Physical fitness for brass players


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A regular (or semi-regular) fitness routine can be very helpful for brass players, whether it be running, swimming, biking, or some kind of light weight training combined with aerobic exercise. Listed below are what I feel to be the music-related benefits associated with overall fitness and physical well being, followed by my favorite exercises. *Note: If you have or suspect you may have any medical issues, consult a physician prior to beginning a workout regimen. I am neither a physician nor a fitness instructor – what follows are simply my suggestions.

Heart Health=Better Performances
Regular aerobic exercise is great for your cardiovascular system, and results in a more resilient heart. When stressed, a healthy heart returns to its resting, or calm state more quickly than one that is out of shape. What this means for performers is that you will be able to calm yourself more easily before an important entrance, concert, or recital. A relatively low resting heart rate is a good general indicator of cardiovascular fitness.

Less Chance of Performance Injuries
Good muscle tone and a strong core can help prevent overuse injuries, especially in the shoulders, neck, and back. Overuse injuries often result from the unbalanced use of a specific group of muscles. Strengthening the muscles we use to hold the instrument also allows us to practice longer without fatigue.

More Efficient Breathing
Although they can’t actually increase your lung capacity, aerobic exercises can help train us to take quicker, more efficient breaths, which often gives the illusion of increased capacity. Publications such as The Breathing Gym take an athletic approach to breath training for brass players.

Sound Body, Sound Mind
Regular exercise can help you sleep better, leaving you feeling more rested, and therefore more focused and alert during practice sessions and performances. Better practicing leads to more confident performances, which leads to greater peace of mind. This is perhaps an oversimplification, but I do believe strongly in the connection between physical and mental health.

There are plenty more, but these should be enough to get you interested – they certainly were for me! Ok, so now that you’ve decided to embark on a fitness plan, what should you do? As mentioned above, any kind of activity which combines strength and endurance is great, like jogging (watch those knees and shins!), swimming, or biking. It is very important to start slowly when you begin working out, as it will take your body a little while to adjust to this increased activity. Make sure you are observing the proper form when exercising, as this is as important as the exercise itself. Also feel free to mix up your routine when you get bored – you want to keep things interesting enough so that you enjoy exercising. Lately I’ve settled on a combination of weight training and aerobic exercises I can do in a small space, like my office. Websites like Men’s Health and Women’s Health have dozens of ready made workouts to fit various environments and time constraints. I like the following exercises, and in general for musicians I suggest concentrating on lower weights and higher repetitions (reps). We are aiming for improving strength and endurance, not bulking up. If you are unfamiliar with any of these exercises, they can very easily be found on the internet, with both written descriptions and photo or video demonstrations.

Pushups: Great for building arm, shoulder, and core strength.

Shrugs (with or without dumbbells): Also great for shoulder strength.

Squats/Lunges (with or without dumbbells): For balance, flexibility, and lower body strength.

Dumbbell Rows, Bench Press, Push Press: Again, for core and upper body strength.

Some Sort of Abdominal Exercise: I’m not a huge fan of traditional crunches and sit ups, as they tend to make my abs feel pretty tight – not good for breathing! We aren’t going for a six pack, but we do want to have some strength in our midsection. Instead I recommend planks or mountain climbers. I think research has shown that these are better ab workouts than crunches and sit ups anyway.

By completing these exercises in a circuit and resting only as necessary, you can also get in a pretty good cardiovascular workout.

