Effective activists make good use of the resources available. What if you were missing out on your most crucial resource – oxygen? Physiotherapist Robert Dib shares tips for getting the most out of every breath.

In line with keeping ourselves and each other well, sometimes it pays to have a little bit of knowledge for identifying common ailments we might not even realise are holding us back from being the healthiest we can be. In this post, we look at upper chest breathing and how we can help ourselves to fix it with a few simple exercises practiced daily.

Being an upper chest breather means you typically lift your shoulder blades up and do upper chest breathing when you get into respiratory distress, perhaps due to illness, previous trauma to the thoracic (middle) spine, or due to being a smoker; age is also a pre-disposing factor. Upper chest breathing is a very inefficient way to breathe and it requires a greater oxygen debt to service this kind of breathing pattern, so you burn more energy doing it and you are less satiated with oxygen. Upper chest breathers usually do it without even knowing they’re doing it and can then become very stiff in their thoracic spine and have reduced rib excursion.

Upper chest breathers tend to be short of breath more easily and also might have very stringy muscles in the neck because these are active all the time.  Headaches are often associated with type of breathing because of the active trigger points in muscles that are not meant for respiration, such as the levator scapulae and upper trapezius. In general, upper chest breathers look and feel unwell.

upper trapezius

If you suspect you are an upper chest breather or have received this diagnosis from your doctor, then with conscious effort you can help yourself return to a normal breathing pattern, what is called diaphragmatic breathing. Here’s what you do:

  1. Place your hand on your tummy, the top half of the hand sits on the bottom part of the ribcage. The bottom half of the hand sits on the tummy (or abdomen) itself.
  2. Sit back and recline so that you’re not leaning forward. Preferably you have pillows underneath elbows to allow your shoulders to drop, relax your head and turn it left and right a few times to make sure you’re not tense.
  3. Practice breathing in, swell the tummy under the hand, feel it move and then bring it back in. So breathe in, it goes out, breathe out and the hand sinks back in again. The hand should actually be pivoting.
  4. Practice this by breathing normally and focusing on moving the hand with inhalation and exhalation with support under the elbows so you are relaxing as much as possible the upper trapezius muscles and levator scapular which are involved with this poor breathing pattern, thus minimising upper chest breathing.
  5. Should be practiced daily, two or three times a day for five minutes where you’re just watching the hand move in and out with your breathing, not by swelling your tummy by pushing down.


Some people continue to upper chest breathe even when they are told because they have been doing it for a lifetime almost and it’s hard to change. If you’re struggling to change your breathing pattern and still have episodes where you’re very short of breath, you can still use the same exercise for immediate relief.  Say, if you’re walking along the road and it happens, sit on someone’s fence, try and get some support for your elbows or at least drop the shoulders down, get your posture right and then put one hand half on ribcage, half on tummy and practice breathing there.

This is a great exercise for everyone, not only because it helps prevent situations where we might become upper chest breathers but because the exercise itself acts a healthy pause in our day.

Special thanks to Robert Dib (Australian Physiotherapy Association) for drafting this post.