Some years ago one of the members on Vocalist asked for exercises to strengthen her “weak and lazy” diaphragm. The following is what I wrote to her and the members of Vocalist. It elicited a very strong response and has been included on a number of web sites that specialize in vocal music and singing. Below is the article.
I have read some of the responses to your request for information about a “weak” diaphragm. There is a lot of misunderstanding about how the breathing system works and, within this, there is also confusion about the workings of the diaphragm.
The diaphragm is a muscle system. It is fastened to the lowest ribs on the sides, the bottom of the sternum, and to the back at the top of the lumbar region. Its primary function is as an inhalation muscle system. When you inhale the diaphragm descends. When it descends it must displace your viscera, primarily your stomach and upper intestines. If you are short waisted these displaced organs will make your epigastric area (the area between the bottom of your sternum bone and your naval and sideways to your lower ribs) bulge out slightly and you will be quite aware of the effect of your inhale. If you are long waisted, you will have more vertical room for these displaced organs and your epigastric area will show less or little bulging and you will be less aware of your inhale.
The abdominal muscle system (from your pelvis to about your naval) is your primary exhaling muscle system. The diaphragm is not active during exhaling of your breath except as a controlling muscle system. In other words, your diaphragm does not exhale your breath; it only controls how quickly your breath is exhaled.
If you exhale quickly your diaphragm is inactive. If you exhale very slowly such as you would do when you are trying to feel very warm, moist breath on your fingers placed very close to your open lips, the diaphragm is actively resisting the exhaling action of your abdomen muscles. If you pay attention, you can feel some subtle action behind the epigastric area as you exhale this very warm, moist breath. That subtle action you feel is your diaphragm being active.
You will also notice as you exhale this very warm, moist breath, that the epigastric area does NOT move inward, nor should it, because the diaphragm is active. If the epigastric area does move inward it signals that the diaphragm has collapsed upward and can no longer resist the exhaling abdomen muscles. In other words you have lost control of your breath because you have allowed the diaphragm to collapse upward into its rest position.
Breathing for singing is very similar, in fact almost exactly like breathing out a slow stream of very warm, moist air on your fingers placed close to your lips. The diaphragm is the muscle system singers use to CONTROL the breath on the exhale. The diaphragm is not the muscle system that exhales the breath.
No diaphragm is weak. It cannot be. Every living person uses it every minute of every day to breath to stay alive. It is one of the most used muscles in the body. Sit ups do not strengthen it. Overweight people, thin people, average people all have strong diaphragms. But singers must learn to control their diaphragm on exhaling because it is the control of the breath that makes good singing possible. The vocal folds should not have to hold back enormous breath pressure. If vocal folds are required to hold back excessive breath pressure they must press together too tightly to function easily and freely. The vocal folds should have just enough breath pressure against them to maintain their vibratory movement. The breath pressure for singing is always dynamically changing and the control of that change is the duty of the diaphragm. So what you are learning is control, not strength.
And yes, you did understand the statement a few paragraphs above. YOUR EPIGASTRIC AREA MUST NOT BE SUCKED IN DURING SINGING! It should remain in the full feeling position you experience immediately after inhalation and you should attempt to maintain that inhalation position as long as possible immediately after onset of the tone. In a very long phrase you will find the epigastric area will move inward toward the end of the breath. But if you move it in nearing the beginning of the phrase you will have collapsed the diaphragm upward and lost control of your breath. Every singer has had this experience of taking a proper breath and singing a few notes only to feel out of breath. They are not out of breath of course but have merely lost control of the breath because of a collapsed diaphragm. They are then required to try to control the breath with only the exhaling abdomen muscles and this control is extremely difficult because the abdomen muscle system is very extensive and not meant to be the controlling muscles for exhaling.
I hope this is of some help.
Lloyd W. Hanson, DMA
Professor of Voice and Vocal Pedagogy, Emeritus
Director of Opera-Theatre, 1987-1997
Northern Arizona University