somewhere. This usually means you use your neck and upper shoulders to breathe. Using your neck causes those muscles to overwork leading to other issues like headaches and stiff necks. Or limited shoulder mobility. I can’t tell you how many athletes I see exhausted in a workout and breathing so hard with their neck and shoulders that it looks like they’re trying to lift imaginary weights with those muscles! Not the goal of the workout and a complete waste of energy.
How to improve your diaphragm function (and improve your movement)
Nobody wants dysfunction, but it’s out there. So let’s get you started with some fixes that you can do on your own.
Step 1: assess your breathing pattern. Try this standing, sitting and lying down. Put your hands on your abdomen, ribcage and chest and try to see where you breathe during a normal breath. Then try a few deep breathes (as if you were WODing). Just take note of where you breathe. Then……can you breathe into the side of your ribcage? Can you breathe into the front and back of your upper back? Can you breathe into your belly? Without getting into your neck?
Step 2: work on your mobility in areas that may be stiff from not breathing correctly. Instead of listing all the areas, I’m sending you to watch these quick videos by Jill Miller and Dr. Kelly Starrett DPT. They cover all the basic areas to work on to give your diaphragm a good environment to work in. Watch all 3. It will improve your life. Just do it.
Step 3: retrain your diaphragm to work well. Start lying on your back, put your hands on the area that you can’t breathe into, and practice breathing into your hand. Then try breathing with your midline active (butt and belly tight with lower ribs pulled down). Visualization really helps too, so try closing your eyes. Make sure your neck and shoulders are relaxed. Lastly, assess how you breathe during you workouts. Hard to do at first because you have a lot of things going on, but check-in with your body and notice if you are trying to lift the weight of the world with your neck/shoulders. Then STOP IT. And get back at your workout.
1. Neumann, Donald A. Kinesiology of the Musculoskeletal System. 2002
2. Hazama, Dean. Lecture notes from “Visceral Functional Mobilization.” Institute of Physical Art. 2013
3. Dutton, Mark. Orthopedic Examination, Evaluation and Intervention. 2008.