5 Ways Singers Can Use Pilates to Build Balanced Core Strength

Searching for somewhere between Jell-O and Washboard …

What do you consider to be your “core”? Is it just your abdominal muscles?

The way I think about it, your core definitely includes your abdominal muscles. But your core is also So! Much! More!

For singers (and really for everybody, but especially for singers) it’s important to take a balanced, body-as-instrument approach to building core strength. It’s not about six-pack abs. It’s about getting to know your center of gravity. Here are five Pilates-based strategies for doing just that.

1. Practice movements that require Oppositional Energy 

I like to think of the core as three-dimensional. There’s way more core available to us than just “pull your belly button to your spine,” “close your ribs” and/or “tuck your pelvis.” Those are old-school cues that can create excess tension and limit functional movement.

My primary training is in Fletcher Pilates — a classical Pilates lineage that pairs specific breath work with movement patterns. Ron Fletcher encouraged his Pilates students to think of the core like an apple core, supported full-circle by a “girdle of strength.” 

And in Pilates, one of our movement principles is Oppositional Energy — it’s really the secret sauce of Pilates. Some people also call it “the two way stretch.”

Movements that include a diagonal line across the body — like moving opposite limbs up and down from a narrow ”X” shape — are great for feeling oppositional energy in the core. You could also do this with your legs bent, if that feels better on your low back.

Pilates requires and builds strength, but we never contract the core in a static way with 10/10, let’s-hunker-down effort. Instead, we lengthen from the center in two directions to support the spine. We elongate the core with engagement. We imagine creating space between the hips and the ribs. We let the the head float up as the feet stay grounded.

There’s a similar principle in singing, I think — down to sing up, up to sing down. My highest notes always feel better when I source them from below.

This is important because core strength — just like alignment and posture — is dynamic. It’s a process, it’s always moving. It’s not the static placement of muscles and bones into one particular position. 

It’s especially important for singers and actors, who need the full range of postural expressions available for character creation, and who need to support sound while engaged in all manner of movements.

2. Work on dynamic balance skills

I love this one because it is a sneak attack on core stability. One of the best ways to improve postural control is through balance training. And with nary an abdomen-compressing sit-up in sight. You’re practicing creating a sense of stability in your center, so if you are knocked off balance, you can catch yourself.

Also, working on balance is fun — it’s not just standing on your toes for hours, people! Dynamic balance exercises look and feel a lot like play, which is key for performers.

Try this, standing next to a wall or chair for support at first: Stand on one leg, get your bearings, and then turn your head to look over one shoulder. Turn your head to look over the other shoulder. Sneaky, right?!

Our chief weapon is surprise!

If you feel yourself wobbling, that’s good — the work is in the wobble, as I always say! If it feels OK, progress to taking your hand off the wall/chair, and then maybe try it without props in the middle of the room.

3. Coordinate breath (and/or song!) with movement

In the Fletcher Pilates tradition, each piece of a movement has a piece of breath — either an inhale or an exhale — associated with it.

Fletcher Pilates uses an inhale through the nose and a lengthened exhale through the mouth, usually on a “shhhh” or “sssss” sound.

The sound is not as important as what you feel as you exhale, so don’t worry about getting a particular mouth shape “right.” Put one hand on your sternum and the other on your low belly. Try inhaling through the nose and exhaling on the following sounds:

– Shhh (like librarian-style!)
– Sssss (like a snake)
– The sound you make when you’re trying to fog a mirror and/or sound like Darth Vader

Notice what you feel in your abdominals on each of these sounds. Does one feel more engaging than another?

Pick the sound that you liked best. Now imagine that there is a candle about an arm’s length in front of your mouth. As you exhale, try to bend the flame of the candle without blowing it out. To me, this feels the same way in my core as a good lip trill does.

This type of lengthened exhale engages the transverse abdominis through the use of breath alone. It also activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is key for motor learning.

I should stress that this is only one way of breathwork training, and I think singers need way more tools in their breathwork toolboxes (Breathboxes?) than this one.

What matters most to me is that you are breathing the whole time you are moving — which is not always easy! Many of us have a tendency to hold our breaths in certain positions, or when movement becomes challenging.

Set an intention to coordinate breath with movement throughout your practice, so you can practice balancing the need to hold different levels of effort in your core with the need to keep breathing. Singing is breathing, so you could also try singing on your exhales — lip trills, warm-ups, a line from a piece you are working on — whatever feels interesting to you.

PS: Fletcher Pilates also has a breathwork component called ”Percussive Breathing” — and the Percussive Breathing exercise called Ron’s Clock seems super similar to the Tetrazzini Breathing Exercise, taught by the great Italian coloratura soprano Luisa Tetrazzini.

Ron’s Clock

4. Use constructive rest mini-breaks throughout your session

Rest is an essential part of movement training. Your bodybrain needs breaks to process and integrate all the motor learning you are doing. Resting at the end of your practice is key. There is also research suggesting that mini-breaks throughout a session can enhance motor learning.

One of our goals is to build basic strength, and that requires contraction in the abdominal musculature. So why not use the breaks throughout your session to release them?

There are lots of ways to do this — the simplest is to just breathe and notice how your torso responds to your breath, with no effort in the abdominals. Bonus points if you do this in different positions, like in child’s pose, hands and knees, on your back with your legs supported in a comfy position by a couch or chair, or lying on your belly.

You can also use simple props to give feedback for this feeling of release. The floor is your friend on this one. Lie on your belly on the floor. Now bend one knee out to the side, and slide your knee up towards your armpit, so you are in sort of a Peter Pan I’m Flyyyying! shape on the floor. Breathe, and bring your attention to the feeling of your low belly touching the floor. Repeat on the other side.

If you like, you can try adding a few squished up blankets or towels under your belly to vary this sensation. Or use a small, squishy exercise ball that is partially deflated, and massage your belly around the ball as you breathe.

SCIENCE SAYS I am now required to relax and do nothing. SCIENCE, people.

5. Expand your definition of “core”

Instead, let’s talk about your trunk. (And not necessarily the trunk of ye olde “junk in the trunk” fame, although the gluteal muscles do play a role!)

Anatomically, the trunk is the structure made up of the neck, thorax, abdomen, and pelvis. The spine and the ribs are structural components of the trunk. The spine serves as a connector between the head and the pelvis. The ribs connect to the thoracic portion of the spine and protect vital organs you need to oh, you know, be alive and breathe (and sing!) and such.

The musculature of the trunk includes the abdominal muscles — but it also includes lots of other muscles that support your spine, keep you upright in everyday life, manage extrinsic load, and connect your trunk to your extremities. 

These muscle systems work together to provide dynamic stabilization and neuromuscular control of the whole trunk shebang. Some of this works all day long underneath your conscious awareness. 

Isn’t that cool? Your body is a miracle! If you’re worried you can’t try Pilates because you “have no core,” I’m here to ask you to be gentler with yourself. You are not alone — this is a common concern among my clients, perpetuated by asinine cultural nonsense that falsely equates strong with skinny. If you are reading this, you have a core. You have everything you need to start.

Building your awareness of this team of muscles can help develop balanced strength and mobility in your center of gravity. And honoring your miraculous body-as-instrument — that’s the icing on the trunk.

Want to explore your core more? (And hear it roar? For sure?) (Sorry, I have not have coffee yet, and that is when I am at my cheesiest.) Join me for my Pilates for Singers Fall Class Series!

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