The diaphragm is a large muscle attached to the bottom of the ribcage. Its sole function is to move the ribcage so the lungs can expand and contract. In other words, it allows us to breathe–an average of 20,000 breaths each day! So that’s about 20,000 times the diaphragm is working, stretching, and strengthening, every morning, noon, and night! An appropriate balance of stretch and strength in the diaphragm does keep us alive, but it also increases our overall breath capacity, immunity, and vitality, and decreases fatigue, sleep disorders, anxiety, depression, muscle cramps, and digestive disorders.
The diaphragm is a large dome-shaped muscle that extends across the bottom of the thoracic cavity (where the lungs and heart live) and divides the trunk in half. It is shaped like an umbrella. It originates along the inner surface of the lower six ribs, the upper spinal bones in the lower back (lumbar vertebrae), and the bottom of the breast bone. It ends (inserts) along the central tendon, deep in the center of the abdomen.
The diaphragm is an integral part of our breathing process. It facilitates inhaling and exhaling.
When we inhale, the diaphragm contracts, its dome shape flattens, and the center of the diaphragm pulls south toward the pelvis. This increases the space in the thoracic cavity, causing the lungs to expand and take in air.
When we exhale, the diaphragm releases, the center of the diaphragm relaxes back up to form the dome shape, and the space in the thoracic cavity decreases. This causes the lungs to contract and expel air—specifically, carbon dioxide.
The diaphragm is strengthened each time you inhale. You can increase the strength of your diaphragm by practicing controlled breathing techniques.
The diaphragm is stretched each time you exhale. Practicing controlled breathing techniques also helps with the stretch of the diaphragm.
Without the diaphragm, we cannot breathe. Though we can survive days and weeks without food and water, the average person cannot survive more than three minutes without breathing. So the simple fact is, a healthy diaphragm equals a healthy (and alive) you! Beyond basic survival, having control over the movements of the diaphragm (acquired through stretching and strengthening the muscle) can also affect your mood, your heart rate, and your body’s reaction to stress.
For example, when you’re stressed, the nervous system triggers a sympathetic response in the body. This response triggers shallow and fast breath, increasing the heart rate and causing blood to rush toward the arms and legs. For short periods of time, the sympathetic response is helpful—imagine the energy you need if you are getting chased by a bear! However, spending time in the sympathetic nervous system for hours, days, weeks, or even months (like if you’re consistently working overtime or worried about your financial security) can take a toll on your body. By deepening and slowing your breath, you can return the body back to neutral by stimulating the vagus nerve. When your breath slows down, so does your heart rate. Additionally, once your body transitions out of the sympathetic response—whether the stressor has gone away or not—you may experience a sense of relief and/or increased emotional contentment.
The strength of the diaphragm is also critical during post-surgery. After major surgery, the body is in shock and falls into a sympathetic response. Pain medications make the symptoms of a sympathetic response like pain, anxiety, and rapid heart rate less noticeable. In fact, shallow breath may be the only indicator of the body’s stress. Over time, if the breath remains shallow, the risk of lung collapse increases. Collapsed lungs can lead to pneumonia and other infections—the last thing you need during recovery! For this reason, after surgery, many people are assigned respiratory therapy to focus on strengthening and controlling the diaphragm.
But don’t wait to strengthen the diaphragm. Start today! The stronger the diaphragm is before the body is stressed, the quicker you can bounce back to neutral.
Try our diaphragm workout to strengthen, stretch, and optimize this muscle group.
Injury to the diaphragm is rare. The most common of these injuries are muscle tears and hiatal and incisional hernias. Ailments related to an imbalanced diaphragm include asthma, cardiovascular disease, pneumonia, collapsed lung, digestive system maladies, anxiety, depression, fatigue, sleep disorders, chest pain, back pain, and shoulder pain.