My first idea for a title of this essay was: the chest – the secret agent no one talks about.
But that’s not fair. Obviously someone did talk to me about chest muscles, or I wouldn’t be talking about them now. That makes two people already. And, to be fair, it is possible that all of my teachers know about chest muscles and work on them.
But in over a decade of studying singing I have never heard any mention of them.
Why should voice teachers focus on chest muscles? Should these muscles take part in our voice production? No, actually they should stay out of the way as much as possible. But that is EXACTLY the problem.
Many people have tension in their chest muscles, which interferes with air movement. Not to mention that tension in these muscles can be connected to tension in other muscles, such as throat, neck and jaw muscles. We already know that tension in those places is bad for the voice. If you didn’t know this – muscle tension in the upper body is baaad.
Let’s take a look at an illustration of the torso and the muscle in the chest area:
As you can see, on both sides of the chest there are two sets of muscles called the Pectoralis: Pectoralis Major and the Pectoralis Minor. In short they are called “the Pecs”. The Pec Major, as is visible in the illustration, attaches to the upper arm. The Pec Minor attaches to the coracoid process, which is a part of the shoulder blade.
Putting two and two together, you may conclude that those muscles, when contracted, affect the position of the arms and shoulder blades. You’d be right. The contraction of the muscles makes them pull: Pec Major – pulls the arm towards the center of the body and rotates the arm inwards; Pec Minor – pulls the top of the shoulder blade down, causing the back and lower part of it to lift, and for the entire upper body to tilt forward:
When are the Pecs mostly at work?
The Pecs tend to usually be contracted to some extent: When you sit at your desk a lot; when you sit in the subway looking down at your phone (or book? Nah); when you are carrying heavy things (or working out); when you have bad posture.
From all of the above I dare say that our poor arms and shoulder blades are held up and forward almost all the time! I am personally angry about this, for most of my physical problems derive from me doing all of the above activities (okay, a bit less of the working out part). No wonder my chest muscles were constantly tight, and I had no one to tell me that this is the main obstacle in my way of having a healthy posture, and consequently singing well.
What can be done about chest muscle tension?
As big as the problem of chest muscles tension is, the solution is quite simple. At least I see it this way.
There are two main things you can and should do, to get long term maintenance of your good, healthy posture. You must, however, do them as a routine, if you really want the results to be long term:
Engage in physical activity that focuses on body awareness. Most of these methods aim for a better posture in general, and relaxing the upper body muscles in particular.
Stretch your chest muscles REGULARLY. Watch this video that teaches how to do that. And yes, it is from a workout channel, not a singing channel. This guy, Jeff Cavalier, knows what he is talking about and explains it all very well. And he draws with a marker on his naked body, who doesn’t want to see that?!
In Summary, I hope I gave you an idea of how important chest muscles are and gave you a clue as to how to handle them. Spread the word, so that more and more singers and teachers will give those muscles the fame they deserve.
I'm an opera singer and (online) voice teacher, based in Amsterdam. It took me more than a decade to overcome my share of mental and physical issues and reach a professional level as a singer. Because of this background, and my 10+ years of teaching experience, I believe I can speed up your learning curve as a singer.