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Kickin' Cardio For Vocalists
By Dagmar Morgan - 09/20/2002 - 04:08 PM EDT

Cardio exercise is probably the most important thing you could do for vocal training. Without correctly using and developing your cardio system you are relying on your neck, throat and vocal folds to supply a large sound. These muscles are very small and cannot support a sound for very long without injuring them. By looking at the anatomy of the cardio system and its functions, I'll show you how training your cardio system will improve your endurance, stage energy and technique. We'll also look at some forms of cardio exercise and how to get started on a program.

The Cardiovascular system is made of the heart, lungs and a network of arteries and veins that push blood through your body and carry oxygen and nutrients to every single cell. The heart muscle is the pump that pushes the blood around. Your heart is actually a muscle just like the bicep muscle in your arm. If you performed weight lifting regularly would you get stronger? Would your muscles get bigger? Absolutely. The heart and lungs work the same way. When you do cardio you are asking your heart muscle to perform its pumping motion more quickly and more often. The result is your heart and lungs get stronger and faster at what they do. However, here is the real mind bender. When you do cardio exercise your body produces more of what is called Aerobic Enzymes (protein enzymes). The more of these enzymes you have the more the oxygen you can process. In short your body actually uses more of the oxygen it pulls in. If you compared a non-active person and an active person taking in the same amount of air, the active person's body and muscles would actually use more of the oxygen pulled in.

As vocalists, the benefits of cardio training are numerous. With the heart and lungs working more efficiently, you are able to put more physical demand on your system with less effort. Difficult pieces with a lot of movement through dynamics, high or low notes, fast and slow tempos, would take less energy to perform. With the ability to do more with less effort your endurance to perform for long periods of time without fatigue would improve. Your stage performance would also benefit greatly. Performers like Madonna, Britney Spears or Janet Jackson who dance for the entire show while singing and smiling. There is some (only some) validity to the buff and cut images that we see in the music industry. They all exercise regularly. To perform with that much energy and stamina day after day for 8 months at a time you have to. It is not a gift; it is earned on the treadmill. Training the cardio system helps your technique by providing sound support for the voice. The torso (from the collar bone to the lower abdomen) and all the muscles in it work together with breath to produce sound. Your lungs and rib cage work like an accordion to push air up over the vocal folds. The diaphragm descends and the lower abdominal muscles engage to hold the support in place. Cardio done with proper breathing will train your diaphragm and lower abdominals to engage in the same way they would when you sing. We already know that if you repeat an exercise that muscle will become stronger and more efficient at its task. Cardio fitness also helps with weight control, sound sleep, depression, stress and helps curb your appetite for junk food. Any way you play, it cardio will help improve your life and your music.

Cardio Options

There are a number of kinds of cardio you can do. Many of which do not cost a lot or take up a lot of time. The most popular ones are running, swimming, skating, stepping (step classes), cycling and walking. Running and walking are the most available. Although, you will need proper foot wear to get you started. Running shoes are only designed to last three months. If you've been wearing the same ones for two years it's time for a new pair. If the bottom of your feet hurt or you have pain in your shins or knees check your shoes first. If you are in the market for a new pair always look for the best fit. Not the trendiest or coolest in appearance. Take your time to choose. Leave the store feeling totally confident about your purchase. The most expensive is not always the best. Look for a mid price range. If you go over that, you are paying for the latest trend or the brand name. I recommend going to a running store where they are qualified to fit you.

Swimming is next in line for ease and availability. If you live near an ocean or lake you can use it to your advantage (weather permitting). If you live somewhere that has season changes you can get a fairly cheap recreation centre membership. You'll need a bathing suit, goggles and a bathing cap. The chlorine content at these pools is high. It will burn your eyes, dry out your hair and eat through you bathing suit. You can pick up goggles and a cap for reasonable price and I'd buy a cheap suit that will be easy to replace.

Cycling is a good way to keep up your cardio level. If you don't own a bike you can look for second hand bike shops bike. The bikes are usually at a reasonable price. As you are not training for the Olympics, you don't need an expensive bike. However, make sure that your bike fits you properly. The tips of your toes should just touch the ground when you are seated on it. If not you can ask the sales person to adjust the seat height. If your feet still touch the ground look for another bike. Cycling classes at gyms are quite the workout. Check out the paragraph on stepping classes to see my recommendations for gyms and recreation centres. Always remember to wear a helmet for outdoor cycling.

Roller blading and skating are very good and challenging cardio exercise. A lot of people in Canada skate in the winter and blade in the summer. Skates and roller blades are pretty expensive to buy but again you can also go to a second hand store. Make sure that they fit properly and work effectively. Both skates and roller blades should fit snugly but never pinch when you move in them. Most places that specialize in second hand sports equipment do full repairs and only accept almost new items. So most items you find there are fairly good. You will need a helmet, elbow guards and kneepads for roller blading, all of which cost extra but are well worth the dollar investment.

