Have you ever heard that you should “talk from the diaphragm” or “breathe from the diaphragm” for a powerful voice?
Well, it’s bull hockey.
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The diaphragm is the major muscle of inhalation, true. But unless there is a serious physical problem, every single breath involves the diaphragm. So you’re already using it!
So what is the diaphragm, exactly? It is a big, flat, muscle that separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity. The only time we typically notice it is when we have hiccups, which is a spasm of the diaphragm (pro tip: taking a really deep belly breath and holding it for as long as you can is one of the best ways to calm these spasms).
We also sometimes notice it if we have either laughed or coughed a lot, and we feel a little ache underneath the front ribs. That’s your diaphragm working overtime!
How the diaphragm works in breathing and speech
In order to inhale, the diaphragm contracts (which is the term for any time a muscle activates). This contraction actually pulls it into a lower position in your body, toward your feet. On exhale, it simply relaxes and floats back up to its original position.
The majority of our inhale comes from this contracting action of the diaphragm. The diaphragm does not, however, actively push air out of the body on the exhale.
We speak on an exhale. The human voice is a wind instrument: we inhale breath, and then we prolong the exhale when we turn it into sound. The diaphragm does not have much to do with the exhale.
So why is it that people talk about “speaking/singing from the diaphragm” then? What do people mean when they say that?
Spoiler: it’s actually the abs!
When people refer to talking or singing or supporting the voice from the diaphragm, they’re actually referring to engaging the abdominal muscles.
As you now know, inhaling causes the diaphragm to lower in the body toward the pelvis. When it does this, it presses down on the internal organs of the abdominal cavity, which are packed together tightly and get displaced. This downward pressure from above causes the organs to move outward.
This movement can make it seem like the air is coming into your belly even though that’s physically not what is happening at all. But it sure feels like it! I call this a “belly breath” because when the diaphragm lowers it is the abdomen that expands, almost as if the breath is moving into the belly.
When we exhale, the process reverses itself and the diaphragm simply relaxes and floats back up to its natural position. The internal organs also return to their natural position, and the abdominal wall (abdominal muscles, or abs) move inward.
When we want to make voice with an exhale, we need to apply a little pressure on the abs to control that exhale. It is the abdominal muscles that create this pressure. By pulling inward with the abs in a specific way, we push the organs inward so they press up on the diaphragm to help effectively squeeze the air out of the lungs.
That is how we use breath to make sound.
The voice’s true volume button
The bottom line is, you can’t actively engage your diaphragm to push air out to enhance or increase the loudness of your voice. You can actively engage your abs. This means that the volume control button on the human voice instrument is located in the belly! A lot of folks think it is located in the throat, which can lead to problems like discomfort, fatigue, hoarseness, inadequate loudness, weak voice, and many more.
Why do so many professionals use the phrase “talking from the diaphragm” incorrectly?
It’s because a lot of folks don’t fully understand the anatomy and how it works when we speak or sing. People who say that are actually encouraging engagement of the abdominal muscles and movement in that part of the torso. The more you know!
That doesn’t sound like how I breathe…
Are you one of the many people who breathes in the complete opposite way of what is described above? Does your chest puff out and your shoulders lift and your upper torso engage when you inhale? Does your chest and shoulder and collarbone area relax when you exhale? This is not uncommon, but it is not helpful for voice.
You could get a lot more mileage out of your voice by learning how to use your breath muscles in a way to support your sound. Book a session to learn how to do that in your own particular body!
About Kate DeVore
Kate DeVore, MA, CCC-SLP, is a voice, speech, and accent trainer, a speech pathologist specializing in professional voice, and an author. She coaches professional voice users ranging from actors to executives. Kate also teaches at the School at Steppenwolf and Columbia College Chicago, and leads workshops nationally and abroad.Kate has authored, co-authored, and contributed to a number of voice, speech, and dialect self-study tools. Read more about Kate”s background and training on this site, or contact her to inquire about private or group coaching.