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Sounding Super: A Guide to Vocal Health

Train your voice the same way you train your body.

Have you ever noticed that many veteran group fitness instructors share a hallmark trait—a raspy voice? If left unchecked, vocal exhaustion can lead to permanent damage. This may result in lost wages, a voice to rival Joan Rivers’ and potentially the loss of one’s career.

In one way or another, just about everyone phonates (utters speech sounds) during a typical day. Some jobs require more speaking than others; for example, receptionists, lawyers, teachers and coaches rely on their phonation abilities for a living. Just as an endurance athlete can acclimate to high-volume training demands over time, so too can a professional speaker. A veteran receptionist has the vocal endurance to speak from 9 to 5 daily without issue, whereas a lab researcher may experience serious vocal fatigue by the end of a 3-hour presentation.

From this standpoint, the instructor who teaches all day, every day, isn’t necessarily destined to have vocal fatigue. So why do so many exercise instructors experience chronic laryngitis (long-term inflammation of the larynx and surrounding tissues) and other voice problems? More importantly, what can you do to take better care of your voice and ensure vocal health for life?

The Voice Box

Let’s look at the inner workings of the voice box. The larynx is located at the top of the trachea (your windpipe). The larynx contains the vocal cords, also referred to as vocal folds. These tissues stretch across the trachea with a small gap between them. The surrounding muscles of the larynx change the shape of this gap, and when air passes through the vocal folds they vibrate, producing sound. These subtle changes—along with consonant sounds and the resonance chambers of the body (skull, chest, nasal cavity)—are responsible for sounds. During inhalation and silent exhalation, the vocal folds quickly separate and allow the passage of air, but do not phonate. Very little conscious thought is given to any of these small structures until something goes awry.

Chronic vocal difficulties often begin with one act of overuse, misuse or abuse. Lack of sleep and dehydration can exacerbate an already hoarse or tired voice. Because we rely primarily on our voices to communicate every day, tissue damage may never get the chance to heal and can eventually lead to vocal loss.

Voice Loss: Rest and Recovery

An endurance athlete can successfully maintain high-volume training because he allows himself adequate rest and recovery periods. This premise holds true for vocal endurance as well. However, most people give their voices very little rest. Getting ample sleep is a great start, but for occupations that rely heavily on vocal communication, this may not be enough. What can you do to enhance your vocal health?

If you have noticeable vocal strain or want to enhance the clarity of your voice, consider taking weekly or biweekly vocal rest days. The prospect of remaining silent seems especially difficult in our fast-paced world; with a little planning, however, a day of vocal rest can do wonders. See the sidebar “Silent Treatment” for tips on incorporating vocal rest days into your life.

Don’t be surprised if after your vocal rest period the voice feels a bit “gunky” with mucous. Mucous is a protective substance. If damage has occurred, the body secretes mucous as a barrier in an attempt to hydrate the vocal cords and shield them from further harm. Staying hydrated will minimize mucous production. If the condition does not improve after ample rest, it may be time to schedule a trip to an allergist or an otolaryngologist.

Warming Up the “Muscle”

Fitness professionals understand the value of warming up a muscle group before a demanding exercise. Think of the vocal mechanism as a muscle group. While it is a small muscle group, you train it no differently. If you teach early-morning classes, don’t start the day screaming like a drill sergeant—first, warm up the voice. This is easy, and you can do it anywhere. It may be best to do the following warm-up exercises in the privacy of your shower or car, as the point is not to sound “pretty.”

Yawn Rudely. Yawn with a long, loud vocalization. If you need inspiration, listen to a dog yawn first thing in the morning. A big stretch usually gets the audible part started. Begin the pitch of the yawn as high as possible and descend to a lower tone, trailing off until the air runs out.

Turn On the “Sirens.” Keep the lips closed, but the mouth cavity as open as possible, and imitate a siren. This is similar to humming, but with more intention. All the sound comes from the nose. Pinching the nose will immediately stop the sound. Start with quiet sirens, and get higher and louder each time.

