Originally published to www.brassmusician.com
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.