The objective of the present study was to evaluate breathing pattern, thoracoabdominal motion and muscular activity during three breathing exercises: diaphragmatic breathing (DB), flow-oriented (Triflo II) incentive spirometry and volume-oriented (Voldyne) incentive spirometry. Seventeen healthy subjects (12 females, 5 males) aged 23 +/- 5 years (mean +/- SD) were studied. Calibrated respiratory inductive plethysmography was used to measure the following variables during rest (baseline) and breathing exercises: tidal volume (Vt), respiratory frequency (f), rib cage contribution to Vt (RC/Vt), inspiratory duty cycle (Ti/Ttot), and phase angle (PhAng). Sternocleidomastoid muscle activity was assessed by surface electromyography. Statistical analysis was performed by ANOVA and Tukey or Friedman and Wilcoxon tests, with the level of significance set at P < 0.05. Comparisons between baseline and breathing exercise periods showed a significant increase of Vt and PhAng during all exercises, a significant decrease of f during DB and Voldyne, a significant increase of Ti/Ttot during Voldyne, and no significant difference in RC/Vt. Comparisons among exercises revealed higher f and sternocleidomastoid activity during Triflo II (P < 0.05) with respect to DB and Voldyne, without a significant difference in Vt, Ti/Ttot, PhAng, or RC/Vt. Exercises changed the breathing pattern and increased PhAng, a variable of thoracoabdominal asynchrony, compared to baseline. The only difference between DB and Voldyne was a significant increase of Ti/Ttot compared to baseline. Triflo II was associated with higher f values and electromyographic activity of the sternocleidomastoid. In conclusion, DB and Voldyne showed similar results while Triflo II showed disadvantages compared to the other breathing exercises.