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How to Breathe With Your Diaphragm

Do you know how to breathe? Of course you do, else you wouldn’t be alive. You breathe 24/7 which would normally make you an expert in the field. So, how strange is it that you, as singers need to learn, or re-learn, how to breathe with your diaphragm to sing properly?

As singers we need all the air we can breathe as air is what will move our vocal cords and produce sound.

Did you know that when we breathe normally and unconsciously, we only inhale one eight of our lug capacity? 1/8! This means that our lugs can accommodate 700% more air, something that can make the difference between hitting that high note with ease or stressing up about it. Read on to learn how to use that extra 7/8ths.

What is the diaphragm

I’ve heard many people say: breathe with your belly, or, breathe with your stomach. Although the idea is correct, these phrases should only be used to teach children who can’t comprehend anatomy. The correct thing to say is: breathe using your diaphragm better.

But what exactly is the diaphragm? I’m sure you’ve heard it many times before, and have probably had a professor or two make you put your hands on their bellies while they breathed to demonstrate how to use your diaphragm.

The diaphragm is a flat muscle that sits underneath our lungs and aids with respiration. It attaches to the base of the thorax (ribs) and basically separates the lugs from the stomach and intestines. Take a look at the following image for an illustration.

how to breathe with your diaphragm

How the diaphragm works

When we breathe in, the diaphragm moves downward and compresses the stomach and intestines to make space for the air that comes in (this is why it’s hard to breathe on a full stomach, there’s no space for the air). At the same time, it moves laterally (outward) and causes the rib cage to expand to accommodate the lungs as they expand.

When we breath out, the diaphragm moves upward and compresses the bottom part of the lugs, causing the air to escape. At the same time, it lets the ribs to get back into place, which causes them to compress the lugs and squeeze out the rest of the air.

During normal respiration you don’t have to think about any of that. Thank God! Image what it would be like having to breathe consciously all the time. For now, let’s stick to breathing consciously during singing.

Why we need to know how to use the diaphragm consciously

I once talked to a choir singer, a very nice tenor with a gentle voice, who told me that he was trying to expand his breath by squeezing his abs inwards as tight as he could. He could not understand why his air supply was not getting any bigger.

What he didn’t realize was that by squeezing his abs, he wasn’t getting more air for singing, but instead he was pressing out the air he already had inhaled faster and in an uncontrolled way. That had as an effect for his air supply to finish faster. But what should have he done instead?

How to breathe with your diaphragm

You can not have a lot of air to turn into sound, unless you actually breathe in a lot of air. So first thing to do when breathing for choir is to utilize those 7/8th of your lugs by lowering your diaphragm and making it expand latterly. This will allow you to fill the bottom part of your lungs with air and take advantage of all the space in the abdominal cavities.

Pay attention to your shoulders. When you breathe correctly your shoulders should not move upwards. Observe someone who’s short of breath. They take short abrupt breaths that make their shoulders and chest move upwards.

Many times you’ll see choir singers do the same thing while singing, as well as close their eyes and swing from side to side trying to convey feeling in their music. All these movements could be nothing but detrimental to good singing as they deter one from concentrating on controlling their breathing.

how to breathe with the diaphragm

Now, remember what we said about the diaphragm and exhalation? The normal function of the diaphragm after inhalation is to press the air out. But as singers we don’t want to waste our air. We need to be as economical as possible. So, once you inhale, you need to control your diaphragm and consciously make sure you keep it lowered.

The secret to having an infinite supply of air when singing is to exercise the diaphragm to stay low, thus preventing it from forcing air out, but at the same time letting just enough air in a controlled and deliberate manner.

Exhaling should be controlled by using the abdominal muscles and the diaphragm so that the air that was breathed in is sufficient for all the notes within a phrase. All air should be turned into sound and no excess air should escape while singing. There should always be a surplus of air for cases of emergency.

The old Italian master, and my high school conductor as well, used to put a mirror in front of their singers’ mouth when they were singing to check if they were wasting their air. If they did, the mirror would get foggy, else it would remain crystal clear, which meant that all the air was turned into sound. You can try this at home!

The diaphragm is a muscle and just like any other muscle in the body it needs to be exercised in order to perform as desired. Initially, you might have trouble keeping your diaphragm low and controlling your exhalation, but as you continue to use it during rehearsals, it will become stronger and you’ll start having better command of it.

Some of my upcoming posts will talk about the 3 golden rules of breathing, as well as include breathing exercises for strengthening your diaphragm. You don’t want to miss them, so subscribe to my monthly newsletter or to my feed to learn more about breathing and to get posts about singing for choir delivered to you.

50 comments

  1. No. The diaphragm isn’t the issue. It’s the ineer muscles of your larynx which you need to strengthen in order to have full control on the amount of air you’re letting your vocal cords.

