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Training your diaphragm to help relieve pain and stress

As one of the UK’s leading London physiotherapists, I regularly write about injuries, treatment and assessment techniques.

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When you’re stiff from sitting all day, or stressed from the pressures of 21st century life, it’s really common for your diaphragm – the sheet of muscle that separates your lungs from your stomach contents, and that is the biggest of the breathing muscles – to tighten up too.

And when your diaphragm is tight, you don’t breathe as efficiently – so other muscles have to work harder to keep you alive!

But in the ideal world, these muscles should be helping your neck, shoulders, back and pelvis to move – rather than helping you to breathe – and when these muscles aren’t doing their normal job, your neck, shoulders, back and pelvis tend to get stiff and sore.

Restoring function, flexibility and strength to your diaphragm can offload those muscles, and help to relieve the symptoms in your neck, shoulders, back and pelvis!

Click on the videos below to work through my series of 7 exercises to help you learn to activate, stretch and strengthen your diaphragm. Each video is accompanied by a description explaining the goal and the actions, so please feel free to read as well as watch!

Video 1: use your diaphragm to move from fight or flight into rest and digest

In this video, we go through some simple steps to encourage you to breathe through your nose and use your diaphragm. This is the fastest and most effective way to calm down your nervous system.

Video 2: a technique to help you sleep without back pain

In this video, we practise breathing from your diaphragm while lying on your side. This helps the long back muscles to relax – long back muscle tension is a common source of back pain while lying in bed.

Video 3: helping you to sit more comfortably with a relaxed back

In this video, we discuss the merits of sitting in a more relaxed posture versus sitting bolt upright (clue: people with back pain often think they should be sitting bolt upright) and explain how rebalancing the diaphragm with the long back muscles can reduce back pain.

Video 4: adding a rolldown to stretch out your back, neck and shoulders

Now that you’ve learned to offload the long back muscles (iliocostalis and longissimus) by activating the diaphragm, it’s time to learn to stretch them effectively.

Video 5: how to stretch your diaphragm

Stretching out your back muscles is great, but the diaphragm is also a muscle, so you need to know how to stretch the diaphragm too!

Video 6: strengthening your diaphragm while lying down

You’ve activated it and stretched it – it’s now time to build your diaphragm’s strength and capacity for work, so that you can use it in more challenging situations! You’ll need a balloon for this one…

Video 7: strengthen your diaphragm with a seated rolldown

Lying down is great; but if you want your diaphragm to be strong in a more functional position, then upright is better! You’ll need your balloon again for this one…

Breathing exercises 6 and 7 are a great morning warmup for your back: do 6-10 balloon breaths while you’re still lying down, then swing your legs over the side of the bed and do another 6-10 reps of the rolldown…

If you struggle with these exercises, then there may be a treatable reason. I’ve seen people have trouble activating their diaphragms because of issues around the neck, ribcage, pelvis and hips – so while I highly recommend trying these videos for a few weeks, if you really can’t manage, please call my team on 0207 175 0150 and book an assessment to see if we can work out what’s going on.

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