The Unsung Hero

The Unsung Hero

The important but oft misunderstood role of the abdomen in respiration


          Although often a source of obsessive vanity in today’s society, the abdomen is the “unsung hero” of respiration.  Not only does it allow us to control our exhalation, but it has important implications in regulating inhalation as well.

          I was giving a lecture to Kinesiology students at Guelph-Humber College a while back on the anatomy of breathing. I had taught similar lectures at other universities before this, but I thought maybe it was of use to recheck what information was available for the public to easily access on the subject of breathing. Of course then I go straight to Wikipedia (which, interestingly enough is a legitimate word now found in the Microsoft Word dictionary). To my surprise, the articles on breathing, anatomy of breathing, respiratory apparatus, etc provided little mention of the abdomen in the process at all; so I knew this was what I had to focus my lecture around.

Abdomen surface anatomy

Surface anatomy of the abdomen. The familiar “six pack” muscles are located medially (centre of the abdomen) and are actually called the rectus abdominis muscle. In this position they act as an anchor for the other abdominal muscles to contract against.

          Most people who have an interest in the area of anatomy, the human body, singing, etc, have a general understanding that the lungs are involved in breathing and have at least heard about the diaphragm. However, few actually consider the important role the abdomen plays in coordinating the functions that allow us to breathe.

          It is fair to say that the role of the abdomen is misunderstood, at least in part, due to misconceptions surrounding the anatomical orientation of its contents. The abdomen is in fact a region of the upper body (not a single structure often mislabeled “the stomach”) starting around the xiphoid process (little knobbly protrusion from the sternum) and extending down to the pubis. Muscles form the walls of the abdomen, and contain important structures such as the liver, stomach, intestines, bladder, kidneys, etc. Check out the abdomen images in the Anatomy Diagrams section to get oriented. Chances are you have even heard of some of the muscles (i.e. the obliques).

Layers of abdominal muscles: rectus abdominis (left) and internal oblique (right). a-xiphoid process; b-sternum

Layers of abdominal muscles: rectus abdominis (left) and internal oblique (right). a-xiphoid process; b-sternum

          During inhalation, the abdomen must be relaxed to allow for an optimal breath in. Don’t believe me? Try sitting up in your chair right now and contracting your abdomen as tightly as you can. Now try and take a breath in while maintaining this contraction. It’s not possible! Think about what we said about the diaphragm: it is a thin muscle and when it contracts down during inhalation, it needs space and little resistance to contract fully. If the abdomen is contracted, it is pushing against this action of the diaphragm and won’t allow it to contract down much at all, thus you feel a limited capacity for inhalation.

          During exhalation, the abdomen must be engaged and coordinating with the diaphragm’s relaxation for a steady breath out. If not, you either get a gradual release of air that isn’t of much use, or an exasperated push of a lot of air resembling a frustrated “Hmph!” So by slowly contracting the muscles of the abdomen from all sides, we can create a gradual release of air that will support the vibration of our vocal folds. The abdomen is also what allows us to create enough pressure to change the volume of our voices or blow up a balloon!

Boy blowing up a balloon

          In the next couple weeks I want to continue our discussion of the respiratory apparatus from more of a “Case Study” perspective: optimizing breath during exercise when your abdomen is sometimes supposed to be contracted for stability, controversies surrounding the role of the intercostal muscles between the ribs, or arguments surrounding the potential role of the pelvic diaphragm in breathing and singing techniques. So stay tuned!

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