Belly breathing vs chest breathing: why it’s a fake battle


Today’s post talks about the belly breathing backlash, and why I think we fall into a trap when we want to compare it to other ‘forms of breathing’.

I think it is fair to say that I encountered some resistance to my article last week on belly breathing. A small number unsubscribed from my email list, and I had a number of people (none of them singing teachers, by the way) wish to take issue with me over my characterisation of belly breathing.

The gist of many of the comments I have had rest on the creation of an either/or pair. Either we belly breathe, or we chest breathe. Either we do diaphragmatic breathing, or we do clavicular breathing. On rare occasions we may do both, but only in extreme circumstances, with the understanding that we are endangering our sound quality.


If there’s one thing I have learned from reading FM Alexander, it is to be wary of either/or thinking. Alexander describes this as going from one extreme to the other:

“They are, in fact, too constricted in their mental attitude to give play to their imagination. From one extreme they have flown to the other, and so have missed the way of the great middle course…” *

What if, in our human desire for either/or extremes, we have created concepts of breathing that are too rigid in conception, and lead us to make distinctions that limit our ability to be flexible? What if there really isn’t such a thing as ‘belly breathing’ or ‘chest breathing’?


The evidence.

I’ve been doing a lot of extra reading** on all the different types of breathing people have mentioned. From my research, it seems to be the case that:

  • The diaphragm contracts, pushing the abdominal contents down. They have to go somewhere, and can’t go back (because of the spine) or down (pelvis in the way), so they go frontways instead.
  • This creates a pressure change between the cavity occupied by the lungs and the outside atmosphere. Air rushes in to equalise the pressure. The lungs fill. This is breathing in.
  • Now things get more complicated. If you’re lounging around in front of the TV, you probably aren’t going to need much oxygen. So your diaphragm won’t move much, and your lungs won’t fill very far. Therefore, your ribs and chest probably won’t move much, certainly not enough to trouble your intercostal muscles (they live between your ribs).
  • However, if you’re singing long phrases from Handel or Bach, you’re going to need more air. So your brain tells your diaphragm to get moving, and organises the intercostals to move, too. Everything is on the move, like in this image kindly supplied by Bill Conable.

The point here? You don’t, generally speaking, directly control what is going on. Your brain takes care of that for you, depending on what the activity is that you’re engaged in. Alexander compares it to a king, or the controller of a well-run office. If the office is running well, the controller doesn’t need to micro-manage every bit of filing.*** Similarly, if our mind and body are running smoothly, we don’t need to tell our diaphragms how far to contract!

A take-away point, and a challenge:

  • Try not to indulge in either/or thinking. You might be missing a wonderful wide middle path.
  • What would happen if you didn’t focus on your breathing while singing or speaking? What if you focused on something else, then let your brain take care of the details for you? What else could you think about that would be helpful?



* FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Edition, p.84. Or here: “The human creature continues to rush from one extreme to the other on the ‘end-gaining’ principle in his attempts at reform or ‘physical’ improvement…”, in Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, p.393.
** Contact me if you’d like a book list. For a good intro, go to this University of Leeds lecture transcript.
*** in Man’s Supreme Inheritance, p.60.