Last updated: 25th March 2019

If you’ve ever been in the position where you can’t take a full breath, there’s a good chance your posture has become compromised. One common consequence of a compromised posture is that your body isn’t utilizing the correct muscles for breathing.

What to do when you can't take a full breath

Even if you’ve never had the experience where you can’t take a full breath, there’s still a good chance the above is true for you anyway.

With regard to general health and well being, the majority of people in the west nowadays have two fundamental things in common, which are:


  1. A compromised posture which, in turn, means inefficient movement patterns. Very often there's some kind of physical pain too (not everyone experiences pain, but almost everyone has inefficient movement patterns)
  2. They no longer breathe correctly, which also has its own set of problems associated with it

When the subject of correct breathing is raised in conversations, people often laugh at such a “ridiculous” comment. After all, “I’m still alive aren’t I?”

And of course, you are still alive, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this.

The question is, though, how well do you breathe generally on a day to day basis? How much more alive would you like to be? And are you aware of how simple the process of restoring correct breathing patterns and increasing your vitality is?

Okay, that was three questions.

You see, your body is very adaptable and when something isn’t working as it should be, it will divert resources from elsewhere to get the job done, albeit while compromising efficiency.

It’s called compensation and this is the basic premise of The Egoscue Method, Muscle Balance And Function and other corrective exercise modalities that look to restore proper function to your body:

Restore lost functions to your body and remove compensation patterns so that your body functions as it is supposed to and so you can live pain free.

Well, this applies not only to physical pain such as back pain, hip pain and knee pain, it also applies to one of the most fundamental movement patterns that you carry out more than 23,000 times per day (yes, twenty-three thousand times per day):


There’s a correct way to breathe and, conversely, there are numerous incorrect ways to breathe, which are the compensation patterns we touched on a moment ago.


The following is not medical advice and while it’s quite likely that at least some, if not all, of what you’re about to read applies to you, it’s also possible that there’s something else going on that needs to be checked out by an appropriate authority.

I’d love for you to continue reading and to try the suggestions towards the end of the article.

But, if you feel you should check with an appropriate authority if you should improve your breathing, then that's what you should probably do.

What Does It Mean If You Can’t Take A Full Breath?

Before you dismiss this article as not applying to you, let’s first look at what a full breath is.

A full breath is where you breathe deep into your belly so that it expands as you inhale, which then progresses to full expansion of your abdominal region.

You’ve seen a balloon being inflated before and proper breathing is quite similar to that, in that there should be a uniform expansion starting in your belly, which then continues into your kidney region and then on to your lower ribs region.

So if you can’t take a full breath, there are two ways in which this might apply to you:

1. Acute inability to take a full breath

Acute in this case simply means of short duration, as in it has happened quite suddenly. Acute symptoms are usually quite severe.

2. Chronic inability to take a full breath

Chronic means that it has persisted for a long time and/or is recurring. Traditional treatment methods usually find chronic conditions hard to eradicate (although, quite often, they’re not difficult to eradicate at all – it just needs a different approach).

If you haven’t woken up today with that feeling somewhere in your body that means you can’t take a full breath, then there’s a good chance you fall into the second category where the problem is chronic, which in turn means you probably aren’t even aware of breathing incorrectly.

Acute Inability To Take A Full Breath

If you went to bed last night feeling fine and have then woken this morning and notice that you can’t take a full breath, it could well be that you have “pulled a muscle”, which is inhibiting the ability of the muscles of respiration to function properly.

So the next question you may have on your mind is “How did I pull a muscle in my sleep?”

The chances are your posture has been compromised for some time and, when that’s the case, it only takes one tiny thing to tip you over the edge into acute pain of some description.

The misalignments, muscle imbalances and lack of proper function in your body have been creating hundreds, if not thousands, of accumulated microtrauma in your body.

When this happens, it only takes one more straw to break the camel’s back.

A Corrective Exercise For When You Can’t Take A Full Breath In The Acute Stages

So if you are in the acute stages of not being able to take a full breath, the following corrective exercise should help to get you back to proper breathing a lot quicker than if you simply leave it to heal on its own.

It’s very important the you follow the instructions carefully and that you pay very close attention to what you feel in your body as you are doing this exercise.

