Sports-Specific Training for the Vocal Athlete

I’m unsure if there are any personal trainers on this forum who would be qualified to answer this question, but I figured I’d ask just in case. I am pursuing a career as an opera singer, and contrary to what some might think, it’s quite a physically demanding profession, and I would like to design in essence, a sports-specific training regimen for singing.

I know that to the layman, the first image you get in your head is Pavarotti tipping the scales at 400 pounds, but at his worst he could barely move through staging while singing, and had to sit through most of his performances. Not exactly ideal. Going through 2 or 3 hours (maybe even 5 or 6 depending on the work) of moving on stage, and singing is indeed physically taxing. Properly supporting the voice so as to project over a full orchestra for hours requires a great deal of strength as well as endurance, and effecient use of oxygen. Singing a 20 second phrase does the same for your oxygen as holding your breath for 20 seconds, and extend that throughout hours of physical activity, and you may begin to understand why many consider professional singers ‘vocal athletes’.

Ideally someone to aid me in this effort would have physical experience with the craft, just as you’d want someone who played soccer to train a soccer player. However, finding a well qualified personal trainer who has studied voice on a professional level is difficult, so I’ll try to describe singing in the most physiological way I can, to at least give you an idea. Proper posture and alignment without any tension is critical, and from that base, a strong low breath must be taken, expanding the ribcage, and even into the back or pelvic floor if possible. The primary inspiratory muscle, the diaphragm, is of utmost importance in this process, but internal and external intercostal muscles also take part.

After the breath is taken, the vocal folds (located behind the adam’s apple roughly) adduct, and the expiration of air causes them to vibrate, creating pitch. Though muscles of the larnyx do take part in singing, hypertension or uneven hypertrophy of strap muscles attached to the larynx can have disastrous results. Expiration of air is the relaxation of the diaphragm, and in normal life, it has no real synergists. In strenuous activity however, core muscles aid. In singing, the synergistic relationship and the similarity between the muscles of inspiration and expiration is critically important. Singers talk of ‘supporting’ the voice, and physiologically, that is creating the vector force responsible for effecient subglottal pressure by the expiratory muscles.

Essentially, a singer is an athlete who requires graceful subtle movement without tension much like a dancer or gymnast, effecient oxygen usage, and for whom the primary physical effort is breathing of a very specialized sort, and for whom endurance is critical.

I’ve been longwinded, but to understand the physical effort of singing is difficult to appreciate if one has not actually undertaken study, so I’ve tried to give some kind of an idea. If anyone has any input, it would be most welcome.

Perhaps you should try to contact whoever trains the Usher’s and Justin Timberlakes of the world. They do quite a bit of dancing on stage while having to sing in tune.

Only main issue is their singing has next to nothing to do with the kind of singing required for opera. They’re tense and shouty, and have to use microphones. No microphones on the opera stage, different kind of technique required.

oh my gosh

you lost me there!

hope you find what you are looking for, either here (?) or elsewhere!

good luck!

Probably just getting in shape will help with most of that. I think if you do that, you will be in better shape than most. You could use some ab isos (like vaccums) to work on some of that strength, which would probably help a bit. That is a interesting situation for sure.

I remember a soviet coach having a group of cyclists perform exercises while holding their breath; I think it was squats and similar movements (small body-weighted jump-squats in the low position). However, I have absolutely no idea if the idea of keeping your breath can be considered sport-specific in your field. Perhaps, give something similar a try (it can be whatever general exercise, not just squats)? On the other hand, you could probably use the opposite advice as well; trying to hold a tone while doing some general movements?

A word of caution thou: If you train on stage for many hours a day, singing, extending that to general physical training might be too much for one day.

I would assume, like Davan, that just getting in shape should be sufficient. That is, getting in better shape than Pavarotti :wink: I mean, he doesn’t sound too bad, being in poor shape and all!!!

I sing opera, solo, as an upcoming star.

Your looking at the wrong side of things. There’s no sports specific development for singing, simply, as singing in itself is training. You are acting, yes, but it will never be as physically demanding as per say a musical. I’m a powerlifter, soon to set national records, and I find no problem with phrasing and breath support. The key is, if your running out of breath, breathe. If your not, don’t. If your moving around, take deeper breaths. PM me if you have any more questions.

This is an interesting question. While I have never set an exercises program for anyone specifically to improve singing I have experience doing performance coaching for rock bands (teaching them how to practice so they are prepared for live performance and know what they are doing before they get to the studio where time is money).

Firstly, the idea of sports specific training is in itself a little confusing and some people would argue that there is no such thing as a sports specific programme. So don’t get mixed up in the idea that there is a physical exercise program that is significantly better for singing than another. What is important is that it supports your singing and doesn’t detract from it because you are too fatigued to actually practice!

Basically you need to do a few things:

  1. Keep yourself in good shape through general gym work (a sensible and safe weight training program).

This doesn’t need to be anything too complicated and could be as simple as one set of 6-10 reps of 6-8 exercises with good form (keeping the movements controlled and fairly slow) twice a week. No matter what anyone says there really are no secrets to this - there are an infinate number of exercises you could do with equal results. So perhaps finding a PT that you enjoy working with is all you really need to do?

You could also do a small volume of aerobic work (note low volume doesn’t mean easy). This could be as little as two 15min sessions on a bike, oliptical trainer or running machine a week. Again what you do probably isn’t too important because the demands of your job are quite general (e.g. you don’t have to perform at maximum intensity for 10s out of every 60s or something like that - which might be the case in some sports).