    • Hi Al, thank you for your observation. This is an interesting idea. I hope this is not something you’ve heard from a voice teacher. Unlike what most people might think, it’s not the larynx that controls air. Think of a piston pump: it’s not the sides of the pump that control the inflow of air/water but it’s the piston that goes up and down. By tensing your larynx muscles (in order to strengthen them) you actually prevent yourself from singing the best you can because you pull on your vocal folds. Best case scenario, you get a sore throat and a coarse voice after singing. Worse case scenario you pull too hard and tear your vocal folds. I would refer you to rock stars, but look at Adele and how she raptured her vocal folds. So, ideally, you want to keep your larynx muscles as relaxed as possible.

    • How do I do that?? Plzz teach me man!

  2. Thank you for this very simply, yet detailed explanation of proper use of the diaphragm. I recently began teaching voice. I’ve had years and years of singing and doing this action just became natural. I found it very difficult to explain to my students how to do physically what is needed to control their breathing. This was extremely helpful. Thank you again!

  3. Hi! I just discovered your blog and just wanted to share how much I enjoy it. I find that the way you explain these concepts to be very helpful and easy to understand. Now to put them to practice when I sing in choir. Thanks!

  4. This is an excellent article, and I’ve gone on to read the article about the golden rules as well. I couldn’t find the article with the exercises though. Keep up the good work. Please write an article containing some exercises on keeping the diaphragm low.

  5. Hi! I have a couple of questions to ask.

    I like singing. I practically sing 24/7. But when I sing, I feel like I’m squeezing my voice out of the back part of my tongue. It feels really uncomfortable. I googled my problem, and some said that I should use my diaphragm, not my throat.

    I got confused because I thought I was using my diaphragm. But then I thought, maybe I was doing it the wrong way. So I googled my second problem, and saw that some said I should breathe through my nose, and some said I should breathe through my mouth.

    At that point, I was completely confused. I searched more and more until I found your blog. I thought your blog was awesome and really detailed. So I decided to tell you about my problem.

    What is the right way to sing with your diaphragm?

    Please email me the answer: margauxestonilo@yahoo.com

    • Hi Margaux, check your email.

    • I have this same problem i find my recorded Sounds so bad to me and i was also told to use my diaphragm and thus i am confused as well. My email is goodwin.laura@hotmail.com please reply through there thanks

      • Hi NadiyaFirstly I must tell you that I am Delwyn’s sister, the loelvy Ben’s Aunt. I have heard so much about you sorry we have never met. i love Ben so very much and really enjoy seeing him. You would be very proud of him.I am enjoying the breathing. I am a chronic through the mouth breather and also I have had major probs with sinus so it is a slow process just to trust breathing through the nose. Still working at it.I work professionally as a Counsellor in a secondary school and also able to share this with my students and my colleagues.Kind regardsCarol

    • I have the same problem too.. i need your expertise on this. my email is martian_keanu@yahoo.com. thanks

      • Hi, could you please help me too? i have this same problem, i am so confused on not know how to breathe with it, my throat gets so tired.

      • Hi Carol, how wonderful to hear from you! I’m sinedng you a personal email too. Thanks so much for your feedback. Both Linda and I are passionate about learning to breathe well and the difference it makes to quality of life. We want to get Breathe Well to as many people as possible, so any help is much appreciated.Big hug to all of you in NZ.Nadiya

  6. Power Preciision

    Greetings from Los angeles! I’m bored at work so I decided to check out your website on my iphone during lunch break. I enjoy the info you provide here and can’t wait to take a look when I
    get home. I’m amazed at how quick your blog loaded on my cell phone .. I’m not even using WIFI, just 3G .
    . Anyways, good blog!

  7. AutoFill Dan Robinson

    Hi the name is dan and I sing for a hard rock group. I don’t do any screamo stuff just power type vocals. I have been finding it more and more difficult to complete our shows as it seems like I run out of air and then am unable to hit any rangeat all. I’ve done some studying and am sure the breathing technique I use is probably in affective. But I can’t tell when I try to move my diaphragm, or control it, if I’m doing it correctly.also I’m a 25 year long smoker, and yes I know its a bad habbit, but could this be causing so much problem that I wouldn’t be able to do any better vocally.

    • Hi there Dan,

      There are a few reasons why you might be running out of air, not all related to smoking.

      What I’ve seen with most rock singers is that they tense their neck, mouth, and face muscles a lot when singing. This is the number one reason for a sore throat after a gig. Even if you use your diaphragm correctly, a tense throat could somewhat cancel out all the good work that your diaphragm might do, and of course, it can potentially result in vocal fold nodules, tearing, and other such issues. So, the first thing to do is make sure, your neck, throat, face, mouth muscles are relaxed. I understand that most times you’ll want to communicate intensity through your face, but at least, make sure your neck is relaxed.

