Breath Support: Should I Push the Stomach In or Out?

Breath Management and the Abdomen

Image courtesy of Mae Chevrette via flickr cc license

One of the most important and sometimes confusing elements of singing is learning to control the breath or support the tone. There are several opinions on how to do it properly, including pushing the stomach in or out. Before you choose what is right for you, it is best to understand what breath support actually is, the basics of phonation, and the effects these processes have on your body.

What is Breath Support?

Breath support is learning to control the breath during singing. A normal breath cycle of inhalation and exhalation takes 4 seconds. The singing process demands a much longer breath cycle, which requires a singer to take a quick inhale and stretch out the exhale while still allowing enough air energy to flow through the vocal cords to create a beautiful tone.

How is Exhalation Controlled?

Exhalation is slowed down in several ways. The most important way is through “muscle antagonism,” where the muscles of inhalation resist the muscles of exhalation. Another way to control air flow is through the glottis, or opening created by the vocal cords. If the glottis is closed, air stops. During the singing process, a beautiful sound is created by learning to coordinate air restriction through both means.

Basics of Phonation

Though the slowing of air created by closing the vocal cords may have little to do with pushing in or out, understanding the basics of phonation helps to achieve a more holistic view of air flow. The actual sound of singing is caused by the opening and closing of the vocal cords partly controlled by air pressure as explained in Bernoulli’s Effect. It states that slower moving air has more pressure than faster-moving air. The vocal cords shut as air flows through them from the lungs and the pressure build up below the cords forces them open again. The process is repeated over and over to create sound. Mild muscular resistance to the pressure below the cords is used to create a beautiful tone. When thinking about breath support, keep in mind the need to coordinate the process with phonation.

Stomach During Inhalation

The diaphragm is a large horizontal muscle that flexes down during a deep breath, creating room for the lungs to expand. In order for the diaphragm to move down, the stomach naturally expands outward. The lungs should never be stuffed full, but feel relaxed with each breath. Large or extremely low stomach expansion may mean too much air is taken in or you are consciously pushing the stomach area out. Allowing the diaphragm to naturally extend the stomach area allows the body to relax during breathing.

Stomach During Exhalation

During normal exhalation, the stomach goes in. In order to slow the breath, the muscles of inhalation resist the pressure exerted by the muscles of exhalation to push the stomach in and diaphragm up. When the lower abdominal muscles engage and move inward during exhalation, resistance causes an outward bulge under the ribs. How much bulging you experience is determined by how aggressively you resist the muscles of exhalation.

Pull In or Out?

In reality, there is some pulling in and some pulling out of the stomach muscles in breath support. The key is to find a flexible balance between the muscles of exhalation and inhalation. If you are resisting the muscles of exhalation to a point of tension and rigidity as you sing, then relax to allow a natural inward movement to occur. If you release too much air all at once as you sing, then imagining pushing down (which pushes the stomach out) might help. Focusing too much on the stomach misses the point, it is the diaphragm that is doing all the work. When it lowers, everything below it needs somewhere to go and pushes the stomach out. Literally pushing the stomach out to resist the muscles of inhalation causes physical pain for most. Instead, keep the chest high, ribs expanded, and focus on keeping the diaphragm flexible and low while resisting the muscles of exhalation.