Strength Training for Musicians
Q: Dear Mr. Staley:
I am a professional cellist, interested in beginning a bodybuilding program. As a group, my profession is subject to a very high rate of occupational related injury, mostly in the form of various overuse syndromes (tendinitis, bursitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, etc.). The conventional wisdom is that training with weights is dangerous for string players, and can lead to increased risk of tendinitis, loss of sensitivity in the hands and fingers, and various other overuse related problems. It seems to me from what I’ve read that this need not necessarily be the case, and that strength training could benefit some of the more overtly athletic aspects of playing a string instrument. What in your opinion are the risks to a musician of taking up weight training, and how might they be avoided?
Thank you very much,
A: Ted, thanks for your excellent question.
In a nutshell, strength training can indeed be beneficial for you. I consider musicians to be athletes, and one of the greatest benefits of strength training is that you are providing yourself with complimentary stress patterns. In other words, resistance exercise provides your body with a form of stress which is different from the pattern provided by playing your instrument. This will help to prevent and reverse postural problems, muscle imbalances, and may actually improve your endurance while playing.
Incidentally, an excellent strategy you can employ to avoid overuse injuries is to play your instrument left-(or opposite) handed for about 10% of your practice time. Try it!
Also, like any athlete, you need to organize your lifting and playing in a way which will allow your to practice your instrument while as fresh as possible. Avoid a heavy practice session or (especially) a performance within 48 hours after a hard upper body lifting session. So for example, if you know you have a performance on Saturday night, avoid heavy lifting beyond Tuesday, or possibly Wednesday.
Lastly, take some advice I always give to martial artists who are starting a weight training program for the first time: unless to introduce the strength training component very gradually, expect to experience a temporary decline in your skills (in your case, cello) as your body struggles to cope with this new challenge. So proceed gradually, and pay attention to your skills along the way, and you should end up benefiting from the experience.
Hating Those Love Handles
Q: Dear Charles Staley:
I’m a 45 year old woman (5’9″, 150 pounds, 20% body fat) and while I understand that isolating muscles doesn’t work, I need to work the sides of my waist. I’ve got strong abs., lats and lower back, but while I don’t have huge sloppy love handles, I ‘m not firm between my waist and lower ribs.
I’ve check out various books, etc., but nothing seems to hit this area. Any suggestions? You and Lyle have changed my life!
A: Glad you’re enjoying the columns! The muscular topography between the ribs and pelvis consists primarily of the external obliques, and it’s outer layer of bodyfat. If your oblique muscle is already developed beneath the fat, then it’s going to be a matter of bodyfat reduction.
However, if your obliques are under developed and you don’t particularly have a lot of fat on top of them (at 20%, it doesn’t sound like this is the case), you need to make sure this muscle is being properly trained. I’ll focus on this scenario in my answer to you.
First, here’s a fact that few people appreciate: the obliques are actively involved in all trunk flexion exercises (such as all forms of sit-ups and crunches). So, although I’m going to suggest a few oblique exercises, but I’ll also urge you to make sure that you’re performing your crunches properly as well. The best movement is performed on a Swiss ball, which allows more range of motion than the same exercise performed on the floor. You’ll need to maintain a neutral cervical spine (do not allow your head to move independently from the rest of the body) as you flex your trunk until your pelvis and sternum approach each other at the top of the concentric phase of the exercise. Then lower back to the starting position by reversing this movement.
Also, don’t perform your abdominal training at the end of workouts devoted to other muscle groups. Instead, devote a half-hour twice a week to your ab training. Perform two exercises per session, in the following manner:
1. Swiss ball crunch: During crunches, you can modify your arm position in order to adjust the level of resistance. The least resistance occurs when the arms are straight and outstretched along the side of the body during the movement. A more difficult variation is to cross the arms against the chest. The most difficult variation is to place the hands such that the fingers are touching the head at a point just behind the ears. Avoid interlacing the fingers and clasping behind the head, which can strain the cervical vertebrae, and encourage participation from other muscles. Additional resistance (in the form of a medicine ball or weight plate) can be used when your bodyweight is no longer sufficient to cause an improvement in strength. If you use additional resistance, it becomes necessary to anchor the feet under an immovable object to stabilize your position.