Static Back Pullovers

Egoscue Exercise — Static Back Pullovers
  • Lie on your back with your legs up over a chair or large block etc
  • Get the backs of your legs in as close to the chair as possible so that your hips are bent at 90 degrees and your knees are at 90 degrees also
  • Interlace your hands together so that your palms are touching each other
  • Place your straight arms above your chest and keep your elbows locked out straight throughout the entire range of motion
  • Pull your shoulders down towards the floor and HOLD them down throughout the entire range of motion
  • From this position, begin SLOWLY taking your arms overhead towards the floor, and BREATHE IN as you do so


  • Only take your arms as far as you can comfortably go and then return to the start position and BREATHE OUT as you do so
  • Do NOT force yourself to get your arms to the floor as pictured. That is the end result we are looking for, but only in your own good time!
  • Now repeat the process
  • Each time you take your arms back and down towards the floor, you must BREATHE IN with the motion
  • And then BREATHE OUT as you return them to the start position
  • Depending on how strong your inability to take a full breath is, it may take several minutes before your range starts to increase and your ability to breathe easier improves
  • After 10 or so repetitions, take a break for 30 seconds before resuming for another set of 10

If doing this is too uncomfortable for you, then stop doing it. Listen to your body and it will guide you.

If you do need to stop, then you might find one of the following exercises is better for where your body is at right now.

Breathing Is The Gateway Into Your Nervous System

If you can’t take a full breath on an ongoing regular basis, there’s a good chance that you’re not even aware that you can’t take a full breath.

Dysfunctional breathing has become so normal that most people aren’t even aware of how bad it’s become.

When I’m working with a client that has come to me in pain, more often than not, their corrective exercise program will start off with initiating proper breathing patterns before we do anything else.


Well, for one, breathing is the most fundamental movement pattern that there is and consciously altering it is one of the most effective ways of entering the central nervous system.

Why do we want to enter the central nervous system?

  • Pain is invariably caused by muscle imbalances and a compromised posture
  • Muscles move bones (misalignment of bones is, by definition, “bad posture”)
  • Muscles contract and move bones because of signals sent via the central nervous system
  • Muscles that are ‘stuck’ in a shortened position and/or that have chronic trigger points are getting that ‘instruction’ to stay ‘stuck’ from your nervous system

Initiating proper breathing gives us a gateway into the nervous system.

Another reason for restoring proper breathing patterns is because it directly affects your posture.

The main muscle of respiration is called the Diaphragm (Di-a-fram). The diaphragm is a dome shaped muscle that spans your torso from one side to the other, just beneath the lower portion of your rib cage.

Now, without getting too technical, how your diaphragm functions has a direct impact on how your primary hip flexorthe Psoas muscle – functions. And because it’s your primary hip flexor, it then has a direct impact on how efficiently your hips function.

As with all things in your body, a big enough problem in one part can start the cascade effect that creates other, more serious problems, elsewhere and that are seemingly unrelated.

Your body really is a highly integrated unit!

When Your Breathing Has Been Compromised For Some Time (Chronic)

Okay, so whether you’re aware of that fact that you can’t take a full breath or not, the chances are, you can’t … or at least you haven’t done so in a proper manner for a very long time.

Here’s an exercise that will not only initiate proper breathing for you once again, but will also have a direct positive impact on:

  • The position of your upper spine (thoracic spine)
  • The position of your lumbar spine
  • The position of your pelvis
  • The position of your shoulders
  • And it can also be a great way to start the process of correcting a hip disparity (a difference in function between your left and right hips

And, of course, there are the expected benefits such as:

  • A clearer head
  • An increase in vitality
  • A general feeling of greater well being

Whew, that’s a lot of ‘bang for your buck’ just for lying on the floor and breathing properly!

Now, before you do the exercise, as with all exercises that I might recommend on this website, it’s important that you listen to your body.

If you feel any pain while lying in this position, then come out of it.

The benefit of working with me in person is that you can give me feedback and I can decide whether to alter the exercise slightly or swap it out for something more appropriate for your body.

As I’m not there to get your feedback, you will have to judge it for yourself.

Not all corrective exercises are appropriate for all people all of the time.