Pulse the Diaphragm. Warm up the often overlooked diaphragm with pulsing motions. A supported breath is initiated by the diaphragm. Pronouncing consonants such as “s” provides excellent biofeedback when pulsing the diaphragm. Try this: Place one hand at the base of the ribs, over the solar plexus. Inhale fully, then quickly, and forcibly hiss the letter “s” eight times. Using as much air as possible with the “s” sound should cause the diaphragm to noticeably pulse into the hand. Attempt to run out of air by the last “s.” Inhale and repeat.

Projecting With Confidence

In addition to speaking without warm-up and sufficient rest, there is another issue unique to group fitness instructors—the need for vocal projection while in posturally compromised positions. The following suggestions will not only improve the health of your voice but also enhance communication between you and your participants.

Stop the Screaming. Why is it that screaming is a go-to motivational technique? For many participants this is a turnoff, and if there is a microphone in front of your face, the problem is worse—amplified screaming is a bit much. If screaming is your “style,” consider this: when you scream all the time, it becomes your normal volume. In other words, screaming loses its effectiveness. Also consider the abuse your voice endures in the process.

Enunciate your words, and slow down your speech. Consonants are your friends; if you enunciate them clearly, your voice does not have to work as hard to project, since consonants are formed by the tongue and teeth.

Bring on the Body Language. Only a small percentage of the words you say account for how others perceive your message. Communication derives mostly from body language, making gestures more powerful than words. Speak less and improve the quality of your voice. Your message will get across to more people.

Practice Directional Cuing. Save your breath (literally) by pointing or demonstrating an upcoming move. Challenge your students by showing rather than telling them what to do next. Unnecessary cuing, such as counting backward from eight, further exhausts the voice. Be comfortable with vocal silence, or use a lull as a perfect opportunity to share the focus of your lesson.

A Word on Microphones

Microphones, as mentioned earlier, are intended to amplify natural sound so that attendees can hear you, not so they will be blown away by the amplitude of your voice. A microphone is the number-one tool for combating vocal damage in a teaching environment. It’s very possible to speak in a quiet, controlled voice—keeping the volume lower than you normally would—but to turn the gain (microphone volume) up so participants hear you clearly. This enables you to teach for longer periods of time and extends the life of your career.

What if your gym doesn’t have a microphone? Given the nature of your occupation, it is irresponsible of management to ask employees to do their jobs at the risk of their personal well-being and career longevity. If that battle is a lost cause, consider buying a personal microphone system that is compatible with your audio system, or become self-sufficient with a rolling amp-speaker-microphone combo. These items are portable enough to fit in the trunk of your car and are great for outdoor boot camps, treadmill classes and other speaking engagements. This is a personal investment worth considering because it will protect your primary teaching asset and keep your voice at its physical peak. We are, after all, in the business of health and wellness.

Silent Treatment

The following ideas will help you plan for therapeutic vocal rest days:

  • Predetermine your vocal rest days and mark them in your calendar. Plan for at least 6 hours of vocal silence on these days (more is better).
  • Send advance notice to colleagues, friends, family and people you have daily contact with, notifying them that all communication will be done via e-mail, text, instant messaging, pen and paper, etc. Create a voice mail greeting that tells callers of your situation.
  • Complete errands in advance of your vocal rest day.
  • Plan what you will do with your “break”: clean out your inbox, write, read, clean—do anything just so long as you utter no sound. This includes whispering (which is actually worse than regular talking)!
  • If you must go out, bring pen and paper for necessary transactions. Think of this as a chance to work on your other communication skills as well.
  • Use this day to rehydrate.
Self-Check: Am I Supporting My Sound?
  • Are my shoulders rising when I breathe in?
  • Does my belly pull in when I breathe in?
  • Is my breathing noisy, raspy or rattle-like?
  • Am I talking through the end of my air supply and trailing off sentences?

If you answered yes to any of these self-check questions, it might be time to revisit breathing techniques. Good breathing will not only improve voice quality and endurance but also support better posture and exercise technique.


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