2. Russian twist on ball Position yourself on the ball as you would when performing crunches. Grasp a medicine ball with both hands. Keeping your elbows extended and arms perpendicular to your torso, rotate to either side. Maintain neutral head and neck position, with tongue on the roof of your mouth. Also, do not allow your pelvis to rotate with your torso as you torn from side to side, as this unloads the obliques muscles. You can increase the difficulty of the exercise by using a heavier medicine ball, increasing the speed of the movement, or by positioning yourself further back on the ball (you may need to anchor your feet to prevent falling backward over the ball).
1. Prone ball roll: From a kneeling position (use an exercise mat to cushion your knees), with a Swiss ball directly in front of you, place your clasped hands on top of the ball. Allow yourself to extend forward until your hips, shoulders, and elbows are fully extended. Return back to the starting position by reversing the motion. As you extend, the increased load on your abs will cause the tendency for the curve of your low back to increase. The goal is to counteract this tendency by tilting your pelvis posteriorly (as you would during the pelvic tilt exercise) as you extend. If you are unable to maintain constant low back curvature during this exercise, you’ll need to spend more time working on the pelvic tilt described earlier in this section.
2. Reverse trunk twist on ball: Lie face up on the ball, which is positioned in a power rack. Grab the sides of the rack for support. Flex the hips to 90 degrees with legs straight and together. The apex of the ball should be just under your low back. Start with feet pointing up at the ceiling, and then, in a “windshield wiper” like movement, allow your legs to lower to the right side until they are parallel to the floor. Then return back to center and repeat on the left side. Do not allow your shoulder girdle to turn toward the direction that your legs are moving in, as this unloads the obliques muscles. When the legs are completely to the left, your right shoulder should be down, and vice versa. Repeat for the indicated number of reps.
Use a medicine ball between your feet if additional load is necessary. You can increase the difficulty of the exercise by using a heavier medicine ball, or by increasing the speed of the movement. Repeat for indicated number of sets & reps.
Squats or Deads: Which is Best?
Why is squat considered the “king of exercises” and given importance in athletes training programs. Both exercises affect “basically” the same muscle groups with the deads having an added advantage of more back strengthening and some trap and arm. I know studies have been done showing the advantage of squat and athletic performance, has anyone seen any studies dealing with deadlift and athletic performance? With the exception of perhaps a greater chance of injuring back due to improper dead technique (of course the same can happen with squat) it seems there should be more importance put on deads. That is unless the clean is used in place of a deadlift and then this is a whole new can of worms.
A: I have often said that a deadlift is essentially a squat with the bar in your hands instead of on your back.
Detractors sometimes point to the fact that deads begin concentrically, which is opposite of most motor skills such as jumping and throwing.
However, I usually have athletes perform deads by taking the bar from a power rack (much like you would when performing stiff-leg deadlifts) and then starting the exercise eccentrically. No need to perform these as a powerlifter would, unless of course, you’re a competitive powerlifter. So use a palms-facing grip rather than a “mixed grip” (use straps or a hook grip if you like), and don’t hyperextend your hips at the top— you’re not performing for powerlifting judges, after all. Maintain a neutral spine and keep the bar against the front of your body at ALL times.
Deadlifts are also criticized for being an inefficient quadriceps exercise, but again, there is a tweak you can use here: at the beginning of the set, us as upright a posture as possible in both directions. Then, as fatigue sets in, allow yourself to stand up with the weight using additional assistance from your hams, glutes, and spinal erectors by starting the lift with a slightly greater forward inclination of your torso. Then, during the eccentric phase (where you’ll be stronger), maintain the upright torso as you lower the bar, which will maximize stress to the quads.
