Hi Claudia! I have been forming ideas about my master’s thesis and wanted to get in contact with you. I am really interested in using sports-specific training to train singers more effectively; particularly in the muscle composition of the muscles involved in phonation. I’ve found your columns in Classical Singer incredibly interesting. I’m focusing primarily on developing strength, flexibility, and endurance in the muscular systems of the body, but also in the voice. I was wondering if the athletic training principles that you utilize in the studio manifest themselves in the voice? (I’m sure they do, but I wonder how they are manifested in the voice).
By “muscles involved in phonation,” I think you are referring to the vocalis and the intrinsic muscles of the larynx:
The vocalis, or thyroarytenoid muscle, forms the body of the vocal folds; its muscular action is actually to relax and shorten the vocal folds;
The cricothyroid muscles lengthen and tense the vocal folds (thus impacting pitch and registration);
The lateral cricoarytenoid and transverse arytenoid muscles adduct the vocal folds.
As I explained in my post on How to Build Stamina and Reduce Vocal Fatigue, the kind of resistance training you would engage in to build up your pecs is not an effective means of strengthening the vocalis or other intrinsic laryngeal muscles. That’s fine, because these muscles do not require targeted strengthening.
The purpose of strengthening a muscle is increasing the level of force that it can produce. In a normal, healthy voice, the vocal exercises used to establish and improve overall technique are adequate for developing tone and flexibility in the intrinsic muscles of the larynx. That’s all the thyroarytenoid and cricothyroid muscles should require to optimize range and registration. Abduction of the vocal folds requires minimal strength. Most singers already need to learn to inhibit over-adducting the vocal folds, so increasing force in that direction is definitely undesirable!
I’ll present the essential concepts behind sports-specific training and discuss how they apply to singing.
Sports-specific training refers to exercise regimens designed to optimize performance for particular activities. You might get better at your sport just by playing it, but strengthening the muscles and drilling the movements required for your sport will accelerate your improvement and enhance your performance.
If I play third base for a baseball team, my job often involves throwing the ball long distances with speed and precision. This means producing tremendous force with my pecs, anterior deltoids, and triceps while stabilizing my shoulder, as well as generating rotational power and momentum through my legs and torso while stabilizing this movement with my core. My sports-specific training regimen could include a dumbbell chest press to strengthen my pecs, a sequence of Pilates moves to stabilize my core, etc., to strengthen each muscle group I use in my sport. It would also include power training – exercises designed to improve the rate of force production – for my upper body. These activities would take place in a gym using tools like free weights and cables.
It is just as important that I get out in the field with a ball, a glove and my teammates to practice the actual movements and activities I will perform during a game: fielding the ball, throwing it and catching it. Part of my preparation therefore includes repeating these movements over and over again, with a view to improving my reflexes and hand-eye coordination.
As you can see, my training breaks down into two categories:
- Quality and rate of force production is created in the gym;
- Coordination, skill, and teamwork are developed in the field.
When designing a sports-specific training program for any athletic endeavor, including singing, you have to analyze the roles played by force production vs. coordination, skill and teamwork. Then you must break down the various movements involved to determine which ones will be trained in the gym and which in the field (or in our case, the studio and rehearsal hall).
Singers are pretty good at practicing those movements best trained in “the field” – vocal technical exercises for optimizing phonation, articulation, resonance and agility. The principles of athletic training that apply in the studio have to do with the requirements of motor learning - isolating tasks, like a scale passage or movement from one vowel to another, and then using repetition to reinforce the movement until it becomes habitual.
Where singers generally need more targeted sports-specific work is in the gym.
