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by Irina Slesar

February 7, 2013

Maintaining diaphragmatic breathing in the water

What is diaphragmatic breathing?

Diaphragmatic breathing is deep breathing that engages the lungs and abdomen together and causes the belly to rise and fall with breaths. The proper position for diaphragmatic breathing requires that the ribcage be pulled downward and the pelvis tilted slightly forward which allows a swimmer to maintain maximum mechanical and physiological efficiency.

From a mechanical point of view, pulling the rib cage downward and tilting the pelvis slightly forward will minimize the sway within the lower back region and allow the swimmer to maintain a body position that is flatter in the water. A smaller sway will minimize the amount of drag that may accumulate, allowing the swimmer to glide faster through the water. This is also helpful for swimmers with lower back pain as it may provide some relief to any pressure that may exist within the lower back region. Ultimately, the mechanical and physiological benefits of this position will help a swimmer establish the proper foundation of stability and efficiency in the water.

Diaphragmatic Breathing Exercises and Techniques

You’re probably wondering how it’s possible to maintain diaphragmatic breathing during exercise. During exercise, the increased oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide production will naturally force the thoracic cavity to expand in an effort to maintain proper oxygen concentrations needed by the cells. However, knitting the rib cage downward and tilting the pelvis slightly forward can still be established during exercise by simply contracting the intra-abdominal muscles that line the pelvic floor, not the “six-pack” abdominal muscles. Before you begin to create this pressure system when swimming, try to master this on land by following this exercise:

Simple Breathing Test and Exercise

  • While sitting straight up in a chair, roll your shoulders back and slide your shoulder blades “into your back pockets.” Place one hand above the abdomen (slightly below the sternum) and the other hand below the abdomen (along the pelvic floor). Breathe normally for approximately 20–30 seconds and pay attention to your breath. Does your rib cage move? Does your abdomen move?
  • Now take two to three deep breaths and notice where the breaths go. If you notice that your upper hand moves more than the bottom hand, this indicates that most of your breath has traveled through the thoracic region and stability within the lumbar region has not been established. If this is the case, with your lower hand, gently press into your lower abdomen and by using your intra-abdominal muscles, try to slightly push your hand away.
  • Can you breathe using your belly so that your rib cage and upper hand do not move? Done properly, you will feel slight and constant tension throughout your pelvic floor, which automatically pulls the pelvis and ribcage downward. The diaphragm then creates a pressure system where air is flowing into the lumbar region rather than the thoracic region. You should feel more grounded in your seat and any tension that is carried within the lower back should be relieved. The stable system that you have just established is what you want to maintain while swimming.
  • Now try this: place your bottom hand over your rectus abdominis or “six-pack.” Now relax your intra-abdominal muscles and activate your six-pack. Try to perform the same exercise without moving your rib cage or upper hand. What happens? You may find it difficult to guide your breath toward the abdomen and you may even find yourself hunched forward. This indicates you have destroyed the pressure system you have just created within the lumbar region.
  • Many swimmers feel that they must contract their six-packs when they are swimming in order to connect with their core. This exercise proves that it is the contraction of the intra-abdominal muscles along the pelvic floor, not the six-pack, that allows the swimmer to reposition their pelvis and knit their ribcage downward in order to establish the proper foundation of stability and efficiency in the water.


  • Technique and Training
  • Health and Nutrition


  • Breathing
  • Drills
  • Sports Medicine