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Last year I was introduced to the concept of hypopressive abdominal training, which is a form of low-pressure fitness. I was told that it was supposed to be great for singers. I immediately got curious about the Effects of hypopressive abs training on voice and singing, because if something is true in the singing world, it is controversy regarding abdominal activity and tone for singers!
There are tons of different singing methods and they all work differently. I have been trained in techniques that villainize abdominal muscles completely. I have also been trained (very briefly after quickly feeling the damage in my voice), in other techniques that insist on forcing the abdominal muscles to breathe out for a stronger voice. And I have also been trained with singing methods that don’t talk about the abdominal muscles at all!
One thing proved true for me: excessive abdominal tension when breathing and/or exhaling is not good for my voice. It makes me strain and is not a way to ensure a healthy voice during my whole life. The abdominal muscles that we use when we think about tensing, work together with the diaphragm. So if you pull your abs tightly when singing, you are not allowing the diaphragm to come back to its relaxed position gently. This creates a high air pressure that will create chaos in your voice system!
So when I heard about hypopressive training and the potential beneficial effects of hypopressive abs training on voice and singing, I decided to give it a go ASAP. This technique was supposed to not only be good to improve the breathing function for singing but also to naturally strengthen and balance the pelvic floor – which is of great importance for a strong voice as well.
So I took my first opportunity and I found Hayley online! I booked my appointment and I went to my in-person session very hopeful and excited to experience the effects of hypopressive abs training on voice and singing.
In a one-hour training, I learned the basic postures and came back home with a routine to practice daily.
This happened a couple of weeks ago, and since then I have been practicing my routine. I am looking forward to seeing all the improvements that it brings to my singing, but so far I have been able to notice the following effects on my body:
But since I have only some weeks of experience in the hypopressive training for singing, I have decided to bring my teacher Hayley directly and ask her some questions. After all, she is the expert!
Hayley is certified by the International Hypopressives Council in both levels 1 and 2 of the Hypopressive Exercise Method and has agreed on answering some questions!
What is the difference between traditional abs workouts and low-pressure abs training?
Hypopressive Exercise can be translated into English as low-pressure exercise. Hypopressive exercise is extremely unique because it is the only way to train the muscle fibers of your deep core system under reduced intra-abdominal pressure (IAP). It is also training your deep core and respiratory system to work in unison using the correct coordinated patterns we need for optimal breathing, and therefore optimal core function and strength.
We do this using a specific breathing sequence and an apnea which causes pressure to decrease in the pelvic and abdominal cavities. When the pressure decreases, our abdominal tissues contract reflexively or subconsciously and are mostly activated using slow twitch muscle type fibers which make up approximately 70% of our deep transversus abdominis and pelvic floor musculature.
At the same time, we are also down-regulating the central nervous system by stimulating our rest and digest system, known as the parasympathetic nervous system.
With traditional abdominal training, we are working with an increased load of intra-abdominal pressure; Hyperpressive Exercise. You are not always working the whole core as one unit here. Often you are focusing on one muscle to contract such as the rectus abdominis, and we can therefore focus too much or too little on certain muscles which can then create an imbalance of pressure. Having an imbalanced core such as a very strong and pronounced rectus abdominis, and a weaker and under trained transversus abdominis can create imbalanced IAP, and confusion in the nervous system as to how the entire core and respiratory system should coordinate to work together. Having an imbalanced core leaves you open for injuries such as back pain, shallow breathing patterns, slipped discs, hernias of the pelvic floor and abdominals just to name a few.
We are also stimulating more so our sympathetic nervous system here, which is our fight or flight response.
This is not to say traditional abdominal training is bad, or increased IAP is bad, it is not. However, it takes a deeper understanding of how the deep core and respiratory system work, in conjunction with being able to assess imbalances within your own body to really pull it off well. Hypopressive Exercise is a great way to reprogramme and rebalance the deep core and nervous system so that you can progress into traditional abdominal training slowly and safely.
How does the hypopressive abs training improve the breathing function?
With repetition, Hypopressives will basically retrain you to use optimal breathing mechanics. With a well functioning respiratory system, you will find your breathing to become more effortless on a day to day basis. Your lung function will improve and therefore your heart rate will be more controlled, your blood gasses will be more balanced and your nervous system more calm. Keeping your nervous system calm is vital, as there is a clear link between stress, anxiety and erratic breathing. The two systems strongly influence one another.
What is the effect of the hypopressive abs training on the diaphragm muscle?
In addition to this rewiring of breathing patterns, Hypopressives provide a myofascial release (think a stretch) of the abdominal contents. This includes an awesome myofascial release of the diaphragm muscle increasing it’s mobility. Think about it for a second, I’m sure you can think of three ways to stretch your hamstrings, but can you think of even one way to stretch your diaphragm muscle? A strong muscle is one that can both contract and relax, and therefore needs to be mobile.
I liken it to a warrior pose in yoga to strengthen the hamstrings through length. We strengthen the diaphragm through length while practicing Hypopressive Apneas.
