Stella Brüggen

Stella Brüggen

The Singer’s Workout I: the Big Misconception About Running Out of Breath

Last week, I got an interesting question from a reader (thanks, Naomi!): what kind of exercise is recommended for singers? Is there something that any singer should definitely do?

The answer is yes.

Being a singer means your body is your instrument, and keeping it healthy should definitely be a priority. This does not mean your body needs to have a certain shape – but you do need to be prepared to make decisions regarding diet and exercise that will support you as an artist.

With that being said, are there specific workouts that are especially (un)helpful for singers?

The three kinds of exercise

There are roughly three kinds of physical exercise: aerobic exercise, muscular conditioning and neuro-muscular coordination exercise. We will talk about aerobic exercise today.

Aerobic exercise is every kind of exercise that puts stress on your cardiovascular system, raising your heart rate above a certain level for 20 to 30 minutes. This doesn’t necessarily mean running your legs off: a brisk walk is great. Swimming is even better. Zumba, biking, jogging: whatever suits your fancy.

Almost every singer, teacher and article dedicated to this subject recommends some form of aerobic exercise. There is one specific kind of aerobic exercise that seems to get extra love: interval training. This usually takes the form of jogging with intermittent short sprints of 30 seconds to a minute, after which you return to easy jogging or walking.

Interval training demands careful oxygen management from your body, which makes it one of the best workouts for improving your lung capacity.

But this advice is misleading.

‘Lung Capacity’: the big misconception

If you’re a singer, and especially if you sing classical music, you will probably be familiar with the problem of not having ‘enough air’ to make it through a long phrase. A common advice is to improve your lung capacity through aerobic exercise to make it easier to sustain long notes. It sounds logical: more lung capacity = more air = longer notes, right?

But that’s not how that works.

There are two separate factors at play here: lung capacity and lung efficiency. These terms are often used interchangeable, but they are not.

  • Lung efficiency is what you train when you’re doing aerobic exercises. It will increase your capacity to do strenuous workouts, and it’s useful for things like free diving.
  • Lung capacity is the total volume (in liters) of air that you can hold inside your lungs. Lung capacity cannot be trained.

If you do aerobic exercise, you’re training your body to handle oxygen better. But when you sustain a long note, it’s not oxygen you need – it’s air. Pulmonologist Wanda de Kanter was kind enough to confirm this for me. There is, unfortunately, no way you can increase the sheer volume of air you can hold in your body.

But… that also doesn’t mean you’re destined to run out of air for the rest of your life. If you want to be able to sustain long notes, you need to work on your singing technique. This means knowing what is making you deflate quicker than you need to and fixing that.

Justin Stoney share some interesting tips in his video ‘Running Out Of Breath’, and I’m planning to dig a little deeper myself if you guys are interested – let me know in the comments.

So what use is aerobic exercise for a singer?

Don’t throw in the towel now and think ‘Well, if I can’t increase lung volume, why bother?’ Our bodies are our instruments, which means we need to take care of them.

If anything, this is good news: you don’t need to do extremely intense triathlons to be a good singer. ‘Ten thousand steps per day’ is fine. Swimming is fine. Yoga is fine.

Anything you like is fine, as long as you choose something you like and can stick to. The most important ingredient to success is patience.

(Photo by David Hofmann on Unsplash)

Thoughts? I’d love to hear them. Comment at the bottom of this page or DM me on insta (@stellabruggen). 

2 Responses

    1. Absolutely. And understandably so, when there is usually little emphasis on it. I commend Codarts for playing its part here, though – they do their best to teach us about this. I wish it were more normal in the corporate world, as well!