• Strengthening the abs may result in chronic tightness that inhibits full inhalation.
• Stronger abs may encourage pushing.
• Performing crunches may stress the neck and throat.
A strong, balanced core musculature provides exceptional support for your singing technique. In this column, I will address the above concerns and offer a workout regimen for developing abdominal strength that will enhance, rather than diminish, your vocal prowess.
Abdominal Strength & Respiration
A healthy strength-training regimen should lead to increased range of motion for targeted muscle groups. It is a poorly balanced workout that can result in chronic tightness or limited range of motion.
If you want a joint to function optimally, you have to work all of the movements involving that joint. Consider elbow movement. Your elbow moves in only two directions: your biceps bend (or flex) your elbow, and your triceps straighten (or extend) it. Therefore, when you strengthen one of these muscle groups, you are also stretching and lengthening the other. Imagine what would happen if your workout included biceps curls but no exercises to strengthen your triceps. Your biceps would become big and strong, your triceps would be weak—and, as a result, you’d be walking around with your elbows chronically bent.
Your core region is much more complicated than your elbow. It comprises a complex network of muscles and joints involving the spine, pelvis, and rib cage and if capable of moving your torso in many more than two directions. However, the same principle applies. If your abdominal workout results in residual tightness that creates problems for your breathing, it is likely that you are emphasizing some muscle groups while neglecting others and/or failing to stretch properly after your workout.
Fitness regimens offered by magazines tend to emphasize building up the glamor muscles—those that are easiest to see and will most swiftly enhance your appearance. Where your abs are concerned, that means developing a six pack—a.k.a. working for size and strength in your rectus abdominis.
The rectus abdominis flexes the spine and moves your pelvis and rib cage toward each other. The classic exercise targeting this muscle is the crunch.
While the rectus abdominis may be the most visible of the abdominal and core muscles, it is only one of many muscles that work together throughout the torso to support good alignment and breathing. If you do lots of crunches on a regular basis but do not devote equal time and energy to the muscles governing spinal extension, rotation, and stabilization, it is indeed likely that you will develop chronic tension in your abs that yields undesirable consequences for your breathing. If you also do not lengthen and stretch your six pack after a workout, that chronic tension will intensify. Like the biceps enthusiast who can no longer straighten out his elbows, you will not be able to elicit the relaxation and expansion you need in your viscera in order to take a deep, low breath.
This is the basis for the widespread concern that exercising the abdominal muscles is bad for singers. However, far from being an inevitable consequence of exercising your abs, this problem is the result of poor exercise strategies. Your singing technique will not benefit from weak, underdeveloped abdominal muscles. So the answer is not avoiding abdominal exercise but rather pursuing a regimen that balances strength and movement in all directions.
Abdominal Strength & Pushing
Let’s define “pushing” to mean applying excessive force to the breath beyond what is required for free phonation. It’s true that your abdominal muscles are ideally positioned to accomplish this. If you have a tendency to push, developing stronger abs will make it possible for you to push that much harder. While avoiding abdominal exercise will not resolve a problem with pushing, engaging in a balanced core workout will improve your coordination and kinesthetic awareness in this area, giving you greater control over when and how you engage your abs while singing.
Your core muscles play a very important role in your singing, whether you realize it or not. They keep you upright while standing and stabilize your torso so that you can continue phonating consistently during stage movement. Many of the muscles that provide this stability, however, also have a potentially expiratory function. You need to develop the coordination to mobilize them enough to stabilize alignment and movement without allowing them to become overactive and participate in your singing in undesirable ways.
One excellent way to distinguish between what your core muscles should and shouldn’t be doing while singing is to simply take them out of the equation by vocalizing in a prone position.
When your core muscles are relieved of the responsibility of holding you up and moving you around, any movement in this area should be only what you intend as part of your breath management strategy. In this position, you will become aware of pushing that might be difficult to detect while standing. This awareness will begin to give you more conscious control over unwanted movement in your abs which you can correct by applying your technique. Again, it’s a problem to be resolved through enhanced coordination and kinesthetic awareness. A well-designed core workout will help you develop these crucial skills while also developing the strength you need to stabilize alignment and movement.
Impact of Crunches on the Neck
Exercises, both vocal and athletic, should be undertaken with an understanding of what each exercise is for and executed with proper form. Performing a crunch with poor form can indeed result in neck tension that creates problems for your singing, but these problems are easily avoided if you comprehend the point of the exercise and take steps to protect your neck.
The point of the crunch is to exercise the rectus abdominis—which, as I mentioned earlier, flexes the spine and draws your rib cage and pelvis toward each other. Your upper torso, neck, and head will elevate as the result of this movement, but it’s important to understand that this is incidental. It is not the point of the crunch to elevate your head and neck, so don’t pull on them with your arms while performing this movement. Pulling on your head and neck can generate momentum that will make the overall crunch movement easier—and this is called “cheating.”
Remember that the point is to exercise the rectus abdominis, not pull yourself into a position that just makes it look like you’re exercising the rectus abdominis. Perform the exercise only with the range of motion and number of repetitions that you can skillfully manage with the muscles you’re targeting.
Because it is so tempting to generate momentum by pulling on your head or neck, you must continuously monitor your form and choose a good strategic position for your hands. I prefer to place my fingertips behind each ear rather than clasp my hands in back of my head—but if you feel the need to support the weight of your skull throughout the exercise, it is fine to cradle your head with your hands.
The key is to keep your elbows pointing directly out to each side throughout the movement. If they aren’t pointing forward, you can’t pull on your head. Keep your chin gently tucked down. While I often see people sticking their faces up towards the ceiling during crunches, I cannot fathom any possible benefit from this position, and extending the neck like that is a very bad idea for singers.
A Balanced Core Workout
To establish a healthy, balanced core, engage in a workout that features exercises that train spinal flexion, extension, rotation, and stabilization as well as stretch your six pack afterward. Here is a series of exercises to accomplish this.
Crunches and sit-ups train spinal flexion and develop the six pack and hip flexors. When performing these movements, make sure to engage only the abdominal muscles you intend to train and keep your neck relaxed.
Spinal extension is the opposite of the flexion trained by crunches. It builds strength that will balance and counter the rectus abdominis. The Superman is a great exercise for the muscles of spinal extension.
Spinal rotation exercises engage the internal and external obliques and require the stabilizing effort of the transversus abdominis—all of which play important roles in breath management for singing. Spinal rotation exercises are most effectively performed with cables or a resistance band.
The ability to dynamically stabilize your spine is crucial for maintaining good singing technique during stage movement. The Plank is the classic exercise for core stabilization. As with crunches, make sure to keep your chin slightly tucked down during a plank rather than using your neck to pull your head back so as to avoid unwanted neck tension. Retract your scapulæ to make sure not to hump up your shoulders.
Stretch Your Six Pack
When you’re done with your workout, make sure to stretch your rectus abdominis. One highly effective way to do this is to lie on your back on a stability ball, reach over your head, and take several deep and slow breaths.
The development of chronic tension and holding in the abdominal muscles can indeed negatively impact your ability to inhale fully and thus mess up your breath management. But this is a concern only if you engage in an exercise regimen that does not prioritize your sports-specific needs. Follow a fitness program that develops your core and abdominal musculature in a balanced fashion and you will build strength and coordination that will do great things for your singing rather than cause any harm.