How to Activate Your Diaphragm to Improve Breathing
The diaphragm is a huge, dome-shaped muscle at the bottom of the rib cage. Although it is used 24/7, it goes largely unnoticed (unless you get hiccoughs). When the diaphragm contracts, in conjunction with the intercostal muscles, it lowers the pressure in the thoracic cavity. This enables air to enter the lungs. When breathing out, the diaphragm relaxes along with the intercostal muscles, allowing air to leave. Air may be forced out faster by increasing abdominal pressure using the transverse abdominis muscle.
The diaphragm also has an important role in stabilizing the core. It forms the top of the core ‘box,’ working with the internal and external obliques, quadratus lumborum, pelvic floor, and transverse abdominis. The diaphragm has multiple origins from the inner surfaces of the seventh through twelfth ribs, medial parts of the L1 to L3 vertebral bodies, the anterior longitudinal ligament, posterior surface of the xiphoid process, and the arcuate ligament, connecting to the aorta, psoas, and QL to insert in the central tendon.
To put it simply, a strong box needs a secure lid and hence the importance of the diaphragm in core stabilization.
In spite of the diaphragm’s importance in respiratory effectiveness and stabilization of the core, I would estimate that in my experience approximately half of the adult population does not recruit this muscle properly at the beginning.
When we breathe, this dome-shaped muscle contracts allowing a reduced pressure in the upper body so that air may enter the lungs and provides tension across the top of the abdominal area. As we breathe in, we should see the stomach rise slightly as the dome contracts and compresses the abdominal space. As we breathe out, both the chest and the stomach fall. If you look at young children, this is what you usually see.
I often see exactly the opposite in adults. Their chest rises as the intercostal muscles contract. Yet, the stomach is drawn in by activation of the tranverse abdominis muscle and the diaphragm is not engaged. Whilst this might present a more pleasing profile in a mirror, it reduces the volume of oxygen available by only partially expanding the lungs. This also results in weaker core stabilization.
Over time, breathing in this way will cause the diaphragm to weaken through poor recruitment and performance will suffer. And when I say performance, I mean this both from a respiratory and functional perspective.