Many singers will avoid doing any core exercises in the interest of having total flexibility of their abdominal area. Other singers will do core exercises in an attempt to strengthen musculature that they know is connected to vocal production. And, still a third group considers what they do as classically-trained singers to be adequate work for the abs and leave it at that.
For many of us, the voice works well even though our core isn’t as well coordinated as it could be. However, when the voice and/or breath aren’t working well or you go through a physical change that results in a negative shift in the functioning of your voice or body, core training is a key element of making a change for the better. A well functioning core is crucial not just for pain-free movement, but also for the voice to perform optimally.
There is an important distinction that needs to be made between ‘core exercise’ and ‘core training.’ Core exercise involves doing a set of repetitive exercises without contemplating whether they are contributing to the functionality of the entire body. Core training, on the other hand, addresses functionality in the whole body: your breathing and your muscles, your existing patterns of engagement, resting tension and how you put all of that together (particularly as it relates to your voice) to establish a synergistic relationship throughout the body.
What are the signs of a core-voice connection that could be improved?
” Tension in the shoulders, neck and throat/jaw region.
” Bracing of the abdomen at the onset of sound.
” A held abdominal area that lacks freedom of movement.
” Low back pain.
” A sound that isn’t well supported.
” Weight loss and loss of support of the sound.
” Reports of the voice being effortful to produce.
” Reports of breathing issues that are elusive to resolve.
” Negative vocal and physical changes post-childbirth.
” Hernias of any kind.
What is the Functional Reflexive Core?
The foundation of healthy movement and singing comes from the deep layer of the Functional Reflexive Core (FRC). The part of our body that makes up the FRC is our entire trunk located between where the head attaches to the neck and where the arms and legs attach to the torso.
It has two layers. The deep layer of the FRC is made up of the throat, the diaphragm, the transverse abdominus, the psoai, the multifidi and the pelvic floor musculature. The outer layer is made up of all the other muscles that fall within that central part of the body. We want stability of the muscles in the outer layers of the core, and imbalances here can create problems when it comes to voice production, but when we talk about the core-voice connection, we are most interested in the functionality of the deep layer of the FRC. And, the relationship of the muscles here is heavily influenced by how we are breathing, how we are moving (or not) through our lives and our tension levels in the upper and lower body.
Why do we have these issues to begin with?
Modern life has left us with bodies that are ‘casted’ by sitting, wearing shoes, and moving through a limited range of motion. The good news is, our bodies are relatively plastic and have an amazing capacity to change. We just need to know how to make the change effectively and be consistent in our efforts.
Patterns in the body and breath that indicate an imbalance in the FRC are:
Abdominal Holding – As a result of sitting in chairs our whole lives, our backsides get weak, the abdominal musculature gets recruited to do work it shouldn’t be doing and we carry resting tension in the abs. Second, there is the cultural message that we are somehow more valuable if our abs are flat. That can result in people sucking the stomach in chronically or over-exercising the abs, creating a flatter but definitely not more functional mid-section.
Abdominal Bracing – When the deep layer of the core isn’t functional, we can over-recruit and use the outer layer muscles to make up for the lack. Bracing can be observed in both movement and singing when there is a very visible hook up in the belly at the onset of moving or singing and then it often appears as a static hold – as though you are bracing to prepare for someone to punch you in the stomach.
Bulging – This can occur on inhalation and/or on phonation and movement. If we bulge on inhale, seen through a distended belly, we overload the musculature of the deep FRC. Once overloaded, the muscles lack the relationship they need to the breath and don’t fire effectively. This type of increase in intra-abdominal pressure can lead to things like hernias and pelvic floor problems. Bulging during movement means the belly pushes out when we are doing something like lying on our back and bringing both legs up into reverse table (see below). Bulging during phonation will also show up as a belly that is pressing out in a rigid, fixed way when singing.
Bearing Down – This is just as it sounds. When we move or phonate there is a sense of bearing down – almost like you are trying really hard to go to the bathroom. This is, in fact, the reverse of the motion we want to experience when we are singing or moving. We also don’t particularly want to be bearing down hard to go to the bathroom, but that’s another post for another time!
Here are a few assessments you can do to test the functionality of your FRC
Do you carry resting abdominal tension?
Resting abdominal tension means we are carrying higher than optimal levels of tension when we are at rest. For many of us, we have a lifetime of constantly sucking the stomach in to help it appear to be flat. Some of us grip in our abdomen due to stress. Both of those can result in abdominal muscles that tend to grip and have a hard time releasing. When we breathe and carry high resting tension we can feel the pressure of the breath more and when we release the excess tension and breathe it can feel like we aren’t getting a good enough breath.