A tight diaphragm not only inhibits correct breathing patterns, movement patterns and weakens the deep core, it encourages a highly stressed environment for your mind and body.
How does hypopressive training improve the pelvic floor muscles and why is it important for a healthy voice?
Great question. Firstly, it is important to note that the respiratory diaphragm and the pelvic diaphragm (pelvic floor muscles) work in sync with each other as one unit. When we breathe in, our diaphragm contracts down to draw air into our lungs. This takes up space in our abdominal cavity and creates intra-abdominal pressure. This pressure needs to go somewhere, and the optimal place for it to be disbursed is for the pelvic diaphragm to relax and mimic the movement of the respiratory diaphragm moving down, to allow for the increase of pressure. When our diaphragm relaxes to exhale, our pelvic diaphragm will contract and move up, again working in sync to balance the intra-abdominal pressure.
Just as I mentioned above, a good muscle is one that can contract and relax and needs to be mobile. This is also crucial for the pelvic floor. If the diaphragm, pelvic floor, or both, are tight and immobile we can not achieve optimal breathing patterns, core function or balanced IAP.
A singer needs to be able to control their intra-abdominal pressure. They also benefit from having a greater lung capacity and having the ability to quickly control the force of an inhale, exhale or hold catering for the different air flow requirements during their singing practice.
Now I may not be a professional singer, but I have car party every single day while I’m stuck in traffic, singing at the top of my lungs. I can definitely say that when I am regularly practicing Hypopressives, my singing capacity, ease and phonics control are all improved and therefore I sound a little less-worse than usual, ha!
Added note: The muscle fibers we target during Hypopressives are mostly slow twitch muscle fibers. Approximately our pelvic floor and transverse abdominis comprises 70% slow twitch muscle fibers, and our diaphragm approx 52%.
How does hypopressive abdominal training improve CO2 tolerance and what are its benefits?
Another great question! Bear with me, I’m about to get technical but will try to explain it in an easy way to understand. Firstly, any breath hold training will improve our tolerance to CO2 and encourage better oxygenation of the body.
Secondly, overbreathing in day to day life will reduce our tolerance to CO2 and less oxygen will be delivered to our organs, tissues and brain.
We breathe in oxygen, and we exhale carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide has a bad rep as a waste gas that we don’t need. Oxygen has a good rep as something that should be taken into our bodies in large amounts. This is one of the biggest misconceptions in health!
Carbon dioxide levels need to be high enough in our blood to order our red blood cells to release oxygen to our cells via hemoglobin. When we are breathing away too much carbon dioxide lowering the CO2 levels in our blood, we are reducing the amount of oxygen that could potentially be released into our bodies leaving us more fatigued both mentally and physically.
Taking in extra oxygen does not benefit us as we are almost always fully saturated with oxygen in our blood as it is, we just need CO2 as the key to transfer it from the blood to our brain and tissues.
Carbon dioxide is the stimulus required for our brain to know to take in our next breath. As the levels of CO2 in our blood increase, the greater the urge to breathe. So for someone who doesn’t tolerate CO2 very well in their body, they will typically overbreathe/hyperventilate, will not be as fit and their bodies will not be very well oxygenated.
An endurance athlete however, has trained themselves to be able to tolerate higher levels of CO2 in their blood, they will take fewer and more stable breaths and will be able to perform better physically with less effort due to better oxygenation of the body, and practice of course.
Hypopressives will retrain your breathing mechanics to steady your breathing on a day to day basis, therefore better balance your blood gasses and oxygenation of your body throughout the day.
The breath holds will also allow an increase of CO2 in the blood, followed by an increase of red blood cell production and a greater release of oxygen from the blood to your cells. Training our mind and body to tolerate the urge to breathe (aka the increase of CO2 in the blood), will move us away from overbreathing/hyperventilating and will allow our bodies to use oxygen more efficiently as fuel within our bodies. A reduced amount of breathlessness during physical activity (including singing), means you will feel fitter and will be able to do more with your body, with less strain on your lungs.
Breath holds also train your mind to stay calm under pressure, and yes you will be able to hold your breath for longer too. Which is especially useful for lovers of watersports.
Why is it important to learn the technique in person?
If learnt incorrectly you can impose poor breathing mechanics and incorrect management of intra-abdominal pressure which can cause an array of health issues and injuries.
There is a finesse to coaching this method and your current breathing mechanics should first be assessed, understood and retrained prior to doing any apneas. If someone has underlying issues with their breathing mechanics, they tend to take longer to learn the method as the foundations need to be first addressed.
Hands on assessments and cuing makes learning this technique much easier for the student so it is always preferred to learn in person where possible.
You can learn via zoom sessions or online programs, however the main takeaway is that you are learning from a fully qualified coach certified by the International Hypopressives Council.
If you want to learn the hypopressive training, Hayley is available in person (Auckland), or online via Zoom. She also has online courses! you can contact Hayley here:
At Auckland Contemporary Singing School we have singing programs for all ages!
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