The Truth About Diaphragmatic Breathing


Breathing plays such an incredibly crucial role in singing well that it deserves that voice teachers make a special effort to truly understand what happens during the inhalation and exhalation process and ensure that singers are utilizing the respiratory system in exactly the best way for singing.  However, the myth is that diaphragmatic breathing is the correct type of breathing for singing and that is just what it is – a myth.  Despite the numerous advances in vocal science and the anatomical understanding of vocal function that have happened in the last 50 years, this myth is still perpetuated by many teachers.  I was taught diaphragmatic breathing for a number of years myself.  It does, however, serve a certain purpose and help singers in one particular way.

What is being often taught is that the diaphragm has to relax downward upon inhalation.  The abdominal wall needs to release at the same time, so singers are taught to breathe as low as possible to enable that type of release.  Then, as the breath is being exhaled during singing, the diaphragm expends energy or works to help control the rapidity of the outflow of air from the lungs.  That is the premise and is what is explained to many singers as how to breathe for singing.

Unfortunately, the idea that the diaphragm is working on the exhalation is incorrect.  It actually works on the inhalation.  It is working when it flattens downward from its dome-like shape under the lungs and rib cage.  Test this for yourself.  Muscles almost always shorten when they are working and lengthen when they are not working/relaxing.  Take your hands and make a slight dome with your fingertips together.   Now, bring your hands down to create a flat line without bending any joints.  They inevitably have to overlap, showing that the diaphragm gets shorter.  And it does this three-dimensionally, so three pairs of hands moving from a slight dome to a flat line would be more true to what actually happens.

By flattening, the diaphragm creates more volume for the lungs to fill up with air, particularly in the lower lobes.  It presses down on the viscera (internal organs) in the process, which is where the abdominal wall comes into the picture.  If the abdominal wall does not move at all, the diaphragm is limited in its range of movement.  If the abdominal wall relaxes outward, it provides a place for the viscera to go as the diaphragm presses on it and the diaphragm can move further down, increasing the volume in the pulmonary cavity even more.  Upon exhalation, the diaphragm relaxes upwards back into its domed shape again.

So, you can see that the function of the diaphragm described by many voice teachers is actually the opposite of what happens.  How is this idea helpful in any way?  Well, it is helpful because most of the singers who hear it assume that the diaphragm is actually lower in the body than it is in reality and that it is more connected with the abdominal wall.  Focusing on “relaxing” the diaphragm on inhalation helps the abdominal wall also to relax, which can be difficult for singers to do.  It helps them achieve more breath in the lower lobes of the lungs, which is important for the best singing.

There are three major downsides of diaphragmatic breathing.  The first is that it can cause singers to overdo the abdominal release and create other issues for the singer due to consequent imbalances in the body.  Motivated singers can get into the habit, when focused so much on the movement of their abdominal wall, of poking their abdomens out just a little more by pushing forward from the lower back.  This actually shortens the muscles in the back unnecessarily and lengthens all of the muscles in the front of the body, putting them at a stretch.  It is harder to release a stretched set of muscles than a relaxed set, so this ends up making it more challenging to relax the abdominal wall forward on inhalation, working against the goals of diaphragmatic breathing itself.

The second is that more emphasis is placed on the diaphragm doing the work of controlling the rate of the air on exhalation and less emphasis is given to the role of the activation of the abdominal wall.  Since as we have seen, the diaphragm is actually not working at all on exhalation, it is up to the abdominal wall to activate and slow its trip inward, in order to control the rate of the air coming out of the lungs and reaching the vocal cords.  Some singers who have been taught diaphragmatic breathing manage to achieve this, but some do not.  If the abdominal wall isn’t doing something, there is virtually no breath resistance or support taking place.  Then the air is just coming out of the lungs with very little working in the torso to stop it.  This produces a multitude of vocal issues and is exceedingly unhelpful in achieving a healthy vocal sound.

The third is that it is really only one part of the total breathing mechanism.  By using only diaphragmatic breathing, a singer is very limited in how the body can work during singing itself and does not have the ability to access all of the requisite support or resistance muscles.  Diaphragmatic breathing is easier for voice teachers to teach to students, but it is far from the comprehensive breathing necessary for the very best singing.