      Then again, your diaphragm might now be controlling your air properly, therefore letting more air out that you need for singing, which results in shortness of breath. There are a couple of exercises to help you out with this. You can inhale air and then saying a shhhh try to prolong the exhalation as possible. If you’re doing it correctly, it should feel as if your belly is filling with air.

      Then again, there’s smoking which does decrease your lung capacity. When I was about your age living in Europe, I had picked up smoking, too, for a very small period of time. I had to quit for the same reason you’re describing. It would feel as if my lungs couldn’t fill with oxygen anymore and as if there was something in my lung cells that was preventing air from settling there. It had become hard to sing as well and I was feeling that even my range was being affected.

      I would recommend seeing a throat specialist to determine if your vocal folds are ok. If you can, you might also need to take a break from singing for a few weeks to give your body a chance to recover.

      I hope this helps!
      Olga

  8. I HAVE A PROBLEM WITH TIMING…..WHILE SINGING….I NEED HELP PLEEEEEEAAAASSE!

  9. Hi! Great article. I used to be able to feel my diaphragm lowering and my body getting full of air, and I kept it down while singing. I had no problems. But now, just were te diaphragm is located, I feel like a knot there that cuts the air and I cant lower it as much as I try. Any advice? Thanks!

    • Hi Pete,
      There are a couple of different reasons why this might happen, but they are not serious, so not to worry.
      One is that your stomach might be too full, so it’s hard to breath.
      Another reason is that you might be a bit stressed and your intestines are “flexed” so they can’t get compressed by your diaphragm to create more space.
      In general, try to sing with an empty stomach and you should be fine. And of course, if you sing on an empty stomach and it’s still hard for you, then talk to your physician.
      I hope this helps,
      Olga

  10. Hi 🙂
    I really love singing, but it frustrates me that after singing, my voice becomes coarse. I’m not sure if I’m using my diaphragm wrongly, but I think the mee compelling reason would be my control of the larynx. I feel like everytime I want to make my voice more powerful, I tense up & exert pressure on my larynx muscles instead. Also, this pressure on my larynx also occurs when I’m trying to bring my voice to a controlled higher or lower pitch. I’m guessing it’s because of this, my voice becomes coarse after singing. Which is why although I love singing, I don’t want to sing too often because I don’t want to damage my voice. Any suggestions on eliminating this problem?

  11. *more compelling, I mean

  12. The misspellings in this article really need to be corrected.

    • This article should have been written in Chinese…correct spelling or not, there are over 6 billion people whom are unable to read it.

  13. Hi Olga,
    I’ve really fallen in love with this article, i love it. Just like Annabel, i love singing and i sing soprano but ta the end of it, my voice becomes coarse which is so frustrating, at one moment i thought that with a lot of practice it could get better but each that passes by its still the same, what should i really do?

  14. Hi I love this article cos have been learning how to sing from my diaphragm and am finally getting it.one question,when I breath in air, while singing do I have to put pressure on my diaphragm to hold the air or I have to let it out each time I sing a phrase.or does the air leaves out naturally even if I have pressure on my diaphragm please help

  15. I am not a singer, but I went to the Dr. for shortness of breath. They did a cat scan and found my diaphragm has moved up into my right lung. Is there any exercise that can help move it back to where it belongs?

    • Hi Valerie, I am not writing to you with a reply but want to ask if you have had any treatment for your diaphragm, my husband ha sjust had a scan because he had trouble breathing and they have found the exact same problem that you had. His diaphragm has moved up into his right lung. The doctors don’t seem to know how or why this has happened wjich is why I would love to know how you have been treated and if the problem has been sorted. Thank you for your time Valerie.

  16. Hi, actually when i breath with my diaphragm the air quickly goes out leaving me struggling with the notes,so please tell me what to do,and how to know my voice type, please.

  17. i wish this article explained more on HOW to use the diaphragm. which abdominal muscles need to be engaged? what is meant by breathe “low”? does the stomach draw back in at least a little after taking the deep breath? I guess these things are hard to explain with words. but to be honest, I have watched a hundred videos on breathing and they are no better. nothing online is helpful so for the people who want to self-teach… don’t bother 🙁

  18. Hi! I’m just wondering about the mirror excersice. How close is the mirror suppose to be in relation to the mouth?

  19. Ok, I am really shocked at some of the information being presented here in this original article.

    Let me say this first: If is physically IMPOSSIBLE to consciously control the diaphragm. It is an involuntary muscle. Telling people they can control it is false and irresponsible.

    Now, what IS possible to do is for a singer to feel expansion in their rib cage and relaxation in the lower body on inhalation so the diaphragm has room to fully expand. The goal on exhalation (in this case, singing) is to maintain lung expansion while the air is traveling up out of the lungs (and passing the chords, which make the sound) and maintaining a steady stream of air. The trick is to maintain this sense of expansion WITHOUT locking the body.

