Diaphragmatic breathing is a breathing exercise that helps strengthen your diaphragm, an important muscle that enables you to breathe. This breathing exercise is also sometimes called belly breathing or abdominal breathing.

Diaphragmatic breathing has many benefits that affect your entire body. It’s the basis for almost all meditation or relaxation techniques, which can lower your stress levels, reduce your blood pressure, and regulate other critical bodily processes.

Let’s learn more about how diaphragmatic breathing benefits you, how to get started, and what the research says about it.

The most basic type of diaphragmatic breathing is done by inhaling through your nose and breathing out through your mouth.

Diaphragm breathing basics

Here’s the basic procedure for diaphragmatic breathing. It may be easiest to practice while lying on the floor when you first start.

  1. Sit or lie down on a comfortable, flat surface.
  2. Relax your shoulders, shifting them downward away from the ears.
  3. Put a hand on your chest and a hand on your stomach.
  4. Without straining or pushing, breathe in through your nose until you can’t take in anymore air.
  5. Feel the air moving through your nostrils into your abdomen, expanding your stomach and sides of the waist. Your chest remains relatively still.
  6. Purse your lips as if sipping through a straw. Exhale slowly through the lips for 4 seconds and feel the stomach gently contracting.
  7. Repeat these steps several times for best results.

Rib-stretch breathing

The rib stretch is another helpful deep breathing exercise to help you expand your breath into your rib cage. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Stand or sit upright.
  2. Cross your arms over your chest and place your palms on either side of your rib cage.
  3. Without straining or pushing, breathe in through your nose until you can’t take in anymore air.
  4. Feel your ribs expand into your hands as you do so.
  5. Hold your breath for 5 to 10 seconds.
  6. Breathe out slowly through your mouth. You can do this normally or with pursed lips.

Numbered breathing

Numbered breathing is a good exercise for gaining control over your breathing patterns. Here’s how you can do it:

  1. Sit or stand upright and close your eyes.
  2. Without straining or pushing, breathe in through your nose until you can’t take in anymore air.
  3. Exhale until all air has been emptied from your lungs.
  4. Keeping your eyes closed, fully inhale again.
  5. Keep the air in your lungs for a few seconds, then let it all out.
  6. Count that as breath one.
  7. Inhale fully again.
  8. Hold for a few seconds, then let it all out.
  9. Count that as breath two.
  10. Repeat a full inhale, hold, and then exhale.
  11. Count that as breath three.
  12. Repeat these steps until you’ve reached 10.

Feel free to count higher if you feel comfortable. For an additional mindfulness component, you can start over again from one, noticing if you accidentally count beyond 10.

Lower-back breathing

Lower-back breathing or kidney breathing can help you train yourself to breathe spherically rather than simply out and in.

  1. Place your palms on your lower back with your thumbs touching the top of your hip bones. Your hands will be roughly parallel with your kidneys.
  2. Inhale slowly through the nose, focusing on “sending” the breath into the hands at the lower back.
  3. You can very slightly contract the belly to emphasize the movement in the lower back.
  4. You may feel an almost indetectable movement in the lower back, or you may feel no movement at all.
  5. Exhale slowly through the nose or mouth, allowing the belly and sides of the waist to naturally contract.
  6. Inhale again and focus on expanding the lower back into the hands.
  7. Exhale and release the breath completely.
  8. Repeat the process for ten cycles.

Note: You can’t actually breathe into the back or belly. You can only breathe into the lungs. This exercise involves using the expansion of the lungs within the body to help stimulate sensation and movement in the lower back.

Try it

See lower-back breathing video instructions on Healthline’s Instagram.

Box breathing

Box breathing is also known as square breathing. This is because each of the four steps involves breathing or holding the breath for 4 seconds, creating a 4×4 effect.

  1. Sit or stand upright.
  2. Slowly exhale through your mouth, getting all the oxygen out of your lungs.
  3. Inhale as you count slowly to four in your head, filling the lungs completely without strain.
  4. Hold the breath while counting slowly to four.
  5. Exhale and release the breath slowly to the count of four.
  6. Hold the breath out for the count of four.
  7. Repeat the cycle five to ten times.

4-7-8 breathing

The 4-7-8 breathing practice is based on an ancient yogic technique called pranayama. It was developed by Dr. Andrew Weil.

  1. Let your lips part slightly. Make a whooshing sound, exhaling completely through your mouth.
  2. Close your lips and inhale silently through your nose as you count to four in your head, filling the lungs completely without strain.
  3. Hold your breath for 7 seconds.
  4. Make another whooshing exhale from your mouth for 8 seconds.
  5. Repeat for five to 10 rounds.

Diaphragmatic breathing has a ton of benefits. It’s at the center of the practice of meditation, which is known to help manage the symptoms of conditions as wide-ranging as irritable bowel syndrome, depression and anxiety, and sleeplessness.

Here are more benefits this type of breathing can have:

  • It helps you relax, lowering the harmful effects of the stress hormone cortisol on your body.
  • It lowers your heart rate.
  • It helps lower your blood pressure.
  • It helps you cope with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • It improves your core muscle stability.
  • It improves your body’s ability to tolerate intense exercise.
  • It lowers your chances of injuring or wearing out your muscles.
  • It slows your rate of breathing so that it expends less energy.

