The Sing and Squat Conundrum (Part 1)

The Sing and Squat Conundrum (Part 1)

Using isolated abdominal activations (IAAs) to improve breathing continuity during exercise


          A couple of years ago I was giving a lecture to a group of kinesiology students on the anatomy of breathing. I demonstrated the importance of the abdomen in breathing using my variation on a common “deep breathing” exercise that uses a book (though in my demonstration I use a volunteer from the audience). By changing only the pressure in your abdomen during respiration, the book (or person) will raise as the diaphragm contracts down to increase the pressure in the abdomen.

Try This: Lay flat on your back. Place a book on the center of your abdomen a couple inches below your sternum. Relax your abdomen and take a deep breath in. The book should raise! This is how singers often train themselves to breathe deeply. Eventually it will become habitual if you practice enough!

The importance of the abdomen in breathing demonstration at TEDxGuelphU 2012

The importance of the abdomen in breathing demonstration at TEDxGuelphU 2012

         After the lecture, there were many general questions about the material (including the undergrad favourite: “Will this be on the exam?”), but a few people stayed extra late to ask me some questions that challenged my perspectives on the anatomy of breathing. These two particular students were interested in how concepts of deep breathing could be applied in a gym setting. For example, when a person is performing a squat, it is customary to keep the core abdominal muscles tight (see Abdomen diagrams). But remember how I said that in order to take a deep breath your abdomen has to be relaxed? As much as core strength is important when performing these resistance training exercises, proper breathing is that much more important; so this leads us to an interesting conundrum.

An over-exaggerated lateral view of the abdominal muscles. Notice how the oblique muscles are braced against the rectus abdominis muscle. (We will talk about this more next week!)

An over-exaggerated lateral view of the abdominal muscles. Notice how the oblique muscles are braced against the rectus abdominis muscle. (We will talk about this more next week!)

         To be honest, my response involved a lot of vamping while I thought about how to best face this interesting problem. How does one perform a proper squat with support from the core in order to not damage the back, while breathing sufficiently to support the muscles during these periods of strain? On the spot I came up with a few ideas about measured breathing or intervallic breathing, but none really allowed for a consistent air flow. Needless to say, I left the college fairly unsatisfied with my answers.

         After countless hours in “nerd land” (aka my brain), I decided to hit the gym for some practical problem-solving action (and to relieve some built up frustration). I tried squatting using all of the solutions I had suggested. None of them really allowed for a properly supported cycle of breathing. With all of them, I would ultimately end up holding my breath on an inhale or on part of an exhale, but never had consistent air flow.

         Then it hit me! I do a demonstration for many of my lectures on breathing in which I ask an audience member to stand on my stomach as I take a deep breath in and raise them up using only breath and changes in abdominal pressure. It’s a lot like the “book exercise” I mentioned earlier, just several pounds heavier. For this exercise, I have to use what I call isolated abdominal activations (or IAA for short). What this means is that I contract part of my abdomen to provide stability and support, while contracting the rest of my abdomen separately to regulate inhalation and exhalation.


Notice how this lateral representation of the muscles during a squat demonstrate that the abdomen muscles stay virtually unaltered in their position. They are simply shifted with the pelvis to accommodate the squatting action. Keeping the chest high during the squat also helps the abdominal muscles maintain their position.

         More specifically, by contracting the rectus abdominis muscle (six-pack muscle) I can provide the core stability I need and let the other abdominal muscles (internal and external obliques and transversus abdominis) remain relaxed or contracted depending on whether I am inhaling or exhaling. This way, the abdomen doesn’t get stretched out by an over-arched back or squashed by a hunched back, but I am still able to have a more continuous breathing pattern (Note: during a squat your back should be straight NOT arched like is commonly thought. This is so the orientation of respiratory diaphragm and pelvic diaphragm are parallel for optimal breath support, and the abdomen muscle is at its optimal position. If the abdomen is over-stretched or crushed, it is unable to support the action of the squat and you can do damage to your back.).

         But now I was thinking… how can this knowledge be applied to controlling breath during singing (or maybe even singing DURING squatting??!)

To be continued…

1 Comment

  1. majid

    Hi Please email me all your muscles with exercise.

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