Modified Floor Block with Crocodile Breathing

Modified Floor Block with Crocodile Breathing

How to Perform This Exercise:

  • Lie on your stomach with your forehead on the floor and your legs straight out behind you
  • Your feet should be pigeon toed and your buttocks relaxed
  • Pigeon toed: Big toes touching and heels completely relaxed so they fall out to the sides
  • Place pillows / blocks / something similar under your forearms so they are fully supported while relaxed
  • The blocks should be about 6 inches / 15cm in height
  • If that height isn’t comfortable, start with something lower that is comfortable – 4 inches /10cm or even 2 inches / 5 cm
  • While in this position, breathe slowly, fully and deeply into your belly
  • As you breathe down into your belly, concentrate on allowing the entire region to expand
  • You should feel your belly pushing into the floor, your back (around the kidney area) expanding out and your sides/ribs expanding out
  • Don’t worry if you don’t feel this initially; as you continue with the exercise, the proper pattern will become established and you will feel these things
  • Do not press your arms into blocks – just allow them to relax

How Long To Do This Exercise:

  • Keep breathing like this for 5 minutes

Alternative Position

If you experience any pain in that position, you can adjust your arm and hand position as pictured below.

Modified Floor Block with Crocodile Breathing Alternative Hand Position

If that still causes you pain or discomfort, then come up out of the position and switch to the following exercise instead.

Static Back Abdominal Contractions

Static Back Abdominal Contractions.jpg

How to Perform This Exercise:

  • Lay on your back with your legs up over a chair, or block, or similar
  • Have your knees bent as close to 90° as possible and ensure you get in close to the chair so that your knees are directly over your hips
  • Your arms are out to the sides with the palms facing up
  • Take a slow . . . full . . . deep breath in through your nose and direct it into your belly
  • Your belly should be rising with the breath (as opposed to only your chest)
  • If you find it difficult to direct the breath into your belly and instead find you breathe up into your chest, place a book or something on your belly to help focus your attention in that area
  • Now breathe out and allow your belly to fall again with the exhale
  • At the point of having breathed out completely, contract your abdominal muscles – quite sharply – and HOLD for a count of 3 (tense as if bracing for an impact in the abdomen)
  • After a count of 3, relax the contraction of your abdominal muscles and then breathe in again, REPEATING the entire process

How Long To Do This Exercise:

  • Continue breathing like this for 5 minutes

Now stand up and notice what feels different.

Notice What Feels Different

You should notice how much easier you’re breathing now and when you really tune into your body, you’ll probably also notice how your breathing feels more natural and less effort.

You’ve just started the process of engaging the correct muscles of respiration, which in turn has allowed the muscles that have been compensating to relax and let go a bit. This will create a positive cascade effect throughout your body.

Remember to do this every day and notice what changes over the next week or so as the cumulative effects take a hold.

If you liked this article, please remember to click one of the likes buttons, leave a comment and share it with your friends.

About the Author Matt Waters

Matt Waters deletes from your "consciousness filing cabinet" whatever's in the way of you being, doing, and having the life you desire. Where coaching, therapy, meds, or anything else you've tried has failed or been a bit 'meh', Matt gets you results.

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  • Hi Matt,

    Thank you for the article! I recognize myself a lot in it, basically since having my baby I have been breastfeeding in all sort of odd positions and carrying her around and now I feel I am not symmetrical in the back (maybe the hips as well), I have chronic back-pain in my upper back (more on one side than the other) and can’t expand my chest fully on one side when breathing.
    Coupled with post-partum depression, it means I did not get timely help, but now that I am out of the stupour I am trying to get some help..
    My question to you is, I am trying the crocodile posture, but having trouble due to the breasts. How do I modify this posture to get comfy on my belly? My instinct is to place a pillow under my chin, but would the posture still be correct then? Would the arms need to be raised more then 15 cm in this case?

    Thanks again and looking forward to your answer!

  • hello matt. i’m 16 and last year has been very stressful for me and i overthink about my health. last year December i remember i cried a lot and then went to sleep, but next day morning i couldn’t take a deep breath.And i thought it’ll eventually get cured but nope, it’s been 6 months and i still have it.i always yawn to take a deep breath, but my yawn also isn’t complete i think.after taking several yawns i can take deep breath and sometimes can breathe deep without trying too. but i can not take a deep breaths when i want to. now, I’ve learnt to manage without deep breaths, but i miss my deep breaths.and also i fear whether it might be a serious health issue. i am pretty sure this is due to anxiety. Plz can you reply as soon as possible?

