Breathe This Way for a Stronger Core (+ Other Health Benefits)

Written by Claire Hannum

June 21, 2023

What if I told you that you could improve your ab definition by changing the way you breathe?

Turns out, you can. With a technique called diaphragmatic breathing (or belly breathing). Read on to learn what it is, how to do it, and the 5 science-backed health benefits that it promotes.

Belly Breathing vs. Chest Breathing

You don’t spend the majority of your day belly breathing—your default is actually chest breathing (also called thoracic or shallow breathing). Chest breathing brings minimal air into your lungs. Sure, it keeps you going during the day, but it doesn’t give your body the full, deep, refreshing air it needs to feel its best.

How Your Diaphragm Helps You Breathe Better

According to Dr. Chad Walding, Doctor of Physical Therapy and Co-Founder of NativePath, “The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle that plays a major part in your breathing.”

Where most people breathe very shallow—with their chest rising and falling—you want to train yourself to breathe deeply—with your belly rising and falling.

Dr. Walding explains it like this: “When you inhale like you were designed to—from your diaphragm—your belly will rise (causing your belly button to move away from the spine). And when you exhale, your belly will fall. What you’ll notice as you belly breathe is that your chest stays relatively still.”

Put another way, when you inhale while belly breathing, your diaphragm contracts so that your lungs can expand to let in extra air.

“This is the way your body wants to breathe,” says Walding. “It’s what increases oxygen and maintains proper levels of CO2. When your body gets more air, you feel better.”

How Often Should You Belly Breath?

On average, you take roughly 20,000 breaths per day. So how many of those breaths should be through the diaphragm?

The short answer: You should always be breathing through our diaphragm. But you have to train your body to do so.

“What I recommend,” says Dr. Walding, “is that people  start with just 10 breaths at a time, 3-5 times a day. To start, place your right hand over your heart and your left hand over your belly. From there, inhale through your nose—and through your belly!—for a count of 1-2-3-4. Then exhale through your nose—and belly—for 4-3-2-1. Repeat this for 10 breaths.”

“And remember”, Walding says… “as you breathe, your chest shouldn’t be moving much at all.”

Can Belly Breathing Give You Abs?

Belly breathing can’t magically give you a six-pack overnight, but it can make a noticeable difference in your muscle definition—especially when paired with regular exercise and a healthy diet. And research has found that it can make core workouts more impactful, too (1).

Belly breathing can have an indirect effect on your muscles in more ways than one. “The nervous system will be more calm, the digestive system will be more calm, the immune system will be, will be better and the body in general will be better functioning” Dr. Walding explains.

When you are relaxed your muscles are able to contract more effectively, you will have the illusion of having leaner and more toned muscular tissue. You can improve the appearance of your abdominal muscles without engaging in any additional workout or resistance training if you practice diaphragmatic breathing techniques on a consistent basis.

Diaphragmatic breathing can also help improve your posture, which can impact your muscle tone.

How to Belly Breathe

Want to try it for yourself? Dr. Walding recorded a short video to help you get started with diaphragmatic breathing.

  1. Lie down or sit on a flat surface.
  2. Guide your shoulders downward, away from your ears, and ensure they are relaxed.
  3. Place one hand on your stomach and one hand on your chest.
  4. Gently, without any strain, breathe in through your nose. Keep inhaling until you can’t fit any more air. Your chest should be mostly still.
  5. As you feel the air moving through your nose into your gut, expand your stomach and sides.
  6. Purse your lips and slowly exhale for 4 sections as you gently contract your stomach.
  7. Repeat this process several times, until you feel calm and relaxed.

Please note, if you have a lung condition, including COPD, talk to a health professional before trying breathing exercises.

If you have anxiety or any other concerns about breathing practices, you may want to work with a breath coach to make sure you’re practicing breath techniques in a way that is safe and calming for you.

5 Health Benefits of Belly Breathing

When it comes to diaphragmatic breathing vs. chest breathing, the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing are tough to ignore…

1. Decreases Stress and Anxiety

When your body releases cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, belly breathing can help lower its negative effects on your body (2). Belly breathing helps you relax and encourages stress to melt away. Cutting back on chronic stress can also help improve your immune system and reduce your risk of depression and anxiety (3, 4, 5).

Dr. Walding goes on to explain, “The big thing that breathing through the diaphragm does  is it puts your body in a nice parasympathetic state where it can rest and digest as opposed to a sympathetic state where it's ready to fight and flee.”

“This is especially true,” Walding says, “when doing something like 4-4 breathing or 4-8 breathing (the first number represents the number of seconds you inhale while the second number represents the number of seconds that you exhale).

2. Boosts Core Strength

The muscles used in belly breathing can help make an impact on your core stability and posture. Regular belly breathing can help make your core workouts more effective (6).

3. Aids in Digestion

Breathing through your diaphragm can create a massaging feeling in the gut, which can help with managing stomach pain and GI issues (7). Diaphragmatic breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which relaxes the body and tells your system that it’s time to focus on digestion.

4. Improves Exercise for People with COPD

If you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), belly breathing can help you get more out of your workout sessions. COPD can decrease some of your lungs’ elasticity, but breathing with your diaphragm can help train your body to breathe more efficiently, especially during exercise (8, 9).

5. Lowers Your Heart Rate and Blood Pressure

Slow, deep breathing can help bring down a racing heart rate, and can also lower your blood pressure (10).

The Bottom Line

Belly breathing can help relieve stress, lower your blood pressure, improve your health, and boost your core muscle definition. You can build belly breathing into a habit by making time each day to find a quiet, peaceful place to practice. If you’re interested in more breathwork, check out these breathing exercises led by Dr. Chad Walding, Doctor of Physical Therapy and Co-Founder of NativePath. 

Claire Hannum
Article by

Claire Hannum

Claire Hannum is a New York City-based writer, editor, wellness seeker, and reiki practitioner. Her writing has appeared in Self, Health, Prevention, and over a dozen other publications.

Read More
Share onfacebook

NativePath has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.

    Medical Disclaimer

    This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Chad Walding nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement, or lifestyle program.

    Leave a Comment