The Musical Athlete: Re-Defining the Warm Up

What do you do to warm up and cultivate your voice beyond vocalizing? It is my belief that what you choose to do with the 10-15 minutes before and after vocalizing may be the most important factor you will ever consider for the health and performance of your voice.

At the Musical Athlete, we are strong proponents of a warm up and cooldown to cultivate a 360 degree breathing pattern prior to singing. This is because breathing is not only the thing that we do most every day but also the basis of overall vocal health and performance. 

Going into auditions or performances with a shallow, stressful breathing pattern increases the likelihood of increased muscular tension, breathlessness during phrases and vocal fatigue. By contrast, the ability to take a full, deep breath represents a body which has full access to its physical resources and vocal options. 

The goal of this article is to outline the three crucial steps we feel are most important to ensure optimal breathing before vocalizing to ensure consistent success with performance and even better recovery thereafter.

Step #1: Cultivate awareness:

While many styles of breathing exist in the vocal world, we feel that developing a pattern which distributes air evenly throughout the ribcage represents the ideal starting point.

As we inhale, the lower ribs expand both laterally as well as anteriorly or forward as the diaphragm descends to meet the pelvic floor. At the same time, the sternum tips up like a bucket handle as negative pressure pulls air into the chest wall and the posterior ribcage expands to a lesser extent. This equal expansion of air allows for a better overall distribution of pressure to optimize recoil and subsequent exhalation. 

What we often find is that singers will over tense or over breathe when certain areas of the thorax are compressed. Our first goal with any Singer is determining how you are breathing and where you may currently be limited to select positions to restore optimal breathing. In our first video demonstration, we walk through a quick self breathing assessment to understand where to focus. 

Step #2: Building a balanced breath:

Once we have determined how you are currently breathing, the next step is to establish relaxed, 360 breathing in positions which optimize the alignment of the head, torso, pelvis as we breathe. We call this the stacked position and it simply represents the ability to stack these areas atop one another for better breathing. This typically begins with ground based postures such as side lying or lying on the back to minimize the effects of gravity as we breathe into restricted areas. 

Two of the most common areas of restriction we see are compressed/stiff lower back and a sternal area which has trouble expanding to expand the chest wall. Much like squeezing a balloon at the top, what we find when we combine these two restrictions is an excess belly breathing pattern placing downward pressure on the pelvic floor. In our second demonstration, we show strategies and positions to establish a full, 360 degree breathing pattern. 

Step #3: Stand and stack:

The first two steps of our warm up process involve building awareness of breathing and establishing the best breathing pattern possible. The last step is to perform this pattern in a stacked, standing position to create readiness to vocalize.

What we find is that many performers assume certain postures and use footwear that shifts their center of gravity forward. This creates excess stiffness and tension.  Much like backing a plane up on a runway to build momentum for takeoff, the stacked position helps to relax the entire body by shifting your center of gravity backwards over the heels first as you inhale so you can then move forward as you exhale, vocalize and move across the stage.

To assist in this process, we want to focus on finding pressure in our heels and reaching with our arms to open up the backside of the ribcage and achieve optimal pelvic position. As a rule of thumb, if you are feeling abs and hamstrings during this exercise then you are in a good place. In our last demonstration, we explain and demonstrate a stacked standing position.

Putting everything together:

While this three step process may seem like a lot, it ultimately amounts to 3-4 exercises performed for 1-2 minutes each. We have put together a sample warm up that works wonders when performed as a warm up and cooldown.

Chris Kelly

Chris Kelly possess a Masters Degree in Journalism from Columbia University, is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist through the NSCA and has completed all the education for systems such as Functional Range Conditioning, Postural Restoration Institute, Bill Hartman’s Intensive and Neurokinetic Therapy. As the co-owner of the Musical Athlete, a physical preparation and performance company for vocalists, Chris uses biomechanical principles to help vocalists move, breath and perform better while gaining a new understanding of their body. He is passionate about helping singers support the vocal mechanism by training the body and the breathe holistically. In his role as a teacher, Chris has educated hundreds of fitness trainers, physical therapists, massage therapists and vocal teachers in topics such as movement screening, rehabilitative core training, exercise prescription/modification and much more. The Musical Athlete offers one on one training, movement consultations and group training for singers as well as a mentorship program for teachers or anyone seeking to learn more about the biomechanics of the ribcage, pelvis and breathing as they apply to training to support the vocal mechanism. For more information, check out @the.musical.athlete on Instagram or contact