  • Thank you so much for these exercises, for the first time I can feel what deep breathing means, my body is relaxed for the first time, I feel my head light, tension in my stomach and shoulders is gone after only 10 min of exercising. Meditation is now completely different as I have been always struggling to relax. Your article is really helpful, thank you so much!

    • Hi Adriana,

      That’s great news! Thanks for the sharing your success.

      How does it get any better than that?

      All the best,


  • I’ve been struggling to take a deep breath sometimes to yawn am always tired and have chest pain and back pain I’ve been to doctors but they don’t find the problem it started last year October am only 23 years a mother of one child wat could be the problem?

  • Last few days I am having problem in breathing. Even normal breathing tires me. My breaths are shallow for quite a long time. Recently the chest feels tight and breathing seems to be a work as if I am struggling to breath. I did the first set of exercise sitting in my chair in office. I am feeling little better. I am able to take deep breath but it is tiresome. Can it be a heart problem?


  • I’ve been having difficulty breathing for the last 12 or more years. I thought it might be associated with stress. Some days are fine and others I feel like I just can’t function. It has never been a real problem but lately it’s been giving me a headache and chest pain from trying to position my body where I am able to get a deep breathe. I will definitely give your exercise a try.



  • Matt,

    Thanks for the article. I will try these exercises. It seems that when I lift weights and gain muscle in my upper body (especially my chest) that after about a month or so I find it increasingly difficult to take full breaths. My chest feels tight like I have trouble relaxing enough for my lungs to expand. I have repeated this at least 3x over the last 5-6 years, including recently again and each time I have to stop exercising for a while. Have you seen others with the same problem?


  • Matt,

    I had a pneumothorax last July and my left lung collapsed. I was in the hospital for 8 days with a chest tube. Anyway, since then I have constantly had an issue with tightness in my chest and with feeling like I simply can’t take a deep breath. And it feels like I can’t breath at all when I try to eat. It’s either eat or breath I can’t do both. I been to different doctors and hospitals a few times. They’ve told me it was anxiety and prescribed clonazepam, they told me it’s heartburn and told me to take Pepcid and other heartburn meds.
    I’m not having panic attacks and I seriously doubt heartburn would last over a year. I’m going to try your breathing exercises. Could it be that the pneumothorax damaged my lung somehow and I’ll just never be able to breath right again?

  • Hello how are you, just found your website after researching a number of websites for my condition. About 2 months ago I was diagnosed with bronchitis, I also have sarcoidosis which is an auto immune disease. Before bronchitis I could breathe normally, now it seems as though I have the urge to take deep breathes every 30 seconds to a minute. I never had anything like this happen to me when I breathe. Why is this happening, could it be caused by inflammation in my lungs or other organs in my body. I am just at a loss for what to do about this.

  • My breathing problems started about 5 days ago I woke up and couldn’t seem to get enough air in my lungs. I cannot breathe well through my nose, it has always been that way. I tried forcing air in my lungs by sitting in front of a fan…didn’t help. I will try your exercises but very nervous about it because of the nose breathing. Could a physical therapist help?

    • Hi Jackie,

      Could a physical therapist help? In theory, yes. But keep in mind that there are many forms of physical therapy and within each modality there are good practitioners and not-so-good practitioners.

      Physical therapy can be anything from actual ‘physical therapy’ through to yoga, Pilates, Egoscue, MBF and a whole bunch of other stuff.

      The key would be to assess you properly and get an understanding of the root of the problem.

      If you awoke one day and couldn’t get enough air into your lungs, that suggests a musculo-skeletal issue. Have you tried the exercises in this article? You should get benefit from at least one of them, if not all of them.

      If that’s the case, then it adds weight to the ‘musculo-skeletal argument’.

      As for having trouble breathing through your nose, that may also be sue to an alignment issue (it might not as there can be many causes for sinus problems). If your upper back is excessively rounded then that can affect 1) your ability to breathe properly and 2) the function of your sinuses.