One of the biggest benefits of diaphragmatic breathing is reducing stress.

Being stressed keeps your immune system from working at full capacity. This can make you more susceptible to numerous conditions.

Over time, long-term or chronic stress — even from seemingly minor inconveniences like traffic — can lead to anxiety or depression. Some deep breathing exercises can help you reduce the effects of stress.

Diaphragmatic breathing is often recommended for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). COPD causes the diaphragm to be less effective, so doing breathing exercises that benefit the diaphragm specifically can help strengthen the diaphragm and improve your breathing.

With healthy lungs, your diaphragm does most of the work when you inhale to bring fresh air in and exhale to get carbon dioxide and other gases out of your lungs.

With COPD and similar respiratory conditions, like asthma, your lungs lose some of their elasticity or stretchiness, so they don’t go back to their original state when you exhale. Losing lung elasticity can cause air to build up in the lungs, so there’s not as much space for the diaphragm to contract for you to breathe in oxygen.

As a result, your body uses neck, back, and chest muscles to help you breathe. This means that you can’t take in as much oxygen, which can affect how much oxygen you have for exercise and other physical activities.

Breathing exercises help you force out the air buildup in your lungs, which helps increase how much oxygen’s in your blood and strengthens the diaphragm.

The diaphragm is a dome-shaped respiratory muscle found near the bottom of your ribcage, right below your chest.

When you inhale and exhale air, the diaphragm and other respiratory muscles around your lungs contract. The diaphragm does most of the work during the inhalation part. During inhalation, your diaphragm contracts so that your lungs can expand into the extra space and let in as much air as is necessary.

Muscles in between your ribs, known as intercostal muscles, raise your rib cage to help your diaphragm let enough air into your lungs.

Muscles near your collarbone and neck also help these muscles when something makes it harder for you to breathe correctly. They all contribute to how quickly and how much your ribs can move and make space for your lungs.

Some of these muscles include:

Autonomic nervous system and your breath

Also, breathing is part of your autonomic nervous system (ANS). This system is in charge of essential bodily processes that you don’t need to put any thought into, like:

  • digestive processes
  • how quickly you breathe
  • metabolic processes that affect your weight
  • overall body temperature
  • blood pressure

The ANS has two main components: the sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions. Each division is responsible for different bodily functions.

The sympathetic usually gets these processes going, while the parasympathetic stops them from happening. And while the sympathetic controls your fight-or-flight response, the parasympathetic is in charge of everyday functions.

Even though most ANS functions are involuntary, you can control some of your ANS processes by doing deep breathing exercises.

Taking deep breaths can help you voluntarily regulate your ANS, which can have many benefits, including:

  • lowering your heart rate
  • regulating blood pressure
  • helping you relax
  • decreasing the release of the stress hormone cortisol

Diaphragmatic breathing isn’t always helpful on its own.

Research on ANS-related conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) has found that deep breathing is often most effective as a treatment when combined with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or hypnotherapy.

Deep breathing exercises aren’t always helpful if you have a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or similar mental health conditions.

GAD can last for up to several months or years, and the numerous worries or anxieties that accompany it may feel hard to control. Deep breathing exercises may cause more stress if they don’t appear to be working.

Techniques like CBT are usually a better option for helping someone cope with anxiety or other matters of mental health.

There are a lot of different breathing exercises out there, but they may not all be the right choice for you.

Talk with one or more of the following professionals for advice on breathing exercises:

  • Your primary care physician. They likely know more about your overall health than anyone, so they may give good advice tailored to your needs.
  • A respiratory specialist. If you have a respiratory condition like COPD, a specialist can give you specific treatments and advice on your breathing.
  • A cardiac specialist. If you have a condition that affects your heart or bloodstream, a cardiac expert can guide you through the benefits of breathing for your heart.
  • A mental health professional. If you’re thinking about breathing to help reduce stress, talk with a therapist or counselor who can help you gauge if breathing exercises will help.
  • A physical therapist. Your muscles and posture can affect your breathing, and a physical therapist can help you learn how to best use your muscles and movement to assist you in breathing better.
  • A licensed fitness professional. If you just want to use breathing for daily stressors, talk with a personal trainer or yoga teacher, or go to the gym and learn the best breathing exercises for your health and fitness.

Creating a routine can be an excellent way to get in the habit of diaphragmatic breathing exercises. Try the following to get into a good groove:

  • Do your exercises in the same place every day. Somewhere that’s peaceful and quiet.
  • Don’t worry if you’re not doing it right or enough. This may just cause additional stress.
  • Clear your mind of the things that are stressing you out. Focus instead on the sounds and rhythm of your breathing or the environment around you.
  • Do breathing exercises at least once or twice daily. Try to do them at the same time each day to reinforce the habit.
  • Do these exercises for about 10–20 minutes at a time.

Talk with your doctor or respiratory therapist if you’re interested in using this exercise to improve your breathing if you have COPD.

Diaphragmatic breathing may help relieve some of your symptoms in the case of COPD or other conditions related to your ANS. Still, it’s always best to get a medical professional’s opinion to see if it’s worth your time or if it will have any drawbacks.

Diaphragmatic breathing is most effective when you’re feeling rested. Try one or more techniques to see which one works best for you by giving you the most relief or feelings of relaxation.