How about trying out the preset intival programs on the machines to start with? If you spend a lot of time practicing anyway you are probably already getting quite a good “workout” and the last thing you need is to do a huge amount of additional and unnecessary aerobic work that will leave you fatigued for the really important vocal practice.

  1. Make sure you keep hydrated and eat a good diet. This means make sure you EAT carbs and eating fresh home cooked food whenever possible. I have a book somewhere on eating for vocalists I’ll have a look at what it says.

  2. Warm up and warm down before and after singing (I’m sure you do this anyway but very few rock bands do!). As your level of skill improves everything will seem easier - it is always important to practice the basics.

  3. Make sure you get lots of sleep and quality rest.

  4. Spend some time each week performing your pieces exactly as you will on stage. This means same volume, tempo, gestures… everything. Obviously this can be very demanding so you don’t need to do that much but when you do this make sure it is high quality practice. This will be your sports specific practice if you will.

For rock bands, a lot of them do all thier practice in a situation that is nothing like what they do on stage or in the studio. For example, sitting down on speakers/amps rather than standing up and moving around. The vocalist doesn’t project though the mic because it “isn’t important” - which means they often move away from it during performance cutting off the end of sentances. The drummers don’t play the same fills every time or put in random ghost notes with the bass which makes it hard for the listener to lock into the groove, they don’t focus on getting the same sound every time from the high hats --> which means a lot of extra editing in the studio to even out the volume and quality of each beat… etc… etc… Basically they don’t practice perfectly.

There are probably two main things that are causing you problems with your performance:

a. Your body isn’t conditioned to cope with the what it has to endure.

This can be addressed over time by points 1, 2, 3 and 4 above.

b. You arn’t being efficient enough in your performance.

You point out the importance of relaxation, posture etc in your post. But do you go through your pieces and mark up the score in relation to these things?

Do you work out where to take deep breaths and practice so you always take them in the right place? If you have to gesture during performance, are your shoulders relaxed when you do it? Do you use the same guestures each time? When do you need to take onboard fluids and have you planned for this?

It might sound very “unartistic” and stale to practice like this but if you can’t do the basics unconciously and consistantly how can you move to the next level and add feeling and emotion to the performance?

I would suggest just trying something for a few months and then adjusting from there. Think holistically and think about all the things that support your performance.

Hope this helps… or at least gives you something to think about.

The man in your avator - surely, the greatest anthem singer of all time.

You have seen rock bands become successful with such poor practice habits? I’ve seen incredibly dilligent musicians fail, and all the bands I’ve seen who act like that have fallen apart quickly.

You can’t get a record contract these days without being pretty competant in the studio because the massive costs involved mean you won’t be economical to the record company if it takes you 50 takes to plays something right. Usually what happens is they sack the original drummer and bring in a good one because the drummer has the most difficult job (in the studio he has to be perfect because the drums take the longest to record).

So if you want a deal the first stage is to get competant at playing in time and getting a good grove (this is much, much easier said than done). If you can do this your chances of landing a deal go up massively.

As for falling apart. This usually happens because people start to believe thier own hype and want to do thier own thing. What they don’t realise is that they have almost zero chance of achieving this before they become too old or over exposed. If you are lucky enough to find a band that has the talent to get you places stick with it. Don’t walk out of a band if you find yourself a Kurt Cobain or Mick Jagger - ride the wave and let them take you places.

Then again, as you point out good musicianship isn’t everything. I know one of the best guitarists in the world, he does session work etc for all the top labels but he is too much of a muso to create the next big thing and he knows it. Sometimes it is the ones that play it simple and melodic that make it big not the ones that can play anything. A good natural band with good coaching have a very good chance of getting signed. Getting signed however is a small hurdle compared with getting big.

I came across this research today and was reminded of this thread.

Specially Programmed Respiratory Muscle Training for Singers by Using Respiratory Muscle Training Device (Ultrabreathe).

Yonsei Med J. 2004 Oct 31;45(5):810-7.

Respiratory muscle training is one of the major methods for enhancing the vocal function. Singers who must use their voice most frequently are well aware of the importance of respiration. However, most of them do not know precisely how to exercise their abdominal respiration. Using a respiratory training device, singers are expected to gain more efficiency in their vocal enhancement. The aim of the study was to examine the pulmonary function, the maximum inspiratory pressure (MIP) and the maximum expiratory pressure (MEP), and the maximum phonation time (MPT) in five female voice-majors students after undergoing specially programmed respiratory muscle training for 2 months. All the voice-majors had an average of 4.8 years of formal classical voice training. A respiratory muscle training device (Ultrabreathe), Tangent health Care Inc., England) was used to train the respiratory muscle. None of the pulmonary function test variables had changed after respiratory muscle training. However, the MIP, MEP, and MPT were significantly increased higher after the respiratory muscle training. This suggests that the specially programmed respiratory muscle training can improve the respiratory muscle strength and vocal function without increasing the pulmonary function.

The device can be purchased at

There’s also a similar device called the powerlung.

I have the full study if anybody wants it.

I’m curious if a Speech Pathologist may help, since they do help others who have speech problems by training the intrinsic muscles of throat and respiratory muscles, especially for patients who had throat surgery from cancer or a stroke and now have limit speech.

Also, it would interesting to see if you may benefit from an Attentional Biofeedback therapist, monitoring breathing patterns along with EMG and EEG regulation. You should perhaps get in contact with the The Biofeedback Certification Institute of America (BCIA). There are 2 people who are members who were my instructors in University, Dr. Sue Wilson and Mark Cummings, don’t know if they can help, but its worth an email, no?