Musicians and athletes are not as different as it can seem on the surface. Musicians have realized the use of sports psychology to help with performance anxiety for a while now (Bellon, 2006), but I have a feeling that the physical demands of playing an instrument are often overlooked in the comparison people make between athletes and musicians. Though musicians might not seem like they do as much physical work as athletes, we still place an incredible amount of stress on our bodies, and yet music students are barely trained on how to cope with these demands. Any student attending a university with a place on an athletics team would be offered a personal trainer with very careful instruction on how to be in the best physical shape to perform… so why are music students left in the dark?
What can I do?
This needs to change, and the change starts with educational institutions implementing mandatory anatomy and physical health courses for music students. Among those musicians who have taken things into their own hands in preventing injury, there seems to be a lot of confusion about what kind of training is recommended for musicians. Strength training in particular seems to spark controversial conversations among those planning their fitness regimes (Ackermann et al., 2002). The purpose of this post is to explore the pros and cons of strength training for musicians in order to help clarify when and how it is appropriate to include in a musician’s fitness regime. In order to understand how the multiple types of exercise affect the body differently, I’ve included a short description of each type of training with a few examples of exercise and their benefits.
Strength training, also regularly called resistance training, is not only for body builders. Strength training can isolate single muscles or muscle groups in a way that might be lacking in other types of training, and which can benefit musicians in ways that might not be as obvious as aerobic exercise. Working on the postural muscles, for instance, is something that every musician would benefit from in the prevention of injury due to the strange postures required by us in order to play our instruments (Watson, 2009). Strength training at a very delicate level is also regularly recommended by physiotherapists in the healing of musculoskeletal disorders (Uhl, 2001), yet many musicians claim that doing strength training was detrimental to their playing. The claims I’ve most often heard are that there was a loss of sensitivity to pressure in the hands and fingers (which is obviously not ideal for many instrumentalists), or that there was a loss in overall flexibility.
Aerobic exercise encourages an increase in breathing and heart rate, which causes the heart to pump more oxygenated blood into the muscles through the respiratory and circulatory systems. This conditions the muscles to work more efficiently, and increases overall endurance. Examples of aerobic exercise include running, swimming, cycling, and dancing (Blair et al., 2017).
Unlike aerobic exercise, in which the muscles get a steady supply of oxygen as they continue to work, anaerobic exercise is so high-intensity that the amount of oxygen required to sustain the activity through increased breathing and heart rate is insufficient. As a result, anaerobic exercises are short-lasting in duration. This type of exercise reinforces muscular strength, and research shows that along with aerobic training, it has positive effects on well-being and in reducing psychological stress (Norris et al., 1990). Examples of anaerobic exercise include sprinting, heavy weight lifting, and sports such as soccer, football, or basketball.
Balance exercises may not seem very important when compared with other types of exercise, but they do have their benefits. Balance exercises strengthen the core, help to improve body awareness, and have been proven to reduce the likelihood of injury (Hrysomallis, 2007). Examples of balance exercises include tai chi, yoga, or various exercises like heel-to-toe walking or leg swings.
Flexibility exercises are extremely important for musicians, who often hold static positions for hours on end, which can easily lead to musculoskeletal injury (Zaza, 1998). (For more information about the different kinds of injuries that musicians are prone to, check this page out!) Flexibility exercises promote an ease of motion to combat the stiffness that can ensue after playing an instrument by increasing the range of motion of a joint (Blair et al., 2017). There is some controversy about when it is productive to do this type of training, and there are different types of flexibility exercises to take into account, but the importance of flexibility training (especially when paired with other forms of training) is undeniable. This blog provides great information about flexibility and stretching exercises for string players, with emphasis on bass players.
Muscles are composed of thousands of tiny elastic fibres, and a muscle’s strength is largely determined by how many muscle fibres compose said muscle. There are two types of skeletal muscle fibres: slow-twitch muscle fibres, and fast twitch muscle fibres (Fitts et al., 1996). Slow-twitch muscle fibres help with endurance related tasks, whereas fast-twitch muscles are used for much shorter tasks involving more strength (Watkins, 2014). The type of workout a person does determines what kind of muscle fibres they are reinforcing, and as musicians tend to play their instruments for many hours a day, the benefits of building slow- twitch muscle fibres go without saying. But can musicians benefit from building both types of muscle fibres? The research done in the sports world indicates that certain types of endurance performance can indeed be improved by strength-training supplementation (Hickson et al., 1988).
There hasn’t been much musician-based research done in the matter, so I turned to Karen Moffatt: professional violist, personal trainer, yoga and StrongFirst Kettlebell instructor, to see what she thinks. Click on any question of interest to see Karen’s answer!
”Yes, people are definitely motivated to start exercising for a variety of reasons. Repetitive strain injury can indeed be something many of my musician clients come up against, in particular. When their issues are acute, I will habitually send them to a physiotherapist who can address localized pain before they get started on a strength program, and will soon after work in tandem with their physiotherapist to develop a suitable program for them. Clients who want to get started exercising right away, who have been dealing with longer term issues that they know or have been told that exercise might help, are a large portion of my client base as well. Reducing the effects of repetitive stress and other injuries in the body can be a big motivation for someone to seek a personal trainer who understands the demands of playing an instrument as a profession. A good handful of my clients, however, are interested in preventing injury, increasing body awareness, getting more fit and simply getting stronger to have more endurance for playing their instrument. I don’t think I have had a single client who has not encountered some level of injury at some point along their path, but many of them are seeking to be proactive about minimizing new risks.”
