Dear Dr. Jahn,
Outside of vocalizing, what are other activities, like physical work-outs, breathing exercises, or diet that have the biggest impact on improving the voice? I’m hoping you will be specific— we’ve all heard that it’s good to exercise and eat well but what do I really need to do MOST to improve my voice?
I am not a physical therapist or a personal trainer; however, as a voice physician, I do have some suggestions.
Apart from voice lessons, practice and a solid vocal technique, the main issues relate to the lungs and the abdominal muscles. You need to maximally inhale and then fully exhale. From this point of view, almost any cardiovascular exercise you do that has you breathing deeply and fully through the nose (not through the mouth) is useful. Running on a treadmill, elliptical trainer or stairmaster are all good options here.
Pushing air through a small opening, such as a straw, has been recommended by voice scientists, since this further expands the lungs and teaches controlled, prolonged and complete exhalation of the breath. In this regard, playing wind instruments which offer some resistance (the most resistance comes from double reed woodwinds such as the oboe) is helpful for the breath.
Support for the voice comes from the abdominal and pelvic muscles. Exercises that strengthen the abdominal muscles include curls and sit-ups. Don’t neglect the oblique muscles of the abdomen, or the muscles of the back, which support your posture and give the anterior abdominal muscles counterbalance to work against. Back muscles (like the psoas) are slow-contracing postural muscles, and can be strengthened, by monitoring your posture during, e.g. deep knee bends.
Pelvic muscles, including those of the pelvic floor, anchor abdominal support. Lifting the pelvic floor, the so-called Kegel exercises that women do, strengthens this area.
Some general pointers: breathe through your nose as much as you can, since this increases the compliance of the lungs (called the naso-pulmonary reflex) and keeps your throat from drying out. Always exhale with effort, don’t hold your breath when you lift or push during exercise, since this can put pressure on the vocal folds. I would also advise you to consciously concentrate on the specific muscles being exercised: a major task in healthy singing is contracting specific muscles only, while relaxing other ones. You will miss the opportunity to train yourself in this regard if you are distracted during your efforts by a loud iPod.
Anthony F. Jahn MD
Note: this discussion is for general information and not to be construed as specific medical advice which you should obtain from your own physician.