Lilian Jarvis
Family Practice
March 1994


Beginning with birth and in many instances throughout life, breathing deeply is an imperative. It is essential in physical exertion of any kind and it is, as well, a means of releasing tension and quelling nervousness or fear. But while this natural process is available to all, many people are unable to utilize it to best advantage. The reason for this is that full inflation of the lungs is impossible when the housing that contains them, the rib cage, is itself restricted in movement.

In fact, two areas of the body are used for breathing, the abdomen and the rib cage. Each has a specific purpose.

Abdominal breathing is the most restful way to breathe, since it takes less energy to expand the soft tissue of the abdomen than the bones of the rib cage. Breathing with the abdomen should therefore predominate when one is asleep, lying down, or when sitting relaxed, with the chest having minimal noticeable movement. This is the way babies and animals breathe, their relaxed abdomens expanding and contracting in response to the natural in and out flow of air.

“Rib cage” breathing should be used at all times that the body is upright and when seated at work. This is for two reasons. One is that, when standing or actively seated, the abdominal muscles must hold the pelvis in a straightened position, therefore, they can’t relax and expand. The other reason is that a properly expanded ribcage helps support the weight of the upper body, thus minimizing pressure on parts below.

The operative words here are “properly expanded.” Many people expand only their chest, which lifts the frontal ribs and causes the dorsal ribs to push forward, arching the back. This not only throws the pelvis out of alignment, but it inhibits the full inflation of the lungs.

For the lungs to inflate fully, the rib cage must expand around its girth, that is, not only in front, but also outward to both sides and to the back. (A collapsible wire basket is a good analogy.) With the ribs thus expanded, the lungs are not squeezed into a narrow rib cage but have spacious room in which to inflate. As well, in actively holding the ribs “open,” the intercostal and other torso muscles give support to the upper body.

While reasons for expanding the rib cage are easily explained, it is not as easily done when the back has been arched — or rounded — over a period of many years; the muscles controlling the ribcage lose their elasticity, making movement of the ribs difficult. The ability to expand the ribs depends, therefore, on stretching out these tight muscles so as to make them more flexible and allow the ribs to move. While this may take time, the following exercise, done with some regularity, produces excellent results.

Sit on a chair, feet and legs spaced comfortably apart. Place your hands at both sides of the rib cage (above the floating ribs), fingers in front and thumbs at the back. Relax your back so it’s rounded, with the shoulders tipped slightly forward. (This allows the sides and back of the ribs to expand while leaving the chest relatively relaxed.)

Take a deep breath in and hold it. (At the end of the air intake, the throat should be closed off and the shoulders lowered so as not to bring pressure into the head in the action that follows.) Draw the abdominal muscles in strongly to force the diaphragm up. (This creates pressure in the inflated lungs and pushes the ribs outward against the hands. The feeling is one of trying to break through a tight band.) Maintain the pressure as long as the breath can be comfortably held. Then, as the breath is slowly released with the hands pushing inward on the ribs, feel the rib cage “close.”

Hyperventilation is possible if this exercise is done too many times continuously, so normal breathing should be resumed after 3 or 4 deep breaths.

Once the ribs are able to expand in their circumference, the last restriction on the lungs — the weight of the shoulders — must be removed to produce a breath that is complete and “satisfying.” This is done with the arms hanging loosely at the sides and lifting the shoulders as high as possible while drawing in the maximum amount of air into the lungs. As well, the throat remains open to allow for a final intake of air to fill the top portion of the lungs. If you stand in front of a mirror, you should see your throat ‘suck in’ with this last intake. Then let the breath out slowly, as above, as the shoulders gradually settle.

While this procedure may seem somewhat complicated at first, persistence holds many benefits. With the rib cage expanded, the lower ribs can expand and contract subtly like the gills of a fish, vastly improving oxygen intake. As well, the difficulty of breathing comfortably when the abdomen is drawn in, which many people experience, will no longer be a problem. Posture will improve and muscle fatigue greatly diminish, and, with more available oxygen activities will benefit from greater staying power. Not to be overlooked is the psychological effect that is inseparable from the physical expansion of the rib cage: an empowered sense of stature and confidence.