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The Inspirational King

The Inspirational King

The truth about the mysterious and misunderstood diaphragm muscle

king diaphragm

          The diaphragm is my favourite muscle in the human body, and perhaps the most misunderstood (especially in the singing world). The diaphragm is responsible for an ability to maximize inhalation and therefore has earned the title (in my humble opinion) of “King of Inspiration.”

         The diaphragm is a parachute shaped muscle that arches just below the lungs and heart, and just above structures such as the liver, stomach, and intestines. The muscle fibres making up the whole muscle of the diaphragm run from its border, where they attach at the bottom of the rib cage and spine, towards a central tendon. This makes it a special muscle because it doesn’t have two ends that are in some way attached to bone or cartilage (like the bicep, for example).

The diaphragm muscle and its central tendon. Above it, in the thorax, would be the lungs and heart, and below it is the abdominal cavity.

The diaphragm muscle and its central tendon. Above it, in the thorax, would be the lungs and heart, and below it is the abdominal cavity.

         As the muscle fibres of the diaphragm contract, they shrink in length, and pull this central tendon inferiorly (down towards the lower abdomen). This causes a flattening of the diaphragm. Conversely, when the muscle fibres relax, they grow in length and the diaphragm returns to its parachute-like shape. It’s a lot like that parachute game we used to play in elementary school. When the diaphragm relaxes that’s when we would all throw our arms up and the center of the parachute would arch upwards. When the diaphragm contracts, it is like when we would all create tension on the parachute by pulling it out. Remember how the center would flatten out and you could see across to the other side of the parachute? That’s a lot like what happens during inhalation when the diaphragm contracts and lowers due to the contraction of its muscle fibres pulling the central tendon down towards the lower abdomen.

The parachute game nicely imitates how the diaphragm behaves during respiration (breathing)

The parachute game nicely imitates how the diaphragm behaves during respiration (breathing)

         When we think of the implications of the diaphragm on our breathing, it is important to remember what we learned about the lungs. The more space for the lungs to expand, the more negative pressure within them, and the more air we can get with each inhalation. So, the more the diaphragm contracts, the further towards the lower abdomen it travels. Because the lungs sit on top of the diaphragm, when the diaphragm moves inferiorly, the lungs are pulled down with it. Therefore, the lower the diaphragm goes, the lower the lungs are pulled, and the more space is created within them for a larger inhalation.

The state of the diaphragm during inhalation and exhalation.

The state of the diaphragm during inhalation and exhalation.

         For exhalation, the diaphragm relaxes to return to its normal position, which in turn creates less space and more pressure in the lungs for air to move out. It is the coordinated relaxation of the diaphragm with the contraction of the abdomen that allows singers and other voice users to have control over their exhalation and sustain sound production for extended periods of time without taking a breath.

         So although the diaphragm is a thin and not particularly forceful muscle, it has a critical role to play in our inhalation and with the abdomen, maximizing our control of exhalation.

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