Another point: deads can eventually lead the athlete to clean pulls, and eventually power cleans if desired. It’s a good skill to have.
All of the above can be further optimized through the use of a Gerard Trap Bar (see http://www.avalon.net/~middlecoast/trapbar.htm ). This fantastic tool allows for a safer exercise performance, and more comfortable too, since your shins will be spared from contact with the bar. So Larsen, I’m with you— deadlifts are under-appreciated!
Plyos for Young Athletes: Good or Evil?
Q: Dear Charles,
I am currently working with a prepubescent, 13 year old, female goalie. She has been training with a professional goalie who has her doing plyometrics along with goalie work. Is it safe for someone her age to be doing plyometrics? I have her doing about 1/4 the drills he had her do, along with one day/week in gym. My focus with her has been general, all over strength and coordination, as well as a lot of stretching. We incorporate weights, medicine balls, stability balls, and wobble/balance boards. Am I on the right track? Should I leave out the plyos all together?
Thanks for your input!
A: To me it sounds like you’re on the right track. As far as plyos are concerned, there’s no point in frosting the cake before it’s finished baking.
In other words, the goal is to develop “core” qualities such as maximal strength, anaerobic endurance, and flexibility. These qualities, after being brought to a high level of development, will form the basis for more complex qualities such as speed strength, agility, and speed endurance later on.
It’s important for kids and young athletes to develop the widest possible “movement vocabulary.” This way, the athlete is able to pick up new skills easily and efficiently when needed later in their athletic careers. So I like your approach on training diversity. And by the way— don’t completely ignore or forget the plyometric drills that your young athlete has learned— these drills can be valuable as she matures.
Q: HI Charles! I am a girl living in India. I am 5’8″ tall & weigh 110 pounds. My problem is that I am developing a paunch which I want to get rid of. I want to know if just crunches will be enough as when I do aerobics I tend to lose weight which I cannot afford. Also what do you recommend for the lower stomach. Also my calves are quite thin. I want to develop the muscles there. What can I do? Please help.
A: The shortest and most effective way I can answer your question is to say: train like a professional bodybuilder. Train all muscle groups using a well-designed strength training program (such as the ones you’ll see on this site). I can’t effectively cover this topic within the confines of the column, so all I can say is to constantly educate yourself on the subject.
The fact that you have internet access will be of great value here. Next, eat like a bodybuilder. There are different philosophies regarding this, but I think somewhere in the neighborhood of a 40-30-30 macronutrient ratio (carbohydrates, proteins, fats) is a great starting point for most people. I am not particularly savvy with regards to the cultural/ethnic aspects of what you might be eating, but in general, restrict or avoid processed foods, sugars, wheat and bread products, and minimize rice and potatoes. Based your diet on lean-source proteins (fish and fowl, primarily), vegetables, fruits, seeds, nuts, eggs, and so forth. Use a good quality whey protein concentrate if possible as well.
As you might assume, I’m making an educated guess that you just need to acquire more muscle. Some aerobic activity is healthy, too much isn’t, and will cause you to lose muscle, which I think you have already experienced. The answer is NOT in finding the “magic” abdominal exercise program— just put on the muscle, and the rest should fall into place.
Benching Six Days a Week
Q: Hey Charles,
I recently tried a rather unorthodox bench-strengthening program I heard from a friend. I did flat bench six days a week for three and a half weeks.
Four to six sets followed by two or three sets of flies, incline dumbbells, or decline dumbbells. Reps ranged from 2-8 until failure. I also did a one-rep max every two or three days. My other work was a normal 4-day split with medium to low volume. I was quite surprised and pleased by the results.