    I could go on, but I will stop. I enjoy some of your articles here, and some of the things you are saying above are true, but the terminology you are using in regards to how the diaphragm functions in the phonation process is clearly wrong on so many levels. Diaphragmatic breathing is not good breathing. Appoggio, balanced breathing is. Using the right language is important or we are just encouraging more bad habits.

    • Don’t understand the premise of this comment. Is there no such thing as “taking a deep breath”? How does a singer produce softer or louder notes if not by controlling the diaphragm?

  20. The main idea of this article is to breath correctly. Breathing correctly can really benefit your singing. How you breath impacts on how much air you are using and if you breath correctly you will get a better sound and better tone. Some people work on this skill by singing in the mirror to see or notice how your stomach is moving and if you are havering good posture.

    • “Breathing correctly can really benefit your singing.”

      No, really? What a concept, lol! Here’s my problem with the original blog post: if this is about breathing correctly for singing, the the author owes it to her readers to demonstrate a basic grasp on human anatomy and how it functions. She clearly doesn’t. It doesn’t mean that singing in a mirror doesn’t help, or that watching your stomach moving, having good posture etc are all bad things to do. But if you don’t even know what the heck you are to look for to breathe properly, you’re just reinforcing bad habits.

  21. INGLÉS
    to regard us know this is the correcatas benificiar Reverse for our singing.

  22. Hello,

    I too have a problem, I sing soprano, at the beginning of our choir session,
    I am able to hit most the high notes then my throat tightens and I just can’t reach them anymore until my voice is rested on music in a lower key. Please tell me how to prevent my throat from tightening. I am using the diaphragm breathing now consciously.

  23. Hi,
    I have trouble with this. I’ve taken voice lessons, and my teacher had always told me the information above; to watch your back when you breathe, to let as little air as possible out when you sing, and such. But, I’ve always had problems applying it! I’ve tried making my abdominal area hard in an attempt to keep air in, but that isn’t working. And, I’ve also tried singing in the back of my throat to try to keep air in my mouth. Another issue I’ve had is that I’ve always sung low, alto-tenor notes, and with the correct method of breathing and such, but, now that I’ve been placed in Soprano, all of my “correct singing” has gone down the drain! Is it my range, or is there still fault in my method? Thanks for this article, by the way. 🙂

  24. So we must fully utilise our air, but how?:( When I try to do that, I tend to “pull my sound backwards”.

  25. Thanks for the info and for sharing; Jesus Christ Bless you! 🙂

  26. thank you for this information on beath control. Very clear and easy to follow.

  27. Hi,
    I am an alto in a community chorus. I tend to run out of breath very easily and have to breathe sneakily in the middle of a phrase. I can’t seem to get a full breath using diaphragmatic breathing and find chest breathing easier. We sit during choir rehearsal most of the time, so I cannot stand. Do you have any ideas on how to make diaphragmatic breathing easier?

    • not your best effort but a trckiy subject i’d like to see more, i think that worrying about rhyme kind of killed it.but hey, i am an idiot when it comes to poetry, my criticism shouldn’t count for much.my strentgh is brute logic, in any debate with you i will win all the battles but gladly lose the war.the world would suck if the absurd did not carry the day.and a good choice of graphics, again.(think of replacing Even if it’s false—it’s true! with something that aims for the same mark but sounds less, ahem, wieselian, not an ode to lying in order to achieve some sordid end, you don’t need tarring with that brush)

  28. I’ve been complimented by many on my voice and everyone believes I should make it a professional care choice, but I just don’t feel like I’m good enough. I have practically tried everything, I have even had my own band, but that was years ago. I really want to get back into singing again, but I just don’t feel I’m material for it. I need to improve. I can hit some pretty low notes and high notes, but when I sing along with music I just can’t feel in the gaps or either can’t keep up because I’m either too fast or way too slow. I feel I’m way off key from where I should be. I like to sing all genres of music as well as listen to them. Any tips?

  29. I’ve always been breathing like this.

  30. Hi Olga
    I’m really having a hard time putting this on practice, I’ve searched in many websites how to breathe properly with my diaphragm and how to to sing. But I just can’t get there.
    Could you help me?

  31. I never sang before and would like to try. do I need to push my stomach out like Santa Clas to fill my lungs. thanks I was confused about using the diaphrem, what I read seemed to be telling me to breathe into my diaphem, which seemed to me impossible as the lungs would get in the way now I understand that its the lungs that need room to expand its the lungs which need to be filled. I will attempt using this method and see if it works. AND how can I keep my voice from cracking, will more air help? thank you for clearing up my confusion about the lungs/diaphrem

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