Chest vs. Stomach Breathing

Man running on track

Proper breathing is essential, especially when running or performing other intense exercises. If you aren't breathing correctly, you won't get sufficient oxygen in your blood to sustain the muscles, leaving you tired and unable to continue exercising. Breathing can come from one of two primary regions: your chest or your stomach: Understanding the differences between the two can have a significant impact on your endurance during exercise.

Chest Breathing

Chest breathing refers to breaths from the top lobes of the lungs that use the chest muscles to inflate the lungs by pulling on the rib cage. In chest breathing, the chest expands and contracts with each breath while the abdominal area does not. These breaths tend to be short and quick, using only a small portion of the lungs and delivering a relatively minimal amount of oxygen to the bloodstream. Chest breathing is often associated with hyperventilation and a sensation of feeling out of breath, as you attempt to take in oxygen quickly despite the low air volume from each breath.

Stomach Breathing

Stomach breathing, also called belly or diaphragmatic breathing, refers to breaths that use your entire lung capacity. The diaphragm and abdominal muscles pull down on the abdominal cavity to fully inflate the lungs. The chest expands very little if at all while stomach breathing, while the abdominal area expands significantly. Breaths taken while stomach breathing are slow and deep, taking longer to inhale and exhale and delivering a significantly larger amount of oxygen to the bloodstream. The larger amount of air intake also allows you to exhale a larger amount of carbon dioxide, eliminating it from your body at a faster rate.

Breathing and Endurance

Oxygen is essential for endurance: Without sufficient oxygen, the body can't produce the energy that the muscles need to continue performing under stress. If you're chest breathing during exercise or competition, the relatively low volume of air that you take in with each breath significantly hinders your body's ability to provide oxygen to the bloodstream for use in the energy conversion process. Stomach breathing increases endurance by providing much more oxygen to the bloodstream, allowing the body to convert fuel to energy for longer periods.

Improving Breathing

Lie on your back with your hands on your abdomen to see whether you typically are a chest or stomach breather. If you see your hands rise and fall, you're a stomach breather, but if your hands remain mostly stationary, you're a chest breather. Take a deeper breath, contracting your chest muscles slightly as necessary until you see your hands start to rise. Practice this several times until you can feel the pulling in the abdominal cavity and are able to take deep stomach breaths without significant effort. Place books or other light weights on your abdomen and repeat these deep breaths for three to five minutes to provide exercise for the diaphragm and abdominal muscles involved. Repeat this exercise regularly and make a conscious effort to breathe from the diaphragm whenever you notice that you're breathing from your chest; as your muscles become stronger and your body becomes accustomed to stomach breathing, you'll take deeper stomach breaths more naturally and without conscious prompting.