Do you have a diastasis recti (DR)?
Both men and women can experience DR. It is a separation of an unnatural distance between the two rectus abdominus muscles and the connective tissue, called the linea alba, is stretched and thinned. DR is caused primarily by excessive intra-abdominal pressure. To check your body for a DR, lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Exhale normally and pick your head up off the floor. With the head up, use your fingers to palpate down the midline of your rectus abdominus muscles from sternum to pubic bone. See if you can feel both sides of the muscles and see if there is a gap between the two. The gap is measured by finger widths. It is also measured by depth. It may be normal for you to have some separation between your muscles, but a width of 2 fingers or greater or a depth of a knuckle or more, may indicate you have some issues with too much intra-abdominal pressure.
Do you have a hernia?
Most men are probably familiar with the turn your head and cough test to see if you have an inguinal hernia. Inguinal hernias can also present as swelling or a bulge in the scrotum. A hiatal hernia, which is often associated with GERD will require an x-ray study to diagnose. Umbilical hernias are usually diagnosed through physical exam and present with swelling or a bulge around the belly button. All 3 hernias are associated with excess pressure and weakness in connective tissue.
What do we do about our imbalances?
Our answers to these issues lie in an approach that addresses the whole body, including alignment, breathing and movement mechanics. When we tune in to how we are moving and where our body is compensating for our limitations we can make gains quickly. Here are some simple movements to begin to explore your current patterns and function. To bring balance, strength and stability to the whole body a more complete practice is needed, but these will give you a sense of where you are in this moment and perhaps inspire you to explore more!
Abdominal Release –
- Come onto your hands and knees and let your belly sag toward the floor without allowing the back to sway excessively. The pelvis is untucked.
- Breathe normally and notice if your belly releases each time you inhale. Focus on letting everything release – diaphragm to pelvic floor on the breath in.
- Stay here for about 5 minutes and really tune in to the space from the bottom of the ribcage to the pubic bone.
Notice if you find tension returning and continue to release it each time you notice it. Try singing a few phrases in this position and notice what your body does as you breathe in and as you phonate.
Waking up the Deep Layer of the FRC –
- Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Bolster your head on a pillow so the lower ribs are on the ground. The pelvis is untucked, with space behind the low back.
- Place your hands on your low belly. Take a breath in and notice what moves more on the inhalation –the belly or the ribcage – ideally the ribs will move more.
- Begin a long slow exhale through pursed lips or on a hiss.
- Midway through the exhale see if you notice the deep part of your core activating in a corseting action this is NOT navel to spine.
- On your next breath in, release all engagement and exhale again through pursed lips or on a hiss. Do this 5-7 times. If you do not feel things engaging, don’t worry, keep practicing and the deep FRC will wake up.
Notice if you flatten your back to the floor when exhaling. Notice if you tense in your shoulders or throat when you are exhaling. Notice if your lower ribs pull away from the floor when you breathe in. Be aware that it is easy to engage the obliques more than the transverse abdominus (TVA) muscle in this exercise. Don’t force the engagement of the TVA, allow it to happen organically.
Reverse Table –
- Repeat steps 1-3 above.
- Midway through the exhale, when you have felt the FRC engage, slowly bring the right leg into reverse table.
- Breathe in again. And exhale, returning the leg to the floor.
- Repeat the above but this time bring the left leg up.
Notice first if one side feels easier than the other. For each side, notice if your belly bulges while moving the leg into the air, or if you are bearing down as you bring the leg up. Notice if your hips wobble or shift or if your back flattens to the ground as you bring the legs up. Those are all signs you have some work to do to improve function.
For an advanced version of this pose, bring one leg up and then on the next exhale, bring the other leg to meet it. If you have any of the above issues, back up to the phase before.
Waking up the deep layer of the functional reflexive core can feel like slow, small work, but the payoff is huge. Having a body that supports you as you move through your life on stage and off, providing you with a solid foundation for the voice to be produced, is an invaluable tool for a singer.
If you have questions or would like some help waking up your FRC, you can book a 1-on-1 session or join the Singer Synergy Movement Series where we address this in a 9 week movement program.
11 thoughts to “The importance of core training for singers”
Thanks! Very helpful!
Thank you very much! I am taking singing lessons and my instructor suggests that I strengthen my core. This will help. I am interested in learning more. Thank you Caryn
Very nice!! You are a teacher at heart. This is excellent advice, I mean by the way it helps me. I got on my knees and hands like the photo and ya we feel things in the abdomen better / different that way.