      Without seeing you in person I can’t say much more than that. The only thing I can add is that sitting in front of a fan is unlikely to help much (I’m assuming you didn’t get much, if any, benefit from that?).

      The problem is internal (i.e. it’s due to the way your body is functioning / ‘dysfunctioning’), so it needs to be treated from the inside out to remedy it, not the outside in (which is effectively what you were trying to do with the fan).

      Hope that helps.

      All the best,


  • I just found your website when I Googled ‘problems taking a deep breath’. I recently did something to my neck and shoulder blade.
    I don’t remember anything that might have caused it, but it was excruciatingly painful for a couple of weeks. I couldn’t do ANYTHING without great pain, including breathing.
    After eating a strict diet to help heal it has almost gone, but now I notice that I can’t get a satisfying deep breath.
    When I read your first words about posture and correct breathing, a light went on. I knew immediately you had the answer. I’ve been aware for some time that my good posture has become a slumping over. I am aware of it from the mirror and photos. I am trying to remember to stand up straight. Also, I am one of those people who thought that I didn’t need instructions on how to breath.Ha,ha! Yes, I understand now. I am starting your exercises at the end of this letter. I will give you feedback in a week. I am pretty sure, though you are absolutely right.

  • Hello –

    I practice yoga every day and I recently fell out of a chair (the wheel broke!) shortly after that I realized I was having problems taking a full deep breath. I have mild asthma and I thought maybe it was that. This was two weeks ago. I went to the doctor last week and lungs are clear, xray is clear and ekg was fine. My back does feel tight and I am still having problems breathing. I want to try these exercises, but do I fall under the acute since it was recent in the 2 weeks or chronic? Also, how long should you do each exercise for. For example the acute exercise mentioned, should you repeat that for 10 minutes or something? Thanks so much and I am glad I found this, I started to think I was going crazy! Staci

    • Hi Staci,

      Sorry to hear about your accident :-/

      I would start with the exercise in the ‘acute’ section first and see how you get on with that.

      Even though the article is divided into 2 categories — acute and chronic — with different exercises in each category, ultimately there isn’t a truly hard and fast rule.

      Everyone’s different and everyone’s needs are different, so listen to your body and do what feels best for you (trust your instincts).

      It may be that one of the exercises in the ‘chronic’ section is the one that will unlock the spasm you’re experiencing at the moment.

      With regard to nose or mouth breathing, we should breathe through our noses in normal every day situations. When you breathe through your nose, the air is filtered and warmed before entering your lungs. Mouth breathing doesn’t do either of these things.

      Hope that helps. Good luck with the exercises and remember, trust your instincts — if you don’t feel much tangible difference after you’ve done an exercise, do one of the other exercises.

      Best regards,


      • Thanks so much Matt for your quick response! I do think the acute is helping and I will try some of the others today as well.

  • I have had problems breathing deeply since roughly september (2015) and it has become very uncomfortable. I feel like a weight in on my chest constantly and it gets worse when i excersize. i tried cutting out dairy and gluten, and that has helped a bit, but not completely. Any suggestions?

    • Hi Charis,

      I can’t give suggestions without knowing quite a bit more about you unfortunately. The first thing would be to do the exercises outlined in this article if you haven’t already.

      Do them every day for a week and track your progress. Start by rating your current experience on a scale of 0 to 10 (0 being it’s not there and 10 being the worst it could be). Also make a note of the key words to describe it (such as the feeling of there being a weight on your chest).

      Do the exercises every day for a week and then rate it again on a scale from 0 to 10. Then find the words that best describe your experience.

      Beyond that, there can be several factors influencing this symptom for you so I would need to know more about you before I could make any further suggestions.

      Hope that helps.


    • Hi Hugo,

      Sadly, that’s not too surprising. By its very nature, a hiatal hernia usually impedes the diaphragm (the main muscle of respiration) from working properly.

      To restore your ability to take a deep breath, your recovery should include diaphragm retraining. Of course, your diaphragm doesn’t work in isolation and the bigger picture should also be addressed, i.e. your other muscle imbalances that contributed to the overall problem.



