Can Musicians Benefit From Strength Training?

The short answer is… Yes. Buuuuuuuuttt… it’s important to understand that WHAT you do to help yourself stay fit and active is not nearly as important as HOW you do what you do.  Some people lift weights, some people swim, some do yoga, some dance, some do martial arts. None of these activities are inherently better or worse than any other for helping you play your instrument better, and/or prevent or rehab an injury. People who lift weights aren’t better players than those who don’t lift. Lifting weights can be helpful, but it may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

There are many different types of weights to lift: barbells, kettlebells, dumbbells, maces, weight machines, clubs, to name some of the bigger categories. And within each of those types are many different methods for how to lift them. And within those methods are many, many, MANY opinions about what works and what doesn’t.

Below I give a basic rundown of what I think is most helpful to know if you’re a musician new to lifting. My hope is that you give different methods a try and explore what works best for you. Ultimately, it’s that exploration of yourself that will be the most beneficial and educational. And with any activities, your compatibility with your teacher matters most.


Dispelling Some Common Myths

1. “I don’t want to get bulky.”

It’s not as easy as you might think. If you’re afraid of getting bulky, then I challenge you to try. The people you see who you consider bulky have made a concerted effort to look that way. It takes a lot of time, energy, and money to put on a lot of muscle mass. You take supplements, change your diet, and workout a lot to get that way, ESPECIALLY if you’re a woman. We just don’t put on muscle easily. Tis the nature of our biology. Don’t let the idea of bulk deter you from working out.

2. “I don’t want to lose flexibility.”

Maintaining flexibility is about maintaining the movement range that you already possess. As the old adage goes: use it or lose it. Strength training isn’t going to make you lose flexibility UNLESS you stop moving through your various ranges of motion. That might be because you’re focusing solely on very specific lifting patterns (ex: focusing only on bicep curls is not likely to improve your ability to touch your toes) or it could be because you’re so sore from working out that you change your normal patterns to accommodate your soreness (ex: the leg day waddle). This all being said, there are some methods of strength training that actually increase flexibility.

3. “I’ll hurt my hands and wrists.”

I believe the things that scare us are the keys to improving ourselves. If you’ve gotten to the point where you’re afraid that carrying groceries, your case, a bag, or any other thing is going to hurt your hands, then that’s a REALLY good sign that you need to be lifting weights. The strength gained will improve your confidence. Your hands and wrists are meant to be used, but as a musician you’ve gotten very good at using all those small muscles of the hands and forearms independently. If they are already hurting, then this might be a sign that they are not coordinated well with the rest of your body. If done with mindfulness and intelligence, movement and strength training can be extraordinarily helpful at re-integrating the use of your hands and wrists with the rest of yourself.

4. No Pain, No Gain

Pain does not equal improvement. You should not hurt when you play and you should not hurt when you workout. Period.

5. To See Any Benefits, You Have To Workout A LOT

You do not need a complicated workout that takes hours to complete to see an increase in your strength. Just a few simple full-body, functional movements done with awareness and intention is all you need. Squats, deadlifts, crawls, get-ups are some of the fundamental movements I teach my clients. A little bit goes a long way.


Some Benefits

1. Strengthens Your Whole Self

Duh… that’s the whole point right? But strength training doesn’t just strength muscle. It strengthens tendons, ligaments, bones, and most importantly YOUR BRAIN.

2. Increases Your Endurance And Muscular Efficiency

This will help you play longer with less fatigue.

3. Will Help You Feel That Your Instrument Is More Manageable

Working to increase the weight you can lift (deadlifting, pressing overhead, squatting, etc.) will make your instrument feel lighter. It seems like a no-brainer idea, but it’s an interesting feeling to experience.

4. Will Help Your Mindset

Iron always wins. Lifting weights is a very humbling experience. This is especially true in certain methodologies: Olympic lifting, various kettlebell schools, etc. You’re learning to train your skill not your will. Many of us musicians (and this I see as a trait particularly among those of us who get injured) tend to impose ourselves on our instrument. We try and bend it to our will. The mindset benefits of efficiently lifting iron will carry over to playing your instrument, so that you learn to work WITH your instrument, not AGAINST it.

5. Gets You Away From Your Instrument

Taking time away from your instrument is never a bad thing. Becoming a great musician does not require 8 solid hours of practice a day. It’s actually the opposite. Long amounts of practice time can be possibly very detrimental to you. If you’re feeling at all guilty for taking time out of your practice schedule to lift weights, know that this is just another spoke on the wheel of things that it takes to keep yourself healthy as a musician. Dare I say: getting away from your instrument will actually help your playing.


Guidelines

1. Only Strengthen The Movement Patterns You Already Have

If you have an injury or pain from how you play your instrument, then strength training might not provide the lasting relief you’re looking for. Strength training is not generally an effective way to change your movement patterns. Instead, it strengths your existing patterns. In that case, it’s better to address your movement patterns first, and then add strength in later.

2. Workout Mindfully

As I said at the very beginning, WHAT activity you’re doing matters far less than HOW you do said activity. Be conscious of how you feel, how the movement feels for you, and what your thoughts are. Are you trying to push yourself to do more or are you trying to push yourself through something that causes pain. These are also things that we do with our instruments, and this can contribute to injury. You have to be aware and prepared to listen to your body. If something doesn’t feel right or causes pain, be able to change or even stop when you sense the issue.

3. Less Is More

Like I said in the Myths section, you don’t have to do a ton of working out to see benefits, especially when you’re just starting out. You want your strength training to be a sustainable and on-going practice. Don’t push yourself so hard in one workout that you have to take weeks to recover. You will see no benefit from that behavior.

4. Be Conscious Of Your Schedule

I’m speaking from personal experience on this one. Don’t go do a big workout just before a long rehearsal or worse a concert. I’ve lived through this experience, but I can’t recommend it. Coordinate your schedule so that your workouts fall on days when your playing load is lighter or see if you can plan your workouts for after you’re done playing for the day. The reverse is also good to keep in mind. If you’re going to workout after a long day of rehearsing, temper your workout to reflect that.

5. Find A Coach That Supports Your Process

Don’t look for a coach who only supports your goals. Look for a coach who understands and supports your process. They need to understand your lifestyle as a musician and help you focus on a sustainable practice for wellness not just being able to bench 300lbs. Goals aren’t bad, but they are a test as to whether your process is working. If you’re only focused on hitting a lift at a certain weight, weighing a certain amount on the scale, or whatever else, then it’s very easy to lose that connection to yourself. This is recipe for injury in both strength training and music practice.


I, for one, love strength training. I have found incredibly helpful as a musician who struggled with injury for many years. I think the combination of strength training with somatic movement practice is key to wellness for musicians. This is the foundation of my Perform Without Pain Online Academy.


Photo by Victor Freitas from Pexels

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