Updated: May 4, 2020
For many years vocalists have been compared to athletes. When I was a young singer-in-training, I would hear the metaphor and mostly consider it as a romantic way to boost my own self-important ego. I never understood it to be true at a foundational level. Little did I know there was consistent research supporting the work. In 2014 Dr. Wendy LeBorgne and Marci Rosenberg published The Vocal Athlete bringing more research and scientific backing of the phrase to the surface, particularly in aid of the commercial/contemporary vocalist.
There are many aspects to consider in correlating exercise science with voice training, but I find it easiest to start with ten basic principles of exercise physiology and training. Overload. Frequency. Intensity. Time. Type. Specificity. Recovery. Reversibility. Individuality. Each of these principles are essential to any training program. The voice is no exception. Let's look at each of them individually. 1. OVERLOAD: Sounds like a scary word in regards to our little vocal folds, right? When we are talking about overload, we are not talking about "over-training". They are not the same thing. Overload refers to the repetition of a practiced skill beyond current performance capabilities (but only just). If an athlete can consistently bicep-curl 20 lbs, they are not going to jump straight to 40lbs, or even 30 lbs at the same number of reps (not without negative compensation, anyway). On the other hand, if they stay comfortably at 20 lbs, their performance level is not going to increase. If you are training to get through a vocally demanding role, we take varying steps in the overload process to get you to that performance level safely and successfully. The process requires constant fine-tuning and numerous adjustments along the way. 2. PROGRESSION: We do not run before we walk, and we do not walk before we crawl. A beginning athlete will work alignment of a functional movement before they add any level of weight or intensity. Progression of technique and vocal development should be intentional and individualized. The challenge with this principle in the field of voice is that you will hear a number of different opinions on the "appropriate" place to start. Many voice teachers will start with breath. Others will develop vocal fold function. You have to find what works for you. I highly suggest working with an evidence-based voice teacher you trust to help build your appropriate progression. 3. FREQUENCY*: How often am I training? Research supports shorter training sessions several times a week (sometimes multiple times a day) for beginning/intermediate vocalists as opposed to long training sessions once or twice a week. Expecting lasting, dependable improvement attending one voice lesson a week with no additional application of technique in practice throughout the week will leave you frustrated and disappointed. 4. INTENSITY*: What is the level of intensity I am utilizing? For an athlete, intensity can mean weight, speed, force, etc. For a vocalist, we are looking at how intensely we press the vocal folds together, how extremely we stretch them, and how loudly we produce those qualities (or any combination of those actions; for further info see What is Mix and How Do I Find It?). 5. TIME*: How long am I engaging in vocal activity? Remember you have only so many high decibel/high frequency (pitch) minutes. We know that we are especially susceptible to vocal injury when we engage in singing too high, too loud, or too long. Do we want to participate in overload? Yes. Do we want to be belting high A's or E's for a lengthy period of time? Absolutely not. This would fall into the category of abuse/misuse. As suggested by Dr. LeBorgne, one should consider high intensity belting to be the equivalent of the burpee. Most athletes would not consider doing burpees for an hour straight. Burpees would be a strategic portion of their hour spent doing numerous other activities. 6. TYPE*: What is the type of activity in which I am participating? How am I varying the type of vocal activity in my routine? A runner training for a marathon is definitely going to do a lot of running. But if they were to only engage in long-distance runs with no variation they would likely find themselves struggling with fatigue and injury from overuse of the singular activity. Crosstraining is crucial. Be sure to vary the type of exercise/vocal activity in your routine.
* = variation applicable to the overload principle
7. SPECIFICITY: Specificity refers to the concept that the set of exercises you are working should be specified to support your ultimate goals. If you are an Olympic weight lifter, you are not going to spend the majority of your training time on steady-state cardio. While this principle may seem obvious, the number of times we hear "if you can sing classical, you can sing anything" is staggering. Classical training is not going to prepare you for a Disney-mix-belt or pop-rock roles in shows like Jagged Little Pill or Rock of Ages. Exercises should be specifically focused toward the needs of your voice, the intended style, and performance demands. 8. RECOVERY: The body still cannot repair and rebuild without adequate recovery time. This doesn't simply refer to "a day off". This refers to rest time in between sets or training sessions. For active vocalists, I encourage "vocal naps" during your day in addition to a rest day. Research suggests that one-to-two days of voice rest can offer significant benefits for a voice dealing with overuse or fatigue. 9. REVERSIBILITY: This principle is not applicable to maintaining or building skills. With respect to the recovery principle, this is the "use it or lose it" principle. If an athlete withdraws from an activity for too long the "gains" made from that activity will revert to some level of stasis (atrophy). But the muscle fibers are only one portion of reversibility. Neurological pathways are built up through use and lost with lack of use. Research suggests reversibility in new/developing neurological pathways (coordination) can be seen as early as three days of inactivity. Consistency is key. 10. INDIVIDUALITY: This principle may seem obvious but we are all unique not only in biological makeup but also in experience and development. Every principle discussed here should be individualized to your unique needs. While all these principles may make it sound like there should be a simple path to broadway-level caliber voice production, the individuality of each new vocalist in my studio is what always takes me by surprise. The vocal mechanism is innately human. It is constantly in flux. It is what makes my job as a voice clinician so rewarding. Working through individual entanglements, acoustic needs, and pressure levels is a joy of a puzzle, especially if I can work with someone who agrees to take the challenge.