The spine provides the foundation from which all movement originates. Good alignment is paramount for singers because so much of a singer’s movement is internal. Optimal alignment facilitates full range of motion of the larynx and breathing mechanism; postural distortions compromise breathing, laryngeal movement, and resonance. Any sports-specific training program for singers must therefore begin with a robust alignment assessment and be designed around exercises that correct imbalances and distortions. Excellent alignment is of premium concern for all competitive professional athletes, as improvements in this area can shave crucial seconds off a 100-meter sprint or lengthen a long jump, so tremendous research has gone into assessing and improving alignment. This research has yielded excellent postural screens for identifying distortions and imbalances and techniques for resolving them. Every singer’s workout regimen should be built upon the results of these screens.
All athletes must be as economical with their resources as possible. One crucial resource common to all is oxygen. Your respiratory system’s primary responsibility is delivering oxygen to your body, and singing places additional demands on it. Good cardiorespiratory fitness is therefore essential for singing, particularly when stage movement is involved. Excellent oxygen consumption is also necessary for sustaining long phrases because it is the sense that you’ve depleted your oxygen supply - not your actual air supply - that causes you to feel like you’ve run out of breath. I cannot overstate the importance for singers of engaging in a cardiorespiratory regimen designed to optimize their oxygen consumption – the better your stamina, the better you’ll be able to access the best of your technique regardless of the challenges your director creates for you and the more options you will have for pacing and sustaining phrases and cadenzas.
Singer-Specific Force Production
The mechanics of throwing a baseball involve torso rotation, shoulder flexion and elbow extension. The mechanics of producing a powerful vocal sound that remains stable and consistent during stage movement is harder to visualize because nearly all of the movement in internal – the stronger and more coordinated a singer is, the less likely you are to observe these mechanics in action.
The key areas where singers need to produce force are breath management and stabilization. Fortunately, there is a lot of overlap among the muscle groups and movements required for these two activities.
Breath management refers to the ability to take in a desired quantity of air and optimize subglottal breath pressure while singing (please see this post for a more detailed discussion on breath management). This means cultivating full range of motion through the joints governing inspiration as well as balanced flexibility and strength in the muscles that act on these joints.
Stretch: the pectoral and intercostal muscles, the rectus abdominis, obliques, and transversus abdominis
The Prone Snow Angel Stretch is excellent for promoting flexibility in the chest and shoulders.
Strengthen: latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, middle and lower trapezius.
Rear Delt Cable Flyes strengthen the rhomboids and middle and lower trapezius, creating shoulder stability and the strength needed to maintain a high stable sternum while singing.
Stabilization refers to the ability to maintain dynamic stillness in one area of the body to provide a platform of support for movement in another. Singers must cultivate stability:
- For breathing: Stabilize the shoulders and sternum so that the chest does not collapse during singing.
- For movement: Stabilize the shoulders, core, and lumbo-pelvic-hip complex so that all torso, neck and head activity needed for vocal technique proceeds unaffected by stage movement.
A singer’s training regimen should be be constructed around strength-training exercises for the core and all major muscle groups that incorporate elements of balance and stabilization and require independent movement of your limbs (e.g. working with the right and left arms separately from one another).
Performing this combination squat, overhead press and biceps curl on a Bosu helps stabilize the core and hips.
Balance and stabilization training enhances overall kinesthetic awareness, facilitates graceful stage movement and makes it easier to sing while moving around, and teaches your neuromuscular system to create stability through continuous movement in your body in a way that informs all of your activities, including singing.
Professional athletes know that they can’t reach the level of excellence they need for their sport just by playing it. Likewise, singers who only engage in “field” training – studio practice and rehearsal – but do not avail themselves of the advantages that sports-specific physical training can confer, are missing out. If you’re serious about optimizing your performance, you too must strengthen the muscles and drill the movements required for your sport. Not only will it accelerate your improvement and enhance many aspects of your performance, but you’ll cultivate the level of physical health and well-being that you need in order to deal with the rigors of travel as well as the stresses and demands of an opera career.
Need a sports-specific regimen to complement what you're doing in this studio? Follow this link for information on how to sign up for a full fitness assessment, customized program design, and some training to get you started.