The body is designed to be able to breathe in many different ways.  Breathing is such an incredibly crucial function for the continuation of life that there is redundancy after redundancy built into our body’s design, just to make sure that breathing can continue under virtually every circumstance.  That is why we have so many options of different coordinations to choose from when breathing for singing.  They all will work and keep us alive, but they will not all fulfill two essential criteria for singing.  Serious singers should choose the breathing coordination that does fulfill these two criteria.

The first criteria is that the breath coordination should bring the air as low as possible into the lower lobes of the lungs.  Why is that important?  It is important for several reasons.  Oxygen in the lower lobes allows for more gas exchange and relaxes the body.  This larger amount of exchange gives the body the confidence that it does not need to take a breath again quickly and can sustain a sung musical phrase for 5 – 8 seconds.  Breathing lower optimizes the function of the diaphragm, which flattens out more and enhances the relaxed sensation when breathing.  The ability of the rib cage to move increases drastically from top to bottom, so there is significantly more movement in the area towards the bottom of the rib cage.  The torso muscles that can slow the rate of the rib cage’s movement inward on exhalation are all located in the lower part of the torso, much closer to the lower lobes of the lungs.  Use of only the upper lobes when breathing results in wild air that can’t be controlled by the singer.

The second criteria is that the inhalation should be effortless.  Working to pull air into the lungs simply creates more tension, which then gets transferred to the voice, affecting tone quality drastically.  In order to remain as relaxed as possible, singers will need to take advantage of various breathing reflexes and learn to use them together for an effortless inhalation.  These are reflexes of the rib cage coordinating with the diaphragm, abdominal wall and lower back muscles.  Together these work to create coordinated breathing.

On inhalation, the lower torso needs to open up, in order to encourage the breath to drop into the lower lobes.  By releasing and widening in the lower back and releasing slightly in the abdominal wall (muscle sets under our conscious control) just as inhalation begins, we encourage the diaphragm (a muscle controlled solely by the nervous system) to travel all of the way down and the rib cage (with different muscle sets that are difficult for us to control) to expand upward and outward.  There is a strong reflex in the rib cage to open and expand broadly in this way when the body lacks air.  I discussed this in a previous blog, which you can read here.  For this reflex to work, it is important that we allow it to happen and not interfere with it.  Once all of these different aspects are coordinated together, they create more space within the lung cavity itself and the ideal circumstances for the incoming air to expand down into the lower lungs in a completely effortless manner.  This type of coordinated breathing sets up the ideal circumstances for correct breath resistance when singing, which is of paramount importance for singers.

In order to balance out the biggest side-effect of overdoing diaphragmatic breathing – overextending the abdominal wall – and begin the process of learning coordinated breathing, try the following exercise:


Breathing in prone position


A towel, yoga mat or carpeted floor

Several small paperback books


•  Lie on the floor on your stomach on top of a towel, yoga mat or carpeted floor

•  Place one or three small books under your sternum/breastbone.  These should be high enough to give your nose some clearance when your face is on the floor.  Adjust if needed

•  Put your forehead down on the floor and place your arms next to your body

•  Take a few minutes to relax.  This position can take a little getting used to, so don’t be discouraged if it feels a little new and uncomfortable.  If need be, stop after this and build up to doing the complete exercise slowly

•  When you are ready, take a few deep breaths, allowing the lower back and rib cage to expand on inhalation

•  Allow the expanded breathing in the rib cage and back to continue and also release the abdominal wall.  Because it is against the floor, it can’t be overextended

•  Stay on the floor relaxed and breathing for 5 minutes

•  When you are ready, come gradually up to standing and continue the expended breathing, making sure that everything is working in tandem and the abdominal wall is not overextending


After doing this exercise, try using this approach to breathing when practicing singing.  If you tend to overextend the abdominal wall, focusing instead on expanding in the back will help balance out your breathing coordination and give you many more healthy options when singing.


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