Twice last week, I met new clients whose voice problems began when they had started serious weight-training. I’ve seen others who got sudden lesions, including a gnarly vocal hemorrhage, when they changed trainers or otherwise increased their workout intensity.
Most voice problems have more than one cause, so I won’t argue for an exact correlation. But when this is the only new lifestyle element, and its time frame matches the beginning of a voice problem, I get suspicious.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not opposed to weight training. I enjoy the strength and mental focus gained from quality time spent with the machines, bells, and no-frills-realism at my gym. I’ve met opera coaches who lift. It’s totally possible to have a buff body and a clear-sounding, flexible, pain-free voice.
You just have to be smart about both.
Vocal mechanics review: in addition to their job making sound, the vocal cords work as a valve in your airway. For instance, they open extra-wide during aerobic exercise to help you manage bigger amounts of air. And they close tightly to protect your lungs every time you swallow.
The vocal valve also closes when you lift something heavy. A suitcase, a kettle-bell, or a big screen TV—if it’s hard to move, you’ll hold your breath for an instant. Closing the airway is an automatic reflex that makes your torso more stable, better able to push & pull. Try it.
Fitness trainers routinely tell people not to hold their breath during the lift. This is good, standard advice that helps avoid serious problems like blackouts or strokes. At my gym, most people exhale dutifully on the exertion, & inhale while preparing for the next rep.
The problem for singers and other voice professionals is the moment before the lift. That’s when too many people hold their breath, to seal the ribcage closed and feel a nice firm setupwhile getting into position. Unfortunately, in that last split-second when you brace yourself and get ready to work, your vocal cords—itty-bitty muscles about a centimeter long, held in place by even tinier ones—are being asked to help manage a 50, 100, or 300 lb weight. It’s not fair to them, or healthy for your vocal career.
Then, when you finally exhale after this extra-tight closure, the air pressure held in your lungs explodes through the vocal valve. Even if you stay silent, avoiding that gym-beast yelp or grunt, air blasts through your voice box like a linebacker through a double-flap kitchen door. The cords are violently blown apart and their edges get a little roughed up.
During an hour-long workout, that explosive burst might happen several hundred times! Each time, the cells on the edges of your vocal cords get frayed, dry, and sore. Rough edges make rough sound. Repeatedly squeezing the cords together with many pounds of force, and then blasting them apart, can lead to vocal cord callouses (nodules), blisters (polyps), or worse.
If you’re serious about protecting your voice, pay attention as you’re getting into position, and be sure you’re not bracing inside your throat. Drop your weights down as far as necessary to keep your throat feeling wide open, and to breathe smoothly throughout the routine. If you’re “working to fatigue,” the first moment you absolutely need to hold your breath is your limit. That’s when the targeted muscles are already fatiguing and your little vocal muscles are getting recruited to help. So stop; rest a bit; finish the set with lower weight. Keep your throat OPEN, just as you focus on keeping shoulder blades down, jaw released, and other ingredients of healthy alignment as you work out. Breathing through your nose can help.
Your training buddies may not understand or recognize what you’re dealing with; that’s OK. Few non-vocalists have any idea how the voice works or what kind of care it requires. However, there’s a silver lining to this discipline: careful, detailed attention to gym form—how you train, vs how heavy— will reinforce the brain circuits you use to check body alignment as an artist. So you’ll be gaining smarts as well as strength.
P.S. Vocal cords love humidity. If your gym has a steam-room, use it!