Is failure built into your routine? Succeed like a bodybuilder!

November 30, 2016, 2:11 PM ·

This guy likes modern dumbbells, but his friends prefer 18th-century Italian.

"Wouldn’t it be amazing if we were bodybuilders?" my wife asked me last month, after a tough practice day. "After all the pain, we could walk down the street and people would actually see how hard we worked!"

I had to agree. How gratifying would that be? Imagine if we could wear our practicing like clothing. Think of the looks I'd get: "How about that guy -- I bet he really hits the arpeggios hard."

Then again, maybe it works both ways. Perhaps bodybuilders hit the showers saying, "If only I were a violinist. Right now instead of being ripped, I’d be able to play Paganini!"

Progressive training

I’ve learned a lot about the violin while playing golf. But I’ve also learned plenty at the gym. And while I’m no "gym rat," I’ve been fascinated by weights ever since I was young. My dad even got me a used Soloflex from the local prison for my 16th birthday! What attracted me to weights back then was the idea that I could do a little work each day and actually see my progress, both in the mirror and in the journal I kept.

That idea still attracts me to the gym today. But it also directs my daily violin practice.

Here’s the lure of bodybuilding in a nutshell: progressive results through progressive training. "Progressive" simply means that there’s progress involved. You ask more of your muscles over time, and they respond by growing bigger over time.

We’re accustomed to thinking of violin practice as a more creative process: worlds away from a bunch of he-men pumping iron over and over. But while music is certainly a creative art, what is the ultimate point of practice? Isn’t it to make progress, both technically and musically?

And while you may swear that you do make progress in the practice room, how do you really know? If you’re like many violinists, you start the day with good intentions, but by day’s end you’re not sure just what (if anything) you’ve accomplished. Your mind has gone in too many directions, and you feel frustrated.

Bodybuilders keep it simple. And it’s not because they’re muscle-bound jocks! It’s because simplicity works. Simplicity gets results. So let’s look at how bodybuilders practice...I mean work out...then apply it to ourselves.

Turning expectation into reality
It’s natural for bodybuilders to make steady progress, for several reasons:


A bodybuilder wouldn’t dream of walking into the gym without a specific plan for the day. Instead he looks at last week’s workouts and builds the current week based on them. He makes sure that by the end of the week, every part of the body has gotten its due.

And the planning doesn’t stop there! Each exercise’s workload is based on last week’s performance. If last week’s Exercise A was three sets of twelve repetitions at 50 pounds, then this week’s Exercise A might be three sets of twelve reps at 55 pounds. The extra five pounds is a small but manageable step. Therefore success is expected and built into the routine.

Compare that to a typical practice session: some noodling, perhaps a few scales, maybe an etude, then repertoire. Lots of stopping, lots of cursing and personal recriminations. Each day resembles the last. You might say that the usual practice day is more like a Groundhog Day!


In the gym, whenever you wonder whether all the work is worth it, all you have to do is open your notebook to see where you were one month or six months ago. There you’ll see the evidence that you are stronger now than you were before. The numbers stare you in the face! And they make perfect sense: 50 pounds for a time, then 55, then 60. You can assume that 65 and 70 won’t be far behind.

In the practice room, how do you know where you stand? Unless you have audio or video evidence, the equivalent of your notebook, you don’t know! You’re relying on your memory, which is anything but objective. It’s riddled with emotional holes and scarred over from previous failures. If you trust memory, you’re setting yourself up for continual disappointment.


At the gym, bodies come in all shapes and sizes. Chances are you’re neither the smallest nor the biggest. When you see someone lifting more weight than you, it’s obvious to you that they’re further along on their journey. You don’t beat yourself up about it, because you compare yourself to your past self, rather than your journey to someone else’s journey.

Unfortunately, we musicians are trained from a young age to compare ourselves to the best. Not just the best at our age or stage of development, but the greatest in the history of the world. Instead of measuring your Bach against last week’s Bach, you measure it against Milstein's. Not last month’s Brahms concerto, but Perlman’s. And while ideally you would draw inspiration from the practice habits of the greats, in truth you only get to see their triumphs: not the steady work it took to reach those high points.