After the first week, my chest was blasted and my strength was way down, as to be expected. However, by the end of the second week, my pecs still felt very overtrained, yet I was putting up more reps per weight than I have ever done before. At the end of 3-1/2 weeks, my max had gone up by 15 pounds. I did not use any new supplements, eat more than normal, or gain any mass during this time. I have not made strength gains like that since my first 6 months of lifting. Have you had this kind of success with this kind of program? Could it possibly be too likely to cause injury to use as a normal program cycle?
Richard M White
A: Richard, the bench press Gods must have been smiling down on you because that is one hell of a nutty program! It’s amazing that you made progress on it, but I’ll venture a few guesses as to why you did:
1) The program may have been radically different from what you had been doing previously. If you were in a state of habituation from the previous training you did, then the new system simply shocked your body into continued growth.
2) You were taking enough gear to kill an elephant
3) You’re an untra-slow-twitch guy and the huge amount of volume was just what all that mitochondra was looking for.
4) Some combination of the above.
I really consider even three days a week to be quite a lot for a multi-joint movement like the bench press. Six is just absolutely incomprehensible to me. But it just goes to show, almost anything can work, at least temporarily, as long as you don’t become injured. Incidentally, I don’t know if it’s already too late, but I bet if you re-test your 1RM after 7-10 days of rest (i.e, no chest training), you’d further improve your 1RM.
Strength Training for Throws
Q: Hi !
My name is Magnus Agren and I’m a PT and a Massage therapist from Sweden. I also coach the throwing event in track and field, foremost the discus. The reason I’m mailing you are because I’m training amongst others an 18-year old girl in the discus and trying to help her be the best she can. She’s not having the best of odds because she’s relatively small, but she loves to train and has a will that’s very, very strong and have gotten some “nice” results despite. She has the potential to become one of the best in her age group. And even tough the training is going OK I’m always trying to improve my knowledge to become a better trainer and improve her training. And after reading your articles and seeing that yourself was a masters discus thrower, I thought you must be a gold mine of information.
So the reason I’m mailing you is to ask if you have some tips to give on improving her training or just in general.
Right know she’s training five times a week:
Mon – technique and sprint
Tue- strength, back and triceps some plyo before.
Wed – rest
Thu – strength, chest,shoulder and biceps
Fri – rest
Sat – technique
Sun – strength, legs and some plyos before.
The type of strength training resembles much the way you suggested in your article at Mesomorphosis with some alternations, I’m having an different approach on periodisation on bench, pushpress, squat and deadlift (which she does on Mondays “light”, the reason she does these is because when she squats her “midsection” is to weak for her legs and when she maxes she can’t hold an “upright” position— so I’m hoping these will better her strength and posture on the squat.)
The purpose of her training is to improve her explosiveness and better her technique in the discus.
I can also say that she has a problem with her left shoulder, probably her supraspinatus but we are working on it and it’s showing great results in recuperation, so Olympic style lifting is out of the question but I’m surprised that the push press is going fine.
OK, it became a very long mail and if you gotten this far I would be very thankful if you had the time, which I think is a problem for you, to give me some recommendations or tips to improve her training. If not I will fully understand and keep reading your very good and informative articles on the net and in the mags.
The best !
A: With discus throwers, it’s not so much height (although that’s still an important factor) as much as it is arm length— a longer arm creates greater centripedal force during the throw.
In any event, the set-up you’ve described is fairly standard as far as throwers go, but let me throw a few ideas at you.
First, although it is common to work technique on one day and strength drills the next, what ends up happening is that you are working every day, which may not be the best strategy for recovery. It has been my experience that an intense (but not exhausting) strength training session first, followed by a throwing session about 4-6 hours later can actually result in an improvement in the throws.
So for example, you might do a morning circuit where you perform bench presses, back squats, and snatch pulls for perhaps 5 sets of 2 reps each (a total of 15 work sets). These should be done briskly, with good acceleration, and only brief (1-2 minutes) rests between sets. For any given set of two, 4-5 reps should be possible— in other words, leave 2-3 reps to spare on each set. The training effect comes from the attempt to accelerate the weight.