I am a woodwind player intent on learning to sing. My kids say “stop, Dad, don/t” – but I am improving. LOL
Hi, I have a question trying to clarify which abdominal muscles must be strong for balance of body(posture ) ? I have using support for my voice for at least a year. Are these muscles and other abdominal muscles necessary to maintain posture? I am in physical therapy to strengthen back muscles and neck muscles. 2 weeks after colonoscopy, my shoulders drooped and my head was more forward? My singing is not affected. Probably more of a question for physical therapist except she is not a singer. Any input would be appreciated.
Hi Barbara, I’m not sure I totally understand what you are asking – which muscles are overlapping between posture and singing support? Did you try out the moves in this post to see how your body responded? Both the back and front of the body have muscles that need to work well to help us be upright with ease and sing with ease. Think about the muscles that are closest to the spine. I don’t tend to work in a way that will help posture, rather the movements we do lead to better posture through greater ease in movement. Hope that helps
Thank you, I forgot about my question. I was so excited to see a singer about abdominals. Did not want to ask my voice teacher. I neglected to tell you I had a gi problem with bowel incontinence and constipation. The abdominal muscles are involved with correcting this problem. Don’t mean to confuse, but when the problem surfaced my posture deteriorated. My singing is not affected. I was concerned because I am one of those who likes to know what my body is doing and how adjusting muscles affects other disciplines. I did what you said on the floor, but I don’t remember what happened. I would like to continue with your input. Thank you for taking the time to respond to my probably more confusing question than your clear response. Yes it is helpful. My support is well managed. Now working on a lower larynx position. Before lessons, never knew that singing is not like anything else. I chose speech pathology to quash my dreams about making a living by singing. I may not make a living but I will still dream of singing the national anthem post Covid at a professional sports arena. Music and babies make my heart sing. Barbara
I also have a question about the contradiction between the kind of “breath down and hold out” support required for singing, and the “vacuum your bellybutton in” habits required to keep a diastasis recti and multiple hernias in the correct place.
After multiple pregnancies, I find that the “down and out” style of appoggio support is no longer possible, without my guts spilling out. Similar to a plank — you cannot hold downward support after having a hundred babies. (At least without surgical repair.)
But the “suck everything in and up” approach leads to tension and poor breath support.
What is the solution?
(My 5th baby is 8 years old by now, and I’ve done PT for years, so my muscles are as rehabilitated as they’re going to get without the $20k surgery, which as I’m sure you know is always elective and never covered by insurance — there’s not even an insurance code for it. So “work on those muscles with your exercises” isn’t good enough.)
Hi Jan, I don’t think the down and out approach is actually what we want for singing, nor is the navel to spine. The breath should set up a responsiveness from the deep core as I talk about in this blog, that is neither of those things. You can also still have a diastasis and have a competent core. It may not close completely but the body can learn to work well around it.
I’m getting back into singing after having babies, and I definitely have DR now, so my support feels way off. I’ve been working on DR healing exercises fairly consistently for a year or so, but I’m still having issues. Will the exercises you listed help with this? I’d really love to be able to sing correctly again.
Hi Carolyn, You definitely can sing well again, it IS possible. Without hearing you sing or seeing you move it’s hard to make recommendations. The movements here are all good ways of assessing how your core is responding to the breath and to movement so you could use them to check and see what your response is – bulging, bracing, bearing down, and see where you compensate. DR is really a pressure issue in the body so we want to make sure they way you are breathing, singing and moving isn’t creating excess pressure in the lower part of your torso such that it continues to stress the linea alba etc. I’d be more than happy to do a consult if you’d like. You can email me at email@example.com or just go straight to my calendar to set something up: https://app.acuityscheduling.com/schedule.php?owner=13056697
Thank you so much for posting this article. I took your yoga class years ago on yoga poses to help with prolapse and it has helped me so much over the years. But it has been sort of a mystery to me and frustrating as to why the prolapse would always get worse after I would sing. And I think after all these years it has come to me that perhaps when I sing I am holding and tensing my abdominal muscles. I think my body had decided that that was how the breath was supported. I recently was watching a masterclass with Renee Fleming and she talked about how you should make sure that you inhale with the lungs and keep a sense of suspension in the rib cage. When I did that I was beginning to become more aware of what was going on in my abdomen because I think it was freeing up my abdomen. The whole topic of breath support is so confusing!