Step classes are found in gyms and recreation centres. You need good cross training running shoes and something to wear that is easy to move in. You can buy the plastic steps they use in the classes and videotapes to follow. Be sure to learn the steps before you plunge in as I have witnessed many sprained ankles, torn ligaments and wrenched knees from misplacing your feet. These can be fun if you enjoy dancing and usually the up beat music can motivate you to keep going. Memberships at gyms and rec centres can be costly. Look at your budget before you go in to find out about memberships and single class prices. I would look into a guest pass to see how you like the teachers, atmosphere, staff etc. I would not join a club and invest money before I knew if I liked it there.


Before you start, there a few things to think about. Do you have any injuries or physical limitations that would rule out certain forms of exercise? For example I stopped running for four years because I had a knee injury; I chose cycling instead. What would you like to do? If you do not enjoy it, you will not keep doing it. What equipment do you need? How much money do you have to spend? How much time do you have? Do you want to do this at home? Do you want to join a gym or recreation centre? Do you have a friend or partner to do this activity with? Statistics show that if you work out with a friend you are more likely to keep doing it.

Here are some general guidelines. Safety is always first. Check you equipment to make sure it is working properly and that you did not forget something. Women have extended safety issues to consider. Do not go out to exercise in your neighbourhood alone. If you insist on doing so, tell someone your route, stick to it and give a time to expect you back. If you do not arrive on time they will know where to look. Take a quarter for the phone. Take water. Eat something small before you exercise. Never exercise if you have not eaten for a long time. Eat something after you are done. If you have not exercised in a while or are not sure of your fitness level please start at the beginners level for the first 2-7 days. It is better to move up than to over exert. You need to remind your body of what it needs to do and how to do it. Let the first week be easy for you. Remember success is showing up and doing the exercise.

Here are the outlines of what to do for each level of fitness.

Beginners (very low to low fitness) should exercise for 1-3x/wk for 15-30 minutes.

Intermediate (average fitness)should exercise 3-5x/wk for 20-45 minutes.

Advanced (above average fitness) should exercise 4-7x/wk for 40-60 minutes.

Once you have answered all the above questions and choose your fitness level you are ready to begin. Here are the details of how to structure your first program.

For the sake of ease I have used an interval-training program and used running as the example but you may plug in any of the exercises. For cycling, skating or rollerblading and swimming you will use the "run" section as a faster pace and the "walk" section as a relaxed pace

Beginners - walk slowly for five minutes - do a light full body stretch. Run/walk quickly for 2 minutes (you should be able to maintain a conversation comfortably, your breathing should be faster than regular but you are not winded); walk for 2 minutes. Switch back and forth for 15-30 min. Do a full body stretch to end it off. Do this for one week. Then add 1 minute to your running (3min run /2 min walk). Take a day off between your runs. Your body will need 24 hours to recover properly.

Intermediate - Start at 5-minute run and a 2-minute walk and adjust according to your comfort level. Eventually you want to run for a full 40 minutes without walking. Remember to build up to this. Do full body stretch to end it off. Take a day off between runs. You will need 24 hours to recover.

Advanced - Start at 10 minute run and 2-minute walk. If this is easy eliminate the walk portion or keep it in at try to use hills in your run. Always do a full body stretch. Take a day off between runs. You will need 24 hours to recover.

You may choose to do roller blading, skating or cycling without following the program. Just going out on your blades for 20 minutes will guarantee a cardio workout. Just keep in mind that you want to build up a bit of a sweat and get your lungs working. Some skating rinks and pools set up lanes to use for training (usually during adult swim or skate time). You can do this interval program or speed drills, which will also help your cardio system. Ask the recreation centre or club for more info they will be able to tell you everything you need to know. Also any team sports that incorpaorate these cardio activites are beneficial. If you are a team player it may be a better option than a personal program.

This cardio program should be followed for at least six weeks. It takes twelve weeks to build a habit and six weeks before you see any results.

At about week three expect to feel frustrated. You will get that "I've been doing this for weeks and I'm not getting anywhere" feeling. Don't give up. Your body is a delicate system and needs time to adjust to your new routine. If you feel better, sleep better, have more energy and can increase the length of time you workout you are on the right track. Cardio training for vocal is for long term results. You will not wake up one day and not have to train anymore. To maintain your awesome level of lung power you have to keep up your training. It's the same as your instrument. You must touch it everyday to keep where you are at not to mention improve it. Fitness and musicianship are both journey's not destinations. Good luck!!!

**This is information not medication. If you have any questions concerning your health, speak to your family doctor before you perform any exercise program.**

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