My advocacy for weight training.
There are a multitude of articles, resources and studies showing the benefit of exercise to improve one’s health and professional abilities. The correlation between fitness and a musician’s ability to perform is generally understood today but most people don’t think of weight training as an avenue for that fitness. For the last three plus years I have been training with a trainer and lifting weights. HEAVY weights. I’ve never really felt out of shape but also never saw myself as an athlete and certainly not a lifter but my health and ability to perform has never been better. I had the same concerns most musicians have about weight training and I’m going to try and address them in this post. There are a remarkable number of similarities between lifting and the music profession. I can honestly say that lifting has made me a better musician.
The biggest thing I have gained from weight lifting has not been the added strength (although that is nice) but has been body awareness and understanding how the body is supposed to move. Our muscles, bones, and ligaments are designed to move in certain ways. We can move them in other ways but that usually requires more effort and potential risk of injury (eventually). Even if you are picking up the paper off the front porch, your body has ways of doing that that are more efficient than others. In terms of my playing my posture and movement has become so much more efficient. We have to stand up, a lot, and we all have experienced back discomfort and soreness from standing for so long. Learning proper positions when lifting heavy weights programs your body to default to those positions when performing. When you are in the middle of performing or practicing Merlin or a long symphony you don’t have time to think about your spine angle or your shoulder positions. They will default to where they are trained to be. Since lifting my posture and feet position has improved immensely!
I imagine most of you have the same concerns I first had at the prospect of lifting heavy weights: risk of injury, weight gain, and loss of mobility. All are valid concerns, because if we can’t play our instruments, all the strength in the world isn’t going to help. To address the injury concern my response would be that almost all injuries happen due to improper form. Who teaches you form? Your trainer and with trainers you typically get what you pay for. Most gyms and trainers are not what I would consider professionals. When I perform I expect the highest level of performance out of myself as do my colleagues, not to mention the paying public. To expect the same out of someone who I am I trusting the health of my body should be self evident. The phrase “form first” is commonly used but rarely adhered to. I’ve been lifting for 3 plus years and my trainer Jimmy is still tweaking my form. This means most of the beginning of my training was learning HOW to lift, not just pushing as much weight as I could.
I was really worried about losing flexibility when I started. My career demands lightening quick reflexes and being healthy is great but being muscle bound with no flexibility isn’t going to help. This falls under the same category of professionalism. Most trainers help you work out and when you are done say “see you tomorrow!” and leave. No wonder you are so tight and sore the next day. Stretching after a workout is just as important as the work out. I try to spend at least 33% of the time I spent working out, stretching afterwards. So if I work out for an hour, that means minimum 20 minutes stretching afterward. If I have tightness in my shoulders or something nagging me I will spend even more time on that area.
Weight gain was also a concern for me. Sure I want to be healthy but do I want to gain 30 pounds and become muscle bound? This is a huge myth I have discovered. Most weight gain is due to diet, rather than exercise. This obviously applies to fat gain but also to quick substantial muscle gain. There are guys and girls in my gym that can out lift me by a huge margin that weight exactly the same as me. A good balance between diet and exercise will keep you at the weight you want while also adding strength. Focusing on body fat percentage rather than the number on the scale will also keep your body at a nice healthy “fighting weight”.
My trainer Jimmy and I have made some adjustments to the normal routine because of my need to be able to perform as a musician. For instance my hands, wrists, and forearms are my money makers. No need to overly stress them. So I use gloves and straps when working out. The gloves are obvious but straps help relieve the work my forearms have to do. If I’m doing deadlifts I’ll use straps so I’m not relying 100% on my forearms to grip the bar. Same if I’m doing something like dumbbell lunges. I’m working my legs primarily so no need to overly stress the forearms. I also use something called fat grips when doing dips so that the pressure on my hands is spread out and not in one small space. These small tweaks help me feel safe when lifting and confident that I can play a concert that night.
Don’t get me wrong, the physical benefits of lifting have been great. I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been. I’m at 15% body fat and stronger than I have ever been by far. And I do all this while still eating pizza occasionally and having a few beers after a concert. Life’s gotta be worth living right? However, the most surprising benefit has been mental. I’ve always been a big fan of the psychology of performing and I credit most of my success to that. Lifting has only improved it. It’s pretty simple actually. You look at someone else lifting and think “there is no way I will ever be able to lift that much.” Same as a student looking at a professional thinking “I’ll never be able to play that piece.” But you take the small steps (under good direction!!!) and make progress and one day you make that lift or you start playing that piece you never thought you would. That kind of confidence is addictive. Talk about helping your posture. That will make you walk around a little taller.
I realize that everyone has preferences and there are a multitude of options to stay fit and to some degree I support all of them as it is better than sitting on the couch for sure! This is just what I have found to be successful for me. My biggest suggestion is to find good instruction and someone you can trust. Just like with music, if you study with the best, and put in the work you will improve at a much faster rate. Keeping your body fit WILL improve your ability to play if done correctly.
I must give a huge shout out to the Thacker brothers at The Lab for starting such a first class organization. Note I say organization, not just gym, as they really are the whole package. But the biggest shout out goes to my trainer Jimmy Duke who is a first class athlete and just as much of a professional as any working musician you will meet. Thanks for kicking my butt on a regular basis and keeping me healthy.