Staying healthy to stay on track

If you can’t train, you can’t gain. So say the bodybuilders. Therefore, their first priority is staying healthy and injury-free. And they do it by maintaining proper form.

Each exercise is designed to work a certain muscle or group of muscles. When you use good form, all is well. But when the going gets tough and the muscles you're working start to fatigue, it's tempting to "cheat" by allowing other muscle groups to help out. When you do that, you run two big risks: one short-term, the other long-term.

The short-term risk, of course, is immediate injury. If you unwittingly allow your lower back, for example, to "help" in a chest exercise, you may find, to your dismay, that your lower back is far too weak to handle the workload. Injury brings your training, and your progress, to a dead stop.

The long-term risk of bad form is that of faulty expectations. Let’s say that two workouts ago, you successfully lifted 75 pounds for an exercise. But at your last workout you couldn't quite manage 80. This time you do barely make 80, but only by "cheating". At the next workout, naturally, you hope to lift 85. But your body wasn’t even ready for 80! The risk of injury next time around is even greater.

But just as importantly, you’ve set expectations that you can’t hope to fulfill without more cheating. By trying to rush your progress, you’ve ensured that you’ll taste failure or injury. The only solution is to go back to where you last touched solid ground: at 75 pounds. Then you can pick up where you left off.

The risks of "bad form" in the practice room

Our risk of injury isn’t as immediate, or as constant, as that of the bodybuilders. We have the freedom to select any weight on the floor, as it were, without fear of anything catastrophic.

But that freedom brings the same long-term risks. If bodybuilders are tempted to "cheat" in order to move from 75 to 80 pounds, how often are you tempted in the practice room to crank up the metronome and "go for it" at 100 bpm?

With no immediate consequences, it may seem worth a shot. And many violinists do just that, day after day! They spend most of their time attempting feats that they’re simply not capable of handling at their current level. The inevitable result is repeated failure. And once failure becomes built into the routine, progress becomes impossible.

No matter your instrument, the marks of "good form" are easy to define:

  1. pitch
  2. rhythm
  3. sound quality

Simply put, if you are not achieving these marks, then you are cheating. You need to modify your routine so that you’re back on solid ground again. Otherwise, steady progress will remain just wishful thinking.

The cycle of success in the gym

There are so many parallels between the practice room and the gym that it’s hard to find a piece of advice that doesn’t apply to both! But let’s focus on my guidebook, 8 Practice Mistakes, and see how bodybuilders avoid the traps we set for ourselves as musicians. (If you haven’t read 8 Practice Mistakes, follow the link above to grab your free copy, then come right back!)

Now, let’s turn my 8 Mistakes around and see what bodybuilders do to ensure steady progress:

  1. They succeed. Their routines build incrementally, so they know that they are capable of completing each day’s work. Success builds on success.
  2. They use good form. Their equivalent of making a good sound is performing each exercise as it’s laid out: using the prescribed muscles and no others.
  3. They work smart, not hard. Since their workouts are tailored to their level, completing them doesn’t require a Herculean effort. They expect to finish with energy to spare.
  4. They have specific and appropriate short-term expectations. This one is a no-brainer! Bodybuilders know what they’re capable of and expect to improve incrementally, one step at a time.
  5. They have goals that are worth attaining. Perhaps they’re in it to lose weight. Maybe they want to compete and win. But imagining that target weight, or that trophy, keeps them going in the right direction day after day.
  6. They work out in order to achieve their goals. Jerry Seinfeld poked fun at this when he quipped, "The only reason that you’re getting in shape is so you can get through the workout. So we’re working out, so that we’ll be in shape, for when we have to do our exercises." Seinfeld isn't wrong, but there's a bigger picture too! Serious bodybuilders treat each workout with importance, knowing that it brings them one step closer to a goal. Similarly, when practice becomes performance, you knock down an arbitrary wall that may keep you from realizing your best playing when it counts.
  7. They’re willing to adapt. If an exercise is painful, they substitute another. If they need extra work in one area of the body, they add another exercise. And as a matter of course, they switch up their routines once a month or thereabouts. They know that both body and mind can get stuck in a rut, and when that happens, progress slows to a crawl.
  8. They get feedback. Besides the natural camaraderie of the gym environment, bodybuilders take advantage of some of the most objective feedback known to man: scales and rulers. If their goal is to lift a certain amount of weight, they always know where they stand in relation to that number. If they want to lose weight, they can easily chart their progress.