  • Just recently i have had trouble expanding my chest for a full breath which starts to cause some anxiety, for the past week before i had trouble getting a full breath, my lower back would feel like its in an akward position probably due to bad posture and me sitting in a slumped over position would any of these excersises help me expand my chest for a full breath?

    • Hi John,

      The short answer is to have a go at the exercises and then listen to and observe the feedback your body gives you.

      You should feel more expanded and better able to take a full breath after you do them, but the only way to know for sure is to have the experience.

      Beyond that, it’s difficult to give concrete advice without having seen you and knowing more about you what’s going on with you.

      Do the exercises for a few days and then let us know how you got on.

      All the best,


  • I have problem in take full breaths very frequently,and my yawns as mentioned above by noma always end with no success. Also I don’t know if its related to this issue.. But I have severe knots or trigger points of pain in my back n shoulder area almost all the time… And at the times I have problem breathing this pain also increases.. Althou its there even when I do breath properly. I have been suffering since 5 or so years.. And no one seems to be able to point out why this is happening.

    • Hi Ash,

      What you have described sounds very much like a muscle imbalance issue. Comments from other readers have been more ambiguous and could be related to other issues. Yours though *sounds* like muscle imbalances.

      The way to test is simple: do a program of exercises from Pain Free for a few weeks and notice how it affects whats going on.

      Or for personalized programs of exercises instead of a generic set from the book, get in touch.

      Either way, begin taking the necessary steps and you will probably be feeling a whole lot better in your body quite soon.

      All the best,


  • I can fall asleep for 3 to 5 hours (max) but always waken with horrendous shortness of breath and panic EVERY day, toss, turn pillows, thrash, get up terrified after an hour and remain breathless throughout most of the day. I do not drink.or smoke.exercise makes it worse. Help!!!!!

    • Hi Liz,

      It’s often tricky to offer concrete advice with only a snippet of information and having never seen you. That said, what you’ve described here sounds like it might be more than just muscle imbalances.

      If you’d like to explore possibilities further and get more concrete ‘next steps’, send me an email and we can go from there: info [at] UpwardSpiral [dot] co [dot] uk

      All the best,


  • I have been having difficulty taking a full breath for some time and feel like it is related to muscle weakness and a mysterious pulled muscle in my chest at times seems to worsen it. I am very interested in the relationship to the Illiopsoasas as I had an episode of acute paralysis of that muscle prior to when the breathing issues began. I seem to have poor endurance of my breathing muscles and and find relief in supine which is odd. 2 years ago I was running marathons/triathlons and able to keep my heart rate at 85% for 2 or more hours. I now get out of breath waking up 3 steps. I have been diagnosed with MS and more recently a MG has been considered. My Illiopsoas are weak bilaterally and also tight. any ideas or advice?

  • Can breathing problems also be caused by emotional issues? I understand that in Chinese medicine the lungs govern respiration (and Qi) and in particular are in charge of inhaling air. They house the emotions of sadness and grief, so maybe anyone having problems inhaling might want to see if grief on any level is the root cause. I did last night and I think it helped. I did some journaling and even though things that happened a long time ago should be over and done with……they are not. Just captured in an undercurrent and hidden from us on a day-to-day basis. So what I did last night was pretty cathartic and I think I’m having an easier time inhaling although not perfect….far from it! I’m going to keep working on myself. Good luck to everyone on here who is struggling with breathing.

    • Hi Christine,

      Yes, breathing problems — as well as many other physical symptoms — can be created by unaddressed emotional issues. We are more than our physical bodies, so there are many aspects that influence us on many levels, ‘stuck emotions’ being one of them.

      Great to hear that your journaling was cathartic and has helped with your breathing. Did you do the exercises too? Coming at a ‘problem’ from different angles — the emotional and the physical — can have a wonderful compounding effect.

      Thanks for your comment and good luck with your ongoing journey :)

      All the best,


  • I actually found this to make my breathing issues get worse pretty quickly… So definitely not for everyone, but glad to see its working for others :-)

    • Hi Glenn,

      Sorry to hear your breathing issues got worse after trying these suggestions. As you say, they’re not for everyone, as it does depend on what is going on with each person in terms of the root problem of their breathing issue.

      I’m curious in what way your breathing got worse pretty quickly.

      All the best,


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