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Debunking Weightlifting Myths for the Musician

Movement Blog

Debunking Weightlifting Myths for the Musician

Hannah Murray

by Angela McCuiston, September 9, 2019.

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Common concerns/misconceptions:

I remember back when I was in school for music, going to the gym to lift wasn’t a very popular thing, and to be honest, sometimes it was even discouraged. I frequently was cautioned against lifting because I could hurt myself, “what if you crush a finger?” was something I heard on the regular. Most musicians I knew just ran if they did any exercise at all or maybe an aerobics class because those were “safer options.” Well, there’s risk with everything, including those two activities. You can get an overuse injury from muscle imbalances that arise with only running, or not having enough core strength or even improper running form, nevermind twisting an ankle, or falling. Aerobics? Well, you could always twist and ankle, fall off a step, or what if you aren’t aerobically prepared for the intensity of the class? I think being in a car carries much more risk and we don’t think anything about it.

Thankfully, we’re coming out of the dark ages and musician’s fitness is becoming more and more commonplace, but lifting programs geared directly towards musicians are still a rarity and going to lift without a plan is a dangerous place to be. Group fitness like CrossFit and Orange Theory provide structure, but are they always appropriate? A structured training plan that can correct muscle imbalances brought on by playing your instrument as well as increase muscular endurance can be hugely beneficial. Still concerned? Let me address some common concerns and misconceptions that will give you more confidence to get your lift on.

If I train with weights, I’ll get “bulky.” If I add too much mass in the shoulder/chest area, it will get in the way of being able to play.

When it comes to strength training: lifting heavy does not automatically equal size. If you want to train for size, you have to work within a certain overload principle: training at higher and higher volume, consistently over time. There are different muscle fibers, and these need to be trained in specific ways to get specific results. Truth: Building strength in weak muscles can prevent injury and building overall strength can give you better balance, overall strength, and endurance. It does not automatically mean you’ll get jacked or be the most swole person in the music building.

As for mass in the shoulder/chest area, that can be a valid concern, especially with some instruments (though I have several musician friends that are classically trained and perform on a regular basis in the studio and with orchestras that are powerlifters – if you’ve seen these people, they can be huge – and they train to be that way on purpose, but it can also be a byproduct of the type of lifting they’re doing. That being said, ask them, and they’ll tell you in no way does the size of their chests/shoulders hinder their playing. Caveat – these are brass players, string players for sure have a different viable concern here; however, you can still train for strength and even for size (if you want) without going for mass that will impede your playing. You just have to train within those certain parameters to get the results you want, AND you have to be consistent. Just like practicing, if you don’t practice consistently, you won’t become the great musician you want to be, same thing in the gym: if you don’t train with consistency and intent, you won’t get any specific results. To get huge, you have to train specifically for it.

But let’s talk about Olympic lifting and CrossFit for a minute. Olympic lifting refers to a series of whole-body movements involving a barbell: clean and jerk, snatch, deadlift, etc. CrossFit does a lot of those. Difference? Intent. CrossFit focuses on volume, people who usually do Olympic lifts, either as part of a regularly scheduled strength training program or as a powerlifter, do so at lower repetitions. I can talk all day about training variations, and you don’t want me to go down that rabbit hole, so just let me stress again: a certain modality, be it Oly lifting, strength training, just doing some deadlifts or bench presses, etc. does not inherently equal size/mass. They are tools to be utilized within a program that fits YOUR needs. They can be utilized for size building (hypertrophy/bodybuilding/powerlifting) or strength/fat loss ((not synonymously related btw) (CrossFit, within a traditional strength training program, etc.). The key is 1) how you train 2) What your training goals are and the big one 3) consistency. You can train for anything, but without consistency, you won’t get there. Whether you want to be a world-class runner, a bodybuilder, or just be able to play your instrument without pain for decades, you HAVE to have consistency in your training. To that end, remember, when it comes to your body and how you use it, there is no maintenance: you are either going forward or backward, you’re never still. Are you getting better every day or slowly declining? Are you building strength and endurance or on a path towards an overuse injury?

Sorry, rabbit hole folks. There’s a LOT that goes into programming a proper strength training workout depending on your goals, and the other half of that depends on you and what you do with it. Suffice it to say, just because you pick up something heavy, even on a regular basis, doesn’t mean you’re going to get swole and huge.