“Yes, I do witness this controversy and the dilemma of adapting to strength training, vs adapting to play an instrument. In my opinion, appropriate strength training, along with appropriate mobilization techniques that compliment the strength training process, is one of the most constructive ways to build resilience for playing an instrument, over a reasonable period of time. Because I incorporate flexibility and mobility training in my sessions, appropriate amounts of flexibility are not lost due to strength training, and pressure sensation in the fingers is also something that can be addressed through mobility training and physiotherapy. Indeed, strength training without flexibility and mobility training may be somewhat counterproductive to playing an instrument if it is done in an aggressive fashion. However, I always teach to the current needs of the individual and most of the time will work to clear up some of these issues as we gradually and progressively prepare the body to build strength. The variable is the approach that the individual and the trainer takes to strength training, not strength training itself, in my opinion.”
“Yes, these static postures along with repetitive movements are indeed the unfortunate reality of playing orchestral instruments. Allowing for even just a little bit of varied movement more frequently while sitting to play (even though this is not always encouraged in orchestral settings) is one of the single most helpful things a musician can do throughout their career. In addition to this on-the-job awareness, I am indeed a fan of a variety of movement practices to support diversity in movement patterns and flexibility in the body. Aerobic work can help to increase blood flow that will facilitate flexibility training, and strength and balance work will provide a more stable foundation that can make a musician less susceptible to developing compensatory playing strategies.”
“There is a book I refer to quite frequently: “The Athletic Musician” by Barbara Paull and Christine Harrison (a violist). They identify postural habits in each of the orchestral instruments (including pianists as well). It is true that woodwind players and brass players will deal with very different issues from string players, not to mention the differences in breathing techniques! I too am passionate about attending to these differences and also the similarities amongst the players. This can be quite helpful for me when working with individuals – knowing what to look for and where I can help the most. The goal of the programs I design do end up being similar, but the process is what is different. Along the path to learning a strength training skill, I will encounter areas that need more attention in some cases, and less attention in others. So, yes, that part does change. I typically know what I will be working with as soon as someone walks in the room! That is the starting point. I don’t load major asymmetries before addressing them with a functional movement assessment and corrective exercises that are indeed tailored to the postural habits of each player.”
There may not have been many studies done on how musicians can benefit (or suffer) from implementing strength training into their fitness regimes, but there have been studies done on the rewards of a well-balanced training program (Katzmarzyk, 2007). If a violinist were to go from not doing any exercise to only doing strength training without mobility exercises, their playing would likely suffer, but if they were to also include aerobic, balance, and especially flexibility exercises into their routine, they might feel that playing their instrument becomes a bit easier. It seems that a well-balanced routine would be the way forward for the time being, until more research can be done. I have written mostly about how exercise affects the playing of an instrument, but the benefits of exercise go far beyond injury prevention and comfort while playing. It has been proven that exercise also reduces stress and anxiety (Otto & Smits, 2011), so start moving! For more information about the benefits of reducing stress, check this blog out.
Strength training doesn’t only involve lifting weights! Though lifting weights is a great way to increase muscle strength, resistance bands (great for use at home) and exercises using the weight of your body are also options. If you’d like to start incorporating some strength training into your life but you don’t necessarily want to get a gym membership, refer to the sites below for some basic strength-focused workouts you can even do at home! That being said, to help you find the right workout for your needs, and also to make sure you learn proper technique to avoid injury and learn maximum efficiency, as well increasing your chances of exercises long-term, seeing a personal trainer comes highly recommended (McClaran, 2003).
Click here for a video of an at-home workout using no equipment to get you started.
This website offers great clips to accompany instructions on upper-body strengthening exercises.
This website does not focus solely on strength training, but includes 10 different and terrific workout videos for beginners!
Author: Florence Rousseau
Bellon, D. (2006). Application of sport psychology to music performance: A study based on a review of sport psychology literature and selected interviews with professional musicians. Dissertation Abstracts International Section A: Humanities and Social Sciences, 67(6-A), 1966.
Hickson, R. C., Dvorak, B. A., Gorostiaga, E. M., Kurowski, T. T., & Foster, C. (1988). Potential for strength and endurance training to amplify endurance performance. Journal of Applied Physiology (Md. : 1985), 65, 5, 2285-90. https://doi-org.proxy3.library.mcgill.ca/10.1152/jappl.19188.8.131.525
Hrysomallis, C. (2007). Relationship between balance ability, training and sports injury risk. Sports Medicine. 37(6), 547-556.https://doi-org.proxy3.library.mcgill.ca/10.2165/00007256-200737060-00007
Katzmarzyk, P. T., Rhodes, R. E., Shephard, R. J., Warburton, D. E. R. (2007). Evidence- informed physical activity guidelines for Canadian adults. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 32(16-68), 2007.
Norris, R., Carroll, D., Cochrane, R. (1990). The effects of aerobic an anaerobic training on fitness, blood pressure, and psychological stress and well-being. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 34(4), 367-375. https://doi.org/10.1016/0022-3999(90)90060-H
Zaza, C. (1998). Musicians’ playing-related musculoskeletal disorders: An examination of risk factors. American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 32(3), 292-300. https://doi-org.proxy3.library.mcgill.ca/10.1002/(SICI)1097-0274(199709)32:3<292::AID-AJIM16>3.0.CO;2-Q