Then, later in the day, you do your throwing session, which will be fueled by the fact that the nervous system is in an enhanced state of readiness from the lifting done earlier in the day. During this session start with full competition throws, measuring each one, and noting which throw went the furthest (this data, collected over several sessions, will tell you the optimal number of warm-up throws that should be taken in competition). As soon as you notice that the quality of the throws is decreasing, switch over to drills, which should be selected on the basis of the athlete’s weaknesses.
Star with drills which have a higher nervous system component (i.e, South Africans), and progress to drills with less neural drive (i.e, drills designed to promote a loose and relaxed delivery). On each drill, note the learning curve, and when the drill has begun to erode, move on to the next one. If all of the above was done on a Monday, for example, then Tuesday is spent on easy, aerobic-type drills (jogging, fartlek drills, skipping rope, and so on), as well as stretching and relaxation exercises. These exercises should help the athlete to recover and loosen up from the previous day’s work.
On Wednesday, repeat the Monday workout, but use slightly different strength exercises (perhaps incline dumbbell presses, step-ups, and power cleans— shoulder permitting). This pattern will result in three hard training days a week, three easy days, and a day off. I’ve of course omitted larger periodization issues here in order to get my point across, so keep that in mind as you apply this advice— there are times during the year when you should emphasize hypertrophy in strength training, and so forth.
I wish you much success— throwing is a noble and under-appreciated discipline!
Master’s Fighting and Advil Addiction
Q: Mr. Staley,
I’m not sure if I have a challenge for you or not. I am 43 years young. I am strong in body and mind. I am an avid judaka. My wife say’s that’s an ADVIL judaka. I have practiced and will continue to practice with some of the best judoka our country has to offer. I love the challenge of the sport. I recommend it to everybody who wants to test their physical and mental fortitude.
I also have access to a couple of exercise physiologist who have help me out immensely. But… when ever I want to improve on speed, endurance and explosive movements these guy’s don’t know what to say to me because I’m older. I know and they know that there is a physiological differences between my body and a 24 year old elite athlete’s body. But can’t I still improve? I want to be able to handle 4 – 5 minute intense matches in one day and still fight the way I like to. Which is very aggressive.
My friends tell me that there isn’t that much information available for someone my age. I ask them what did they learn in school and they say most of it didn’t apply to a 43 year old total nut case. By the way that’s my wife’s description.
Everyone says I’m in great shape for my age.I want to be in great shape for any age.
Thank you for your consideration, any information from you would be invaluable.
A: I have recently worked with one of the best Jui Jitsu competitors of all time and I can tell you that he’s in top shape in his late 30’s, if that gives you any hope! I have a few thoughts for you though:
1) Older fighters should base their strategy on strength rather than quickness. This is because with age, the former remains at high levels while the latter dwindles. This is why boxers like George Foreman can do well at advanced ages, while speed-based boxers like Sugar Ray Leonard cannot.
2) Training frequency must decrease as we age, partly to recover, but also because your skills should already be at high levels, which therefore can be put on a “maintenance” schedule. So maintain the skills, and improve the conditioning.
3) Work to prevent injuries, and/or to take care of them properly when they do arise. Massage therapy, once weekly, can be absolutely invaluable to keep tissues pliant and healthy, and to develop a source of feedback regarding tissues which may be on the verge of injury.
4) Train smart. The easiest way to accomplish this is to carefully read everything I’ve ever written, and then do it! OK, seriously, you’ve got to have plenty of diversity in your training, stretch tight muscle groups, ice your joints if you’ve got post-raining symptoms, pay attention to your posture, eat right, and so on. All the stuff you know you should do, but don’t.
5) Lastly, don’t let anyone accuse you of being an odd-ball because you’re serious about athletics at an age where most people have thrown in the towel. We need more like you!