How to "pump up" your practice routine

I want you to be excited about each day’s work on the violin, so here’s how to do it:

If you’ve been inspired in the gym, I’d love to hear about it below!


December 1, 2016 at 09:18 PM · I relate strongly to this as one who works out regularly -- and practices and plays violin regularly. There are a lot of parallels. A few random thoughts after reading your post:

1. Though people won't see how hard we, as musicians, have worked -- unless they see our fingertips maybe -- they will hear the results over time.

2. About lifting: Periodization is one method I use -- light phase for 2 weeks, medium phase for 2 weeks, heavy phase for 2 weeks; then rest for 1 week -- no lifting. Some take this over a longer time block: 4, 4, 4, 2; or 4, 3, 2, 1 -- there are plenty of options.

3. In bodybuilding, the general rule is to rest each muscle group -- chest, back, thighs, arms -- 48 hours before directly hitting it again. Also, work the bigger muscles first, then the smaller -- e.g., chest, shoulders, triceps, in that order. Small muscles fail sooner than large ones. If you start with the tri's, your bench presses won't be as good as they would otherwise have been, and your risk of failure and injury is greater.

4. Fortunately, by contrast, we can practice the same violin repertoire on consecutive days. One caution: With hard-core drills like Sevcik or Schradieck, I like to take them in small doses and not repeat the same ones 2 days in a row.

5. Lower back injury: A major reason a lot of people suffer from lower-back problems is that their abdominals -- or abs, as we call them in bodybuilding -- are weak. This is a muscle group not to be neglected. I also do hyperextensions for lower back -- this helps me, too, to maintain form during music practice.

6. Injury and form: Yes -- every injury I've had from working out, I can trace to a moment of inattention or slack form -- or ego. Two years ago, on biceps curls from a low pulley, I had set the weight stack at 40 lbs. for the last set. When my form started to deteriorate toward the end of the set, I told myself: "Come on! You can get 10 reps out of this." By cheating the weight up at the end, I pulled a muscle in the lower back and had to stay off the weights for a couple of weeks.

7. Speaking of "failure": Veteran bodybuilding champion Bill Pearl, in his book Getting Stronger, advises against what's known as "training to failure." The last rep should be difficult but not impossible. There's a parallel in violin -- over-practicing. Better to stop while you still have some energy left and the appetite for the next practice session. I know firsthand that pushing too hard or too long can be counterproductive.

8. I did read 8 Practice Mistakes a while back -- thank you again.

This is my experience in dealing with tendinitis a few years back:

December 1, 2016 at 10:37 PM · Good ideas and great encouragement. Thanks, Nate!

Starting a pushup routine is starting to make holding the viola easier. By starting, I mean pushups on the edge of the kitchen sink, then weeks later moving to the (lower) dining table, then the (lower) TV stand, and eventually I hope to do the full-body ones on the floor--and I'm a girl. :)

Long road ahead still, but over 2-3 months I've come a long way and my neck and shoulders feel stronger. People constantly emphasize eliminating tension while playing, but I decided that I just needed some basic strength to make playing more ergonomic.

December 4, 2016 at 12:04 AM · Thanks Jim for your thoughts, which are all relevant and appreciated! And for putting your story out there too, which I had not read.

You're not going to believe it, but I'm a big Bill Pearl fan and I use his routines regularly. I love his outlook, and I even had a major Bill Pearl section as part of this post, but in the end decided to cut it and make it a separate future post. His "don't train to failure" was a big part of the thought process behind this piece.

December 4, 2016 at 01:18 AM · Nate, you and I were clearly on a similar wavelength. I'm actually not surprised that you're a big Bill Pearl fan. I look forward to your future post that mentions his advice.

December 4, 2016 at 11:51 AM · Hi Nathan,

Great post! A while back, I was inspired by the following two videos by the great body builder Arnold Schwarzenegger. I thought that in the context of this post, you might enjoy them too. Hope you do...

For me, the two things that really stood out are the importance of basics (in the first), and the enthusiasm of taking every step to a goal/vision in your mind in the second.


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