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Abdominal strength. Why is it so important for singers and instrumentalists?

I use a selection of ‘for the core’ exercises when I teach singing, and am always amazed at how many people aren’t used to connecting here – and the revelations that come when they do. Vocalists, if you want to make that long note something extra special, it’s the corsetry of your abdomen that’s going to make the difference. Your vital capacity, (the extent that you can hold your breath) will fuel it – but the layers of the abdomen (including but not restricted to the diaphragm) will support the breath and will also keep you standing rooted but tall, anchoring your whole body as you sing. I think of the voice as a divine instrument – it’s like lightning coursing down to earth – energetically, metaphorically and physically. You need to be as stable as possible when this power pays you a visit and to be the best lightning rod you can be.

I don’t necessarily advocate stomach workouts for the sake of vanity, bombarded as we are with unrealistic fashion images that can be very harmful to self-worth, (especially for women) if taken too seriously. Very few people have the kind of washboard torso glamourised by popular magazine culture. But if you do take some time to get to know your abs, you will certainly have a stronger back – great if you have to wear a guitar or bass, or sit upright at a piano, or carry heavy gear.

The internet is full of information, so this post is not supposed to be a comprehensive index or a definitive ‘how-to’ manual, just some pointers that I find useful as a musician (and martial artist) who likes to function at my optimum strength and fitness.

About Pilates. Joseph Pilates was a German bodywork pioneer who, according to accounts, discovered that his could rebuild his body, after prolonged illness, by using his core to lift his own body weight. He came from parents who were involved in alternative and progressive healing modalities, at a time when many holistic explorations of mind and body were becoming more popular. ‘Controlology’ is a term associated with his work. As a German stranded in the UK during the war, he used the time to hone his methods. ‘Pilates’ as a method works the deep core layers of muscle – rather than the surface six-pack (rectus abdominus) that most of us find so impressive, but are unlikely to have.

Some of what I’ve found useful is based on Pilates, but I don’t think anyone needs to pay loads of money for classes. At the risk of upsetting Pilates teachers, I would say that a decent book or video will do, then explore it for yourself at home. (Also have a look at those who have reframed the principles to create their own workouts, such as tennis player Martina Navratilova and ballerina Darcey Bussell.)

The most important thing to get right, is that before you attempt any of the exercises, your entire abdomen must be fully engaged. This is a workout in itself and will yield results. Then that state of tension must be maintained throughout all the lifting exercises. This creates the necessary resistance that works the muscles. This is the key. The more slowly and consciously you can work, the better. I don’t recommend any special breathing counts, just breath deeply and evenly. Some people will disagree with me on this and other content.

(*Always work within your limits and fee free to explore other opinions and methods.)

Here Goes: 

1. Lie on your back comfortably with feet on ground and legs at a 90 degree angle. Engage abdomen. Place cushion between knees and squeeze to keep it there. Lift pelvis completely off the ground in one movement. Raise arms above head. Slowly lower pelvis. Slowly lower arms. Feel the sensation as the torso lengthens. Works the upper abs. Do 10 very slow reps if you can. Breathe evenly. Simple but deceptively effective. You’ll feel it the next day.

2.  Lie on back as above with feet on ground and legs bent at 90 degree. Engage abdomen. Then lift legs into air so they are parallel with ground. Lift up shoulders and back and crunch. In this position lift your arms, palms down a few inches from the floor and ‘beat’ them gently up and down. Breathe evenly. Feel the resistance in the upper abdomen.

3. ‘The Roll.’ Lie flat on the ground. Engage abdomen. Visualise your navel touching your spine and try to flatten yourself against the floor. Maintain this throughout. Point toes. Extend arms above head. Breathe in and raise arms, fingertips to sky at 90 degree angle. Breath out and slowly roll up all the way, flex toes and touch them. Roll back in same way very slowly. 10 slow reps if you can.

4. The ‘Sally Gunnell’. I can’t remember where I read this but this is a great one from an athlete who knows what she’s talking about. Lie flat on ground. Legs bent at 90 degree angle. Engage abdomen. Arms supporting head. Roll up in classic crunch movement, in 3 distinct stages – the upper abs, then mid, then a full crunch. Reverse steps very slowly and consciously. 20 slow reps if you can.

5. Lie on ground with legs at 90 angle. Engage abdomen. Then lay both legs to the side but still be facing up. Feeling the stretch this creates on the upper abs. Arms behind head. Lift upper body up the sky. Not rolling or crunching, but UP. Works upper and transverse muscles. 20-50 reps each side. 100 once you get strong enough.

6. Lie on back with legs straight as you can pointing to the ceiling. Engage abdomen and flatten your spine against the floor. Arms behind head. Lift upper body off the ground, not rolling but UP. 20-50 reps. 100 once you get strong enough.

7. Lie flat on ground. Legs at 90 degree angle. Engage abdomen. Hook one leg over the other. Arms behind head. Lift and twist whole upper body aiming to touch opposite knee. Works transverse and upper abs.

8. Lie flat on ground. Engage abdomen. Place hands under buttocks, palms down. Curl upper body and remain crunched while looking at feet. Lift legs, keep them straight and pointed. Lift up and down in smooth, controlled movements. Do between 10-100 reps, as you get stronger. Works lower abs. Very intense. Not great for beginners – but one to work up to gradually. The upper abs first need to be strong enough to curl properly, otherwise the neck starts to strain.

9. Begin this as above. When engaged and curled up with upper abdomen, lift legs as a unit about 12 inches off the ground. Cross and uncross legs at the ankles. Between 10-100 reps. variation: lift legs as a unit and rotate clockwise, counterclockwise, then in opposing circles. Smooth, controlled movements. Advanced.

10. Whole core exercise. Sit cross-legged. Engage abdomen. Then stretch out legs in front of you. Reach with arms towards toes in an almost balletic gesture. Then lower yourself  slowly backwards and to the side, all the way down to the ground. Roll shoulders across ground and rise up in smooth controlled movement on other side back up to sitting position. Then reverse or as a variation can go in circles one direction. Must be very smooth, slow and controlled. Very intense and almost meditational. Takes 100 % abdominal engagement, deep breathing and mental focus.

As you go through your daily life, notice how your abdomen is one of those key areas, (unlike the bicep or tricep) which doesn’t need an opposing lever system to work. You can simply command it. Even just tensing and engaging your core muscles will strengthen them. Even more so, if simultaneously engaged in other exercise such as running, weightlifting, push-ups and/or intimate activities with significant others that I’ll leave to the imagination! Always remember, especially in the initial stages, to support and rest your neck and head as these will try to do the work for you until your abs develop enough strength to lift your weight. Practice eventually makes this easier. Also it’s as well remember the saying, ”abs are made in the kitchen.” Diet is the crucial other part of any exercise regime – but not part of this blog post – that’s for another day!

Have fun!

 


You think this was tough? Check this out!  http://youtu.be/axeHMu3rk80

You might also be interested in my blog post about running:  https://fayepatton.wordpress.com/2014/08/20/the-benefits-of-running/

 


 

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