In performing arts training, we’ve often heard voice teachers and speech therapists speak on best practices for vocal health and hygiene. Likewise, we’ve heard from innumerable fitness trainers regarding best practices in the gym and strategies for physical fitness and transformation. But in an industry where looking, feeling, and sounding your best is key, there has been surprisingly little discussion of how these two worlds overlap, integrate, and affect one another. Should singers go big or go home in their weight training? Are some exercises or lifts problematic for the professional voice user? If so, what modifications should be made? In a recent episode of the Built for the Stage podcast, we joined forces, combining our respective expertise in the worlds of vocal training and fitness to offer you powerful information on how to maximize your vocal and fitness training while sacrificing neither. Here we seek to distill and to further that conversation for you, the artist-athlete.
Before we get into our four basic tips, let’s explore the concept of Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE). Having the knowledge of RPE as a singer in comparison to RPE for non-singers is important. It’s especially important so that we can successfully train our bodies as athletes in multiple ways that will produce the different types of stimulus needed to produce size, strength, power, speed, etc. To sum it up briefly, a singer should perform their training sessions at -3 RPE at all times. So, if the prescribed movement, sets, or reps in some occasions calls for let’s say, three sets of four reps as heavy as possible, the singer should know that their RPE would be at a 10. However, with the -3 rule, this means their 10 RPE will be a seven. This rule allows us to keep our technical movement solid as well as to maintain release and ease at the level of the vocal folds.
As a general rule, it’s advisable to exhale while lifting and inhale while lowering the weight. Using this strategy allows the singer to keep the breath freely moving during exertion, and, in doing so, to keep the valsalva maneuver at bay. For those who are unfamiliar with this term, the valsalva maneuver occurs any time the vocal folds clamp together to hold back air, acting as a valve and increasing pressure in the torso. We use the valsalva maneuver constantly, lifting heavy suitcases, going to the bathroom, giving birth, etc. But as you might imagine, that’s quite a shift from the way we use the vocal folds as a musical instrument to make free and efficient sound. The more frequently we valve the cords, and the more forceful that valving is, the more likely we are to build up tension in the larynx (voice box) and the musculature surrounding the throat.
2. The Magic of “ng”
During weightlifting, try keeping the tongue up against the roof of your mouth as though saying “ng” (with the tip of the tongue up too). Think of this as a sneaky distraction tactic for your tongue as you lift the weight. For many people, the tongue root wants to press back and down during exertion, “helping” to close off the airway. Instead, give it a better position up against the roof of your mouth! Bonus: if you are prone to jaw jutting or gripping during exertion, this will also aid you in keeping a released and symmetrical jaw throughout your workout.
3. Forbidden Exercises
Almost any lift or exercise can be accomplished with some accommodations to retain airflow and to avoid building tension into the shoulders and neck, but, for professional voice users, there are one or two to avoid altogether. Shoulder shrugs, unfortunately, tend to work all the wrong muscles, emphasizing the upper trapezius and generally tightening-shortening the back of the neck and the levator scapulae. We would not recommend it. Also, watch out for any exercise in which the head or neck are not supported by either the bench or by your posture and alignment. Abdominal curls can be a major offender here.
4. Rectus Considerations
One of the primary glamour muscles that people seek to tone and emphasize is the rectus abdominis: the long, paired abdominal muscle that runs vertically from the pubic bone up to the low ribcage. It’s only one of the four large muscles that form the abdominal girdle, but it’s the only one that seems to mean anything on the cover of People magazine. You can easily see why many performers devote an inordinate amount of their workout time to the rectus. Add to this dance training which so often emphasizes a held core or belly button to spine at all times, and we get a sense of just how rigid and immobile the abs of performers can become.
It’s incredibly important that singers and professional voice users have a strong core, but it must also be flexible and responsive. An elite singer experiences an easy release of the abdominal girdle on inhalation, followed by a very gentle and controlled upward-inward movement from the abs as they sing through a phrase. Unfortunately, a tight and inflexible rectus will inhibit that all-important release on inhalation, and a tense rectus is also more likely to clench during exhalation. In short, toned abs are great, tight abs are not.
It’s our hope that these key points will allow you to continue to enhance your athletic abilities as a singer and performer. We can train to be both amazing athletes and amazing singers. In fact, they’re one and the same. Singers are athletes and we should continue to strive to train like one.
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