Weight Training for Musicians
by Dr. Timothy Jameson
Doctor of Chiropractic
Castro Valley, CA
I recently received e-mail from a guitarist asking about the safety of weight training. He was told by many of his instructors and friends that weight training, especially wrist curls, would lead to carpal tunnel syndrome. This particular person loved his three time per week exercise routine and was really hesitant about stopping, but at the same time did not want to risk injury to his hands nor face giving up playing guitar because of injuries.
This e-mail brought up some very interesting questions about exercising and playing music. This column will help focus on some common misconceptions and explain the facts about the importance of exercise routines and injury prevention. First off, musicians are no different than any other human being when it comes to exercise programs. In fact, if there’s any group of people who need to learn more about exercise, it is the musician population. The task of learning musical pieces hour after hour takes a toll on the musculoskeletal system. Exercise is critical to restore vitality and blood flow to the overworked muscles and organs.
If performed correctly, exercise becomes a vital component to the musician’s wellness program. The key here is performing weight training “correctly.” Improper training techniques can wind up in injuries that can hinder performances and gigs. I recommend that if a musician is considering a weight training and/or aerobic training program that they consult with a personal trainer first to develop a program tailored for their particular needs.
To obtain the best results from exercise routines, you must first make a commitment to at least three days per week of exercise. Anything less than this will give you less than optimum results. On the other hand, during the initial three to six months I would recommend no more than 4 days per week of exercise for someone who is deconditioned, overweight, or has not exercised in a year or more. The body needs a rest day in between routines to heal itself.
A musician should begin an exercise program that involves both weight training and aerobic training. Weight training comes in many forms; dumbbells, free-weights, nautilus, cybex, universal, etc. For beginners, I often recommend the weight machines like universal and nautilus since they are easier to learn and maneuver. Aerobic exercise comes in many forms as well. When most people think of aerobic exercise, they envision men and women jumping and dancing around an aerobics room.
This is only one form of aerobic exercise. Aerobic exercise means to maintain your heart rate at an elevated level for at least 20 minutes so the body enters into the aerobic energy cycle which reduces body fat and strengthens the heart. This can be done in a number of ways, such as via a bicycle, treadmill, stair machine, swimming, “step” classes, and traditional aerobics classes. Some sports activities also bring your body into the aerobic range. These including jogging, tennis, racquetball, squash, and cross-country skiing to name a few.
While weight training, musicians should concentrate on high repetition, low to medium weight exercises. Each set of exercises should consist of 15 repetitions. If you feel that you cannot attain 15 “reps” then you are working with too much weight. Different musicians will need different exercise regimens due to specific needs. Drummers need a great deal of arm and leg strength, while cello players need overall upper body strength. So your routine should be tailored to the type of instrument you play.
I often recommend an overall exercise program that develops the major muscle groups of the hands, forearms, arms, chest, back, legs, calves, and abdominals. For example, I recently gave this exercise program to a saxophonist. For forearm strength, I prescribed wrist extension and flexion exercises. To develop arm strength to hold the instrument I recommended bicep and triceps exercises. For shoulder strength, I recommended shoulder “flys” to develop the deltoids. For chest strength, he began “benching” exercises on the universal equipment and to balance the pectoralis development, “seated rows” were implemented to strengthen the upper back muscles. “Latissimus pulldowns” were recommended for back support as were four different abdominal muscle exercises. Leg press and squat exercises were recommended to develop lower body strength.
Many of these terms may sound like a foreign language to you, but don’t worry: they will be learned quickly once you become aware of the equipment and become knowledgeable about some muscle names.
Revisiting Our Guitarist
Getting back to the guitarist who e-mailed me about the exercise program. I told him that there is nothing wrong with exercise programs as long as the exercises are performed correctly. I mentioned that he should avoid hyperflexing his wrist while performing the wrist curls. Too much strain on the wrist flexors can cause inflammation. But if wrist curls are performed correctly, they are great at developing the forearm muscles, which are very important for overall hand strength and finger strength. Very importantly though, is that he has to balance the wrist curls with exercises that will strengthen the opposing muscle groups, such as the finger extensors and wrist extensors.
Balance is very important in weight training. I advised him to disregard his friends’ advise regarding avoiding exercise. The body needs exercise to increase its function and health. It sounds like his instructors and friends needed some guidance in this aspect. Hopefully they will read this article and begin learning more about the importance of exercise for the musician.
The “Musician Athlete”
Did you realize that as a musician you are a professional athlete? Consider how much muscle activity goes into practicing and performing your music. How many hours per day do you use your arms and hands to play music? You must train your body to achieve this high level of activity just as if you were training for the Olympic Games. If you are serious about your profession, then become serious about your body. You can only play as well as your body is able. Many musicians develop painful repetitive strain injuries simply because their bodies were not conditioned enough to put in the many hours of strenuous muscular activity. Begin your exercise program today. You will not only see a change in your health, but also your attitude, your vitality, your happiness, and your music playing.