Types of Breathing: Diaphragmatic, Thoracic, Clavicular

The three human breathing patterns are abdominal, rib-based and clavicular
Types of Breathing: Diaphragmatic, Thoracic, Clavicular | iSTOCK

Breathing properly is very important for the human body. Through breathing we obtain the oxygen that our cells require for the good functioning of the body systems, thereby allowing muscle movement, concentration and alertness, among many other functions in our body.

No less important is the relationship between our breathing pattern and relaxation or tension, both at the physical and psychological levels: when breathing properly we allow the natural physiological self-regulation of our organism, which improves our general relaxing state, whereas if we breathe in air in a superficial or excessive way anxiety and physical tension are increased.

For all these reasons, breathing properly is one of the main keys to our wellbeing in general and for the relaxation of our body and mind. However, many of us overlook this factor and we usually use breathing patterns that interfere with our wellbeing, although it must be said that it’s not difficult to automate a type of healthy breathing.

Types of breathing: the three breathing patterns

Human beings use three main breathing patterns: diaphragmatic, thoracic and clavicular breathing, which are also called low, medium and high, respectively. As the reader may guess, these three types of breathing are named after the part of the chest we focus on in each one of them.

However, not all these breathing patterns are healthy, given that some of them by themselves appear to be insufficient and take us to breathe in an insufficient amount of oxygen.

As we’re going to set out in the following, the healthiest of these types of breathing is the diaphragmatic or abdominal one, although the best way of breathing is actually a combination of them all: when this occurs we speak of ‘complete breathing.’

Diaphragmatic breathing

This breathing pattern is also known as ‘abdominal’ and ‘low’ since it consists in focusing our breathing on the diaphragm, the muscle that divides the lungs and the abdomen, placed below the ribs.

The diaphragm is a fundamental muscle for the breathing process. When we breathe in air our diaphragm lowers, which makes that our abdomen increases its volume; the more air we breathe in, the bigger the swelling of our belly. In fact, the movement of the diaphragm depends on the contraction and expansion of the belly.

When breathing with the diaphragm our abdomen raises, whereas when we breathe out through diaphragmatic breeding our belly lowers. In this way, the bottom of our lungs fills with air, which means that oxygen can be more easily distributed throughout these organs than when we breathe more superficially, thereby focusing on the most risen part of our respiratory system, as it happens with rib and clavicular breathing.   

Although below we’re going to set out in some detail how to breathe properly using a diaphragmatic pattern, we can say in advance that the best way to practice this type of breathing is by lying down on a comfortable surface, given that this position relaxes the abdomen and the diaphragm.

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Thoracic breathing

Thoracic breathing consists in facilitating the intake of air into our lungs separating our ribs so that our ribcage can broaden. This is also called rib, intercostal or middle breathing. 

To breathe deeply it’s recommended to apply this breathing pattern after a focused breathing in the abdomen.

Although this type of breathing is appropriate to supplement the abdominal one in view that this is of further help for the air to reach our lungs, if we always use a thoracic breathing pattern we breathe in little oxygen; the process requires more effort than diaphragmatic breathing to obtain the same intake of air.

To practice thoracic breathing, it’s recommended to sit down, given that this posture favors the separation of the ribs. To feel the breathing, we may place our hands on the ribs; in this way we’re going to be able to perceive their contraction and expansion as well as the muscles associated with these.

Clavicular breathing

The (high) clavicular breathing pattern is the least appropriate of the three types of breathing if we apply it by itself, without combining it with either abdominal or rib-based breathing.

In this case, the breathing movement consists in lifting the collarbone whilst breathing. Not many people use this pattern under normal conditions, although anxiety states favor superficial breathing. On the other hand, breathing in this way may increase the likelihood of suffering physiological, muscular tension and psychological anxiety, since this kind of breathing interferes with the obtention of oxygen.

When breathing this way, the air doesn’t reach the bottom of our lungs –it only penetrates them superficially. In this respect, it’s a breathing pattern even less efficient than thoracic breathing, which basically means that it’s convenient to replace it with a combination of the three types of breathing or at least with the diaphragmatic one.

How to breathe properly? Exercises of diaphragmatic breathing

If we had to say which of the three breathing patterns set out here is the best, we should go for abdominal breathing, or rather the patterns that imply the contraction of the diaphragm as a central element. This follows from the fact that abdominal distention allows the intake of a good volume of air.   

However, to breathe properly the best is to combine the three types of breathing and that air (and therefore oxygen) fills our lungs. That is, the best way to breathe is a combination of diaphragmatic, lung and clavicular pattern. 

Therefore, an adequate breathing pattern must focus on the diaphragm and abdomen. To carry out diaphragmatic breathing we breathe in in a way that the belly swells more than the breast, which we can check by putting our fingers between our breast and abdomen. If we wish to expand the inhaling to the rest of our lungs, besides the diaphragm we can expand our chest cavity towards the area of our ribs and higher.

If what you wish is to practice slow and deep breathing, we recommend you to use a comfortable position; lying or using the lotus position is adequate, even though many people prefer lying because this position relaxes our abdominal muscles, thereby favoring the movement of the diaphragm and therefore the circulation of air in the respiratory system.

Breathe in and out air on a regular basis, taking it from the abdomen but allowing the filling of our lungs to the largest possible extent, thereby expanding our chest cavity. Breathe in for 4 to 5 seconds and breathe out for 8 to 10. Take into account that breathing patterns depend, in part, on each person, so it’s important that you adjust these to your preferences to be able to feel comfortable and relaxed.

Training healthy breathing patterns will lead us to automate them progressively. In the first place it’s necessary to turn the deep breathing exercises into a habit to be undertaken three times a day (for example before or after meals) and subsequently we will progressively generalize them in our daily life both in an active and involuntary way.

Those with problems of psychological tension may use the exercises of diaphragmatic breathing to keep anxiety down, both in the cases when this anxiety is high day in day out and when this happens in concrete situations: two examples would be social anxiety and agoraphobia

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