8 Ways to Fix an Ineffective Breathing Pattern


A healthy breathing pattern is essential for physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. So why don’t we pay more attention to it?

Improper breathing is a common cause of ill health.



According to researcher Dr. Karel Lewit, “Respiration is our primary and most important movement pattern… and also the most dysfunctional.”  

Have you ever thought of breathing as a movement pattern? When you think of the fact that we breathe over 20,000 times a day, ineffective breathing patterns can really take a toll on your body.

In other words, it’s pretty important! 

Many of us take breathing for granted because it appears so simple and automatic. However, according to Dr. Belisa Vranich, Psy.D., author of the book Breathe, “between 90% to 95% of Americans are using the wrong muscles when they breathe. We’ve diminished our capacity [for breathing] so thoroughly that we are only using the very top of the lungs—just barely getting by.”  

So, why have we become such poor breathers?

Much of our poor breathing habits stem from learned behaviors. Plus the fact that we don’t really understand our main breathing muscle: the diaphragm.

The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle that sits below the heart and lungs and above the digestive organs.  It’s our primary inhalation muscle. Much of its function is responsible for keeping our body in balance or “homeostasis.”

Donna Farhi, the author of The Breathing Book, states that “because breathing is a whole-body movement every part must act in symphony with every other part to perform the extraordinary movement we call breathing.”

If breathing patterns were an orchestra, then the diaphragm would be the conductor. If the conductor falls out of sync, the whole symphony must adapt individually to return to the natural rhythm. 

We need to understand the role of our “conductor” or diaphragm if we want to keep our body functioning optimally.

The Diaphragm


When the diaphragm is functioning correctly, it flattens and pushes the ribcage open while filling up the densest, most oxygen-rich part of the lungs (the lower part).

Check out this  9-minute video demonstrating the diaphragm movement and influence on the “orchestra.”

When we develop a habit of bracing or holding tension in the middle of our body, it prevents the diaphragm “conductor” from doing its job. 

And your orchestra (aka your body) sounds terrible. 

So, let’s talk about what an inefficient breathing pattern looks like. I’ll also explain which everyday things can prevent the diaphragm from moving freely with each breath cycle. 



According to Nurselabs,

“an ineffective breathing pattern is a state in which the rate, depth, timing, and rhythm, or the pattern of breathing is altered. When the breathing pattern is ineffective, the body is most likely not getting enough oxygen to the cells.”

Oxygen is vital because of its ability to generate energy. If we breathe inefficiently, we get less oxygen.

And less oxygen means less energy.

Breathing patterns can be disrupted by several factors. While we’re all born with a healthy breathing style, many things sabotage our breathing as we live our lives.

The following are some barriers that can interfere with the mechanics of breathing and the recruitment of the primary breathing muscles (the diaphragm). 

When we adopt an inefficient breathing pattern, we often rely on the accessory breathing muscles high in the chest and neck.

This means we’re only filling up only the top portion of our lungs. This is often called apical or a vertical breathing style and requires the body to work harder for less oxygen.

We all use our diaphragm for breathing, but many of us are underutilizing this powerful muscle.  

8 Ways Your Breathing Pattern is Causing You Discomfort


This is not an exhaustive list, but rather some of the more common ways we develop inefficient breathing patterns.

When this happens, our accessories (chest and neck muscles) step in, creating an inefficient “vertical” breathing style leaving us gasping for air, stressed out, and working a lot harder than we need to for our energy.

How many of these resonate with you?

  • You sit for long periods throughout the day.
  • You have developed poor posture- slouched, ears in front of shoulders also referred to as “forward head posture.”
  • You often wear tight-fitting clothes, belts, neckties, or bras that create tension and prevent the middle from expanding with each inhale.
  • You carry a heavy purse or bag, throwing you off your center of balance which can cause the back breathing muscles to tighten.
  • You text or look down at a screen for long periods.
  • You brace (or squeeze) your abdomen, “keeping the belly sucked in.”
  • You have had an injury or surgery that has caused you to guard or brace your middle.
  • You experience chronic stress or anxiety, causing tension in your body.

Now that we know some of the common ways to develop poor breathing habits let’s look at a healthy breathing pattern.

An Efficient Breathing Pattern is:

  • Rhythmic: Breathing is a movement pattern that should happen effortlessly and freely (no tension or bracing)
  • Horizontal (a wide breath): Breathe wide, not up. Release tension in the belly, sides, and back. Inhale and think of expanding in all directions
  • Efficient: Use the primary breathing muscles (diaphragm, intercostals, abs & obliques) with the belly expanding and contracting.  
  • Smooth, quiet, and steady: 12-14 breaths per minute
  • Through the nose: Most often, unless the demand requires more oxygen.

So, what can you do to breathe better with less effort?


There are so many factors that affect your unique breathing style. The process to fix it is simple but not easy.

It takes awareness and practice to break the damaging habits developed over the years. 

Here are a few tips to be on your way to better breathing habits:


Build breath awareness by paying attention to ineffective breathing habits such as sighs, gasping, breath-holding, vertical breathing. Take notice of situations that trigger those patterns.


Diaphragmatic breathing while lying on your back with weight on the belly (5-10 minutes/day). My BE Buddy® is perfect for this.


Count your breaths (using exercises such as the 4-7-8 breathing exercise) to increasingly higher numbers. With each breath cycle,  encourage longer exhales.


Stop and practice 5-10 horizontal breaths throughout the day.

Are you looking for support? I can help you get started on your journey to optimal breathing.


A breathing coach can help you discover your unique breathing style and correct inefficient breathing patterns and habits, preventing you from feeling your best. 

Once you discover the benefits of breathing well, it is time to help your kids understand the diaphragm (check out this cute video). 

Helping kids breathe well can be taught early in life, creating a foundation for healthy breathing habits and a natural self-regulation tool at their fingertips.

Five minutes a day is all you need to have a healthy breathing pattern! If you need extra help, you can always reach out to me for a 1-on-1 breathing assessment! 

And if you want a $25 discount, sign up here.  Use code “Breathe25” at checkout.

Thanks for reading, and breathe well!

🧡 Stephanie Esser | Owner at Balancing Elephants | BE Buddy® (watch video)

Your breath is your superpower. Learn how to use it!

MA.Ed., Certified BREATHE™ Coach, RYT200, Yoga Calm® Youth Instructor I help kids surf the waves of life, one breath at a time!