Chest physiotherapy in connection with abdominal surgery includes different deep-breathing exercises to prevent post-operative pulmonary complications. The therapy is effective in preventing pulmonary complications, especially in high-risk patients such as obese persons. The mechanisms behind the effect is unclear, but part of the effect may be explained by the changes in breathing patterns. The aim of this study was therefore to describe and to analyse the breathing patterns in obese and non-obese subjects during three different breathing techniques frequently used in the treatment of post-operative patients. Twenty-one severely obese [body mass index (BMI) > 40] and 21 non-obese (BMI 19-25) subjects were studied. All persons denied having any lung disease and were non-smokers. The breathing techniques investigated were: deep breaths without any resistance (DB), positive expiratory pressure (PEP) with an airway resistance of approximately +15 cmH2O (1.5 kPa) during expiration, inspiratory resistance positive expiratory pressure (IR-PEP) with a pressure of approximately -10 cmH2O (-1.0 kPa) during inspiration. Expiratory resistance as for PEP. Volume against time was monitored while the subjects were sitting in a body plethysmograph. Variables for volume and flow during the breathing cycle were determined. Tidal volume and alveolar ventilation were highest during DB, and peak inspiratory volume was significantly higher than during PEP and IR-PEP in the group of obese subjects. The breathing cycles were prolonged in all techniques but were most prolonged in PEP and IR-PEP. The functional residual capacity (FRC) was significantly lower during DB than during PEP and IR-PEP in the group of obese subjects. FRC as determined within 2 min of finishing each breathing technique was identical to before the breathing manoeuvres.