If I focus on my grip strength, I’ll lose dexterity in my fingers.

There are two types of muscle fibers in the body: fast twitch and slow twitch. They work together, but if you train one more frequently, you won’t automatically lose strength, mobility, dexterity, etc. in the other. Additionally, focusing on one doesn’t automatically cancel out the other. If you’re continually practicing, you’re reinforcing those fine motor skills. When you work on grip strength, you actually could be reinforcing joint health/strength, especially elbow/shoulder areas which are HUGE areas of concern for musicians. The key is to do both and if you’re really concerned about it, use lifting hooks.

If I pick up heavy things in the weight room, I might develop calluses that can interfere with my playing.

That seems like a valid concern, especially for string players. Some calluses come in handy (ever seen the end of a harpists fingers?) but think about how you hold your instrument – you usually don’t grip it. Most instruments are held with the fingers with the palm of the hand not coming into direct contact with the instrument. The calluses you may develop would be at the base of the fingers/top of palm, they form from the friction of where you grip the weight/implement, and not at the end of your fingers. However, if you’re still concerned, you can always wear weightlifting gloves – I have many clients who wear them specifically because they don’t want to develop calluses or because they want to protect their hands.

Lifting weights is dangerous, what if I crush my fingers or drop a weight on my toe?

There is danger in every situation – driving a car, chopping vegetables and mowing the lawn are all dangerous skills but because you have practiced them you become more comfortable. The real danger lies in two aspects:

• Not knowing correct weight lifting form

• Becoming too complacent

This can really be applied to any are in life – anything that is unfamiliar is scary, and of course, when it comes to your body, your FIRST instrument, you want to take care of it more than most. The chances of you having the above accidents are way higher if you’re 1) not sure what you’re doing 2) are too caught up in how you look in the mirror and to those around you to focus on good form or your surroundings (watch out for those errant dumbbells folks! I just plowed my foot last week into a 25 pounder that should have been racked….trainers are guilty of leaving their toys around too #rackyourweights) or 3) are picking up something too heavy either because you want to look like you know what you’re doing and impress someone or because you don’t have a spotter.

The thing is, you go to the gym to train your body, not your ego. Yes, looking better is a byproduct, but NEVER at the expense of good form. Sadly, there are a LOT of bad trainers out there, which gives those of us who care and who pay good money to continually educate ourselves and are the ones constantly coaching you without a phone in sight…. a bad name. Please, don’t lump us all together. Find someone who really cares, who can answer your question of “why are we doing this? Why do I need this?” with an actual answer, and if they can’t, be very, very wary. Pick a trainer not necessarily only on how they look, but can they tell you what continuing education credits they have? How are they continually bettering themselves, continuing to learn? Tell them you are a musician and these are your concerns….do they give you a movement assessment or just walk you around from machine to machine with a clipboard counting reps? Just like you need to demand more from your doctors (if it hurts just stop playing…. not an answer) you need to demand more from your trainers. Interview them like you would an instrument repair tech.

After all, your body is your first instrument. 



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Angela McCuiston is a NASM-CPT, CES, SFS and CETI-CES (Certified Personal Trainer and Corrective Exercise Specialist, Senior Fitness Specialist and Cancer Exercise Specialist) and owner of Music Strong, a business that specializes in personal fitness training for musicians. Winner of the 2007 NFA Piccolo Master class, Angela received her Master of Music in Flute Performance from Florida State University and is Assistant Principal/Piccolo of Sinfonia Gulf Coast of Destin, a member of the 129th Army Band in Nashville, TN, Nashville Philharmonic, Columbus Symphony and Nashville Flute Choir.

As a trainer, Angela maintains several training locations in Nashville and also travels to give her workshops and presentations,  most notably presenting at the National Flute Association Conventions in Las Vegas, NV, Washington, D.C. and Orlando, FL. Among her recent workshops, she has travelled to present at Arizona State University, Florida State University, Stephen F. Austin University, Ft. Lewis University and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga among others. 

Recently, she was sought out by the Old Guard, Army Fife and Drum Corps as a special consultant to prevent playing related injuries. She has since taken up residence on the faculty of the Stetson University flute camp and has been sought out for numerous other positions including  her recent appointment Fall of 2018 as Chair of the National Flute Association Performance Health Committee.