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For breath support purposes, the abdominal muscles consist of four groups:

  • The rectus abdominus, which lies just underneath the surface of the skin
  • The external obliques, which lie underneath the rectus abdominus
  • The internal obliques, which lie underneath the external obliques
  • The transverse abdominus, which is the deepest and which lies underneath all of the above

The rectus abdominus muscle (the six-pack) is the most superficial of the abdominal muscles, and it runs from the bottom of the ribcage at the front of the torso to the pubic bone. The muscle fibres run lengthwise down the body, which has a serious implication for singing. Contraction of these muscles pulls the body forwards and down, which interferes with the posture needed for singing. A singer will lean forwards if this is happening. For this reason many teachers advise students not to exercise using stomach crunches.

The external obliques are a pair of abdominal muscles which are located on either side of the torso and are superficial to the internal obliques which lie in a similar position, but deeper.  Both sets of oblique muscles are attached to the lower ribs and to the pelvis at the hip.

The transverse abdominus muscle is the most important of this group for breath support. It lies at a deeper level in the body than the other abdominal muscles, and wraps around the torso, creating an effect similar to a back support belt. The muscle fibres run from side to side, so when this muscle contracts, the effect is to flatten the belly. Unfortunately this muscle tends to be rather lazy, so if the rectus abdominus is doing all the work, the transverse abdominus need not do anything. Posture is the key here; the singer should avoid leaning forwards and should be aware that the oblique muscles are at work. The transverse abdominus will then function as it should.

These abdominal muscles operate together, not in isolation. It is important however that the rectus abdominus does not dominate and upset the balance. The work of the muscles should not interfere with the diaphragm as it contracts.

The following activity shows the diaphragm and the abdominals working together. It demonstrates the same muscular action used in supporting the breath for singing. 

► activity:

Using the fingertips, find the band of muscle above the navel and just below the centre of the ribcage.

  1. Push and release the fingertips into this band of muscle to feel how elastic it is. Make a lengthened and vigorous ‘SHH’ sound, and observe how this muscle contracts, pushing the fingertips outwards. Repeat this exercise with the band of muscle below the navel and just above the pubic bone.

Note that the navel is not being pushed outwards as these muscles contract. (You should not in any case push out the belly when breathing as this locks the torso and reduces flexibility.) To demonstrate the mechanics behind this, place a fingertip in the navel and make a long gentle ‘SHHH’ sound. The navel naturally moves inwards towards the spine as the air is exhaled. This is because the transverse abdominus muscle is contracting and flattening the belly.

Related Muscle Groups

The abdominal muscles are helped in their work by muscles in the back and the pelvic floor, which have their role to play in controlling the use of breath in both speaking and singing.

Although not so easy to observe in action as the abdominals, the action of these muscles can be shown in an activity similar to the above.

► activity:

For the muscles in the back, place the palm of the hand on the back muscles just below the ribcage. Make a lengthened and vigorous ‘SHH’ sound and feel the muscles contract.

  1. For the muscles at the sides, place both hands just below the ribcage on either side of the body, the fingers in front and the thumbs to the back. Make a vigorous ‘SHH’ sound. Squeeze gently as the sound is made, and the contraction of the muscles is easily observed
  2. For the pelvic floor muscles, sit upright on a hard chair. Make a vigorous ‘SHH’ sound. As the sound is made, there will be a very slight uplift of the torso as the muscles contract against the chair.


Ross Campbell
Professor of Singing, Royal Academy of Music, London
Director & Head of Singing, Musical Theatre Ireland, MTI
Award winning Author for ABRSM Songbooks 1 - 5
1-to-1 Vocal Training & Consultations available


dailysingingtipsukRoss Campbell is the founder behind Daily Singing Tips. Ross is an award winning graduate of the Royal College of Music in London and has extensive experience and .....

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