By James Boldin

2 Responses to “Physical fitness for brass players”

  1. Monty says:

    This article is a great attempt to show how fitness enhances performance and helps us avoid injuries, I appreciate the disclaimer stating that you’re not a coach or physician – though I suspect many fitness professionals and doctors would agree with the prescriptive advice in the article.
    Unfortunately , there are some problems with the suggestions presented here.
    Cardiovascular fitness is like any other kind of muscular fitness in that it’s multi faceted and the most efficient training takes this into account by focusing on one attribute at a time to maximize development. conditioning work ( what you’re calling aerobic) like running biking and swimming helps with cardio respiratory health- getting the heart and lungs more efficient at delivering oxygen to the body. It’s endurance training.
    Cardiovascular strength is actually building the tissue of the heart.- making the pump stronger- so obviously strength training is the means to grow a stronger heart, (rather than running) Similarly combining the two before you’ve come to a plateau in training fitness attributes individually is ok for general fitness – but maybe suboptimal for the performer who wants to see what how physical training can support good performance- because running and. Lifting aren’t compatible types of training simultaneously- you want to do them sequentially – hit one hard for 3- 6 month then switch out. start with Strength – strength is the slowest thing to develop – but persists the longest when you’re not training it. Then switch to endurance- cardio respiratory conditioning is the fastest thing to develop – and to lose. Hitting that with larger musculature helps combat muscle fatigue as well as prevent injury. running injuries are far more common than lifting injuries, then perhaps cycle into a few months of training for power : Olympic lifitng like cleans, or push presses, or hill sprints or Tabata cycles train the body to produce force rapidity and give a nice hybrid training effect. The endurance from your cardio and strength from lifting combine to translate into power to move your body or a weight quickly through space. After that cycle. Enjoy lighter training – maybe a week or month of agility work or yoga or just going out and doing your favorite sport and not thinking about training much.
    Ok. So that’s the way to approach your programming logically- and no, don’t feel free to “switch it up” if you get “bored” …are you the type of musician who changes key,or time signature or tempo or the piece your playing midway through because your “bored”? No. And training is like music – you’re either playing or just slobbing out on some noise.
    With and understanding of the system in place, I have to troll for a minute and address your particulars. I’ll try not to cuss, and keep it to bullet statements,
    1) Men’s health and women’s health are perhaps the worst sources of info for training- because they are appearance based and don’t quantity results, if you can’t quantify progress, your likely not on a program that yields any. Your log (that of course you should keep for every session) should show added weight or longer distance or faster time every single session on the movements you’re training, People who train as opposed to “workout” don’t get bored, they get excited at constant progress and tangible results on the bandstand/concert hall.
    2) lower weights and higher reps are precisely for “bulking up” with the added benifet of muscle endurance – which really is better covered with running or with resistance work integrated into conditioning (eg crossfit etc) rep ranges of weight you can lift 5 times for 3 sets -ie heavy lifting is the best way to get what you want- the tissue grows at the origin and insertion of the muscles, the brain progressively become more efficient at recruiting motor units – so in addition to the mental/central nervous system development heavy compound lifting confers – you get a dense packed musculature (myofibular hypertrophy) instead of a a pumped up (sarcoplasmic hypertrophy) look that high rep bodybuilders are going for.
    3) shrugs,push-ups, lunges and rows are all Assistance movements and not the core of any serious strength program. BarbellSquatting femurs parallel to ground, butt below knee at the bottom back extended and head looking straight (relaxed cervical spine) and not up ((tensed neck- bad for wind players) Deadlifts. ( anyone find posture important to playing? This is what gives it to you bench press and overhead press are the 4 basic barbell lifts to train hard. They are compound movements, strengthen the heart and give you the spine you need to maintain rigorous posture musicians need – and all train the abdominal muscles to the extent that. Ab isolation work is not only un neccesary, but counter productive,
    The other highly transferable benifet of heavy lifting is that, in order to squat , deadlift and press heavy. You must perform the valsalva maneuver – what wind player or singer wouldn’t love to see the strength of their diaphragm tripled in three to six months?

    I’m a percussionist, sousaphonist massage therapist and personal trainer in DC. I also smoke and party like a big dog- but you can’t really tell, because I know how to train, even when I wring a shirt out like a wet rag after a set- I’m never tired, can always play more and never lose my posture, once my lifts got past bodyweight and entered into body weight and a half to two times bodyweight for squat and deadlift and my pressing approached .75 percent of body weight, I just stopped being tired or anxious about anything physical- forgetting my back and arms and legs and 50lb horn I dance and jump around with to be able to open my ears to my music and those of my bandmates in Black Masala (Balkan rock and funk) and yamomanem (New Orleans jazz) was the biggest reward for learning how to train properly,

    Hope this helps.
    Monty.

  2. Valene says:

    exercises can actually help an individual loose excess weight. Aerobic exercises also improves blood circulation inside our body. There are also evidence which says that aerobic exercises also lifts the emotional status and psychological well-being of an individual.

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