Weightlifting and the violin-bad combination?

January 19, 2006 at 08:07 AM · I have had pain in my left arm for the last few years while I play and I was never sure why. I work my upper body about 3-4 times a week with weights and I think this might be what is causing my pain. Is there any truth to this? Can you lift weights yet still be tension free while you play the violin?

Replies (26)

January 19, 2006 at 09:12 AM · Do you have that same pain when you lift weights, or only when you play the violin?

January 19, 2006 at 12:09 PM · Working out with free weights has been a part of my life for a long time. Here are a few pointers I’ve picked up from my personal trainers and from the writings of well-known bodybuilders — Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill Pearl, Tom Platz, Larry Scott, Lee Haney — and other experts in the field:

Avoid overtraining. Give each muscle group — chest, back, shoulders, arms, etc. — at least 48 hours of rest after you work it directly. Keep lifting sessions to 60 minutes or less. After 60 minutes, cortisol, a catabolic hormone kicks in. I aim to finish in 45 minutes — partly for commonsensical reasons but also because I’m eager to get on with afternoon violin practice.

Alternate “push” days and “pull” days. Chest and shoulder workouts are “push” workouts; i.e., during the positive resistance, you’re pushing the barbell or dumbbells away from you. Back and biceps workouts, on the other hand, are “pull” workouts; i.e., during the positive resistance, you’re pulling the weight toward you.

Work big muscles before small ones. If you work more than one muscle group in a session, follow this plan. When you’re working on the bench press, the smaller muscles of the triceps and shoulders will fail long before the pectoral muscles are ready to give out. If you’ve already worked your triceps and/or shoulders directly before hitting the chest muscles directly, you’ll reach failure a lot sooner on a given set of bench pressing, and you won’t make the gains you otherwise could.

Protect your shoulders and warm them up well before any routine in which they are even indirectly involved; e.g., a chest workout. This is a pointer I picked up when I had some coaching during summer 1992 from a former MR. MICHIGAN titleholder. He recommended a set of lateral raises with light dumbbells.

As someone in another exercise-related thread on this board has already affirmed: Warm up thoroughly by stretching, walking on a treadmill, etc., before lifting. This is, indeed, especially important in cold weather. I should add that it’s a good idea to wind down in similar fashion after a lifting session. Like Hungarian-born violinist Kató Havas, I, too, am a great believer in walks.

January 19, 2006 at 01:30 PM · Maxim Vengerov has been doing regular weightlifting during recent years.

January 19, 2006 at 11:01 PM · Jim, how do you directly work the pecs with push ups without first tiring out the triceps?

January 19, 2006 at 11:28 PM · Greetings,

eitehr do a chest isolation exercise first or alter the spacing of the hands in the push up. Thast effects how much tricep you use,

Cheers,

Buri

January 19, 2006 at 11:15 PM · Enosh, there’s no way to avoid tiring the triceps during pushups or other pressing movements for the chest muscles — because the triceps, just like the shoulders, are involved in these movements to some extent.

One way the pros recommend maximizing pec workouts is what’s known as the pre-exhaust method. Instead of starting with the pressing movements — pushups, bench presses, dumbbell presses, etc. — do a superset that consists of a set of dumbbell flyes, followed immediately by a set of pushups — or whatever you’ve selected for your pressing movements. That way, by the time the smaller triceps and shoulder muscles fail in your pressing exercise and you can’t grind out even one more rep (repetition) for that set, you will already have given the pecs a head start with the flyes, while saving the juice in your triceps for the pressing movements to follow.

Again, if you work more than one muscle group directly in one workout, hit the big muscles first and the small muscles second. Bench presses and pushups work the chest (big muscles) directly — and they work the triceps indirectly.

On the other hand, straight-bar press-downs, straight-body dips, etc., isolate the triceps (small muscles) and work them directly — and you’ll really feel the “burn” in these muscles at the end of a good set. Don’t do these exercises before the chest exercises; otherwise, you’ll exhaust the triceps, and they won’t be able to support enough reps in your chest work to give you satisfactory pectoral gains.

The same principle applies to “pull” sessions — e.g., back (big muscles) and biceps (small muscles). First do the back exercises — lat pull-downs, cable rows, t-bar rows, etc., which work the back directly and the biceps indirectly. Then hit the biceps directly — dumbbell curls, barbell curls, concentration curls, etc.

January 19, 2006 at 11:52 PM · I only get the pain when I play the violin. I stopped lifting for about a month and a lot of the pain went away although I still had some tension. I just started to lift again and the pain is back. It's mostly in my forearm but can spread to my upper arm and shoulder. It's only on my left side. I do stretch before and after I lift. I think the lifting must be causing my muscles to be tense and stiff. I would hate to quit working out but I'm afraid I may have to.

January 20, 2006 at 12:23 AM · I do a lot of weight lifting... i've got lots of big muscles and it doesn't affect anything badly. Even if I haven't lifted in a week and I get really sore, I can still play.

Just have good technique and drink lots of water.

January 20, 2006 at 12:25 AM · When you lift, you are destroying muscle tissue. When you aren't lifting, the tissue heals, grows larger etc. The downtime between lifting is as important as the actual exercise.

Playing the violin is no day on the beach for your arms and back. If you are vigorously working out and then playing during what would normally be a rest period for your muscles, you are essentially lessening if not negating their ability to recover.

January 20, 2006 at 02:42 AM · Nah, playing the violin is not going to lessen the effects of your "off day". Playing the violin is a repetitious movement and does not stress the muscles the way lifting does. It will still count as an off day.

Preston

January 20, 2006 at 03:21 AM · I am just saying it fatigues the muscle, thus possibly contributing to soreness in that the already beat up muscle never gets a chance to fully recuperate.

http://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=muscle+fatigue+and+violin&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&hl=en&btnG=Search

Obviously the person to ask is a doctor, not a musician.

January 20, 2006 at 09:43 PM · I've weightlifted for about a year - not extreme but twice a week a workout to get visible but not large muscles. If anything, it has improved my playing stamina. A musculoskeletal expert I was visiting about some pain while playing emphasised that increasing strength is good, but stretching is equally important. So I'd say see such an expert (preferably one who treats musicians) to ensure you're not straining anything while weightlifting OR while playing, and are doing the correct stretches as well.

January 21, 2006 at 04:30 AM · My teacher occasionally assigns students a small amount of weightlifting. I'm not totally sure why, but she's very concerned with physical health, so I guess it can have some benefits for violinists.

January 21, 2006 at 05:34 AM · I have tried to mix the two over the years without much success. I wish that I could make it work because I enjoy weightlifting, but I seem to get tight, especialy in my left forearm. I think it has a negative effect on my vibrato and the ability to turn my arm to get around the violin. When I get too developed, it makes playing a real challenge. I found as I got older, I needed a day to recover before I could really play the violin correctly. This became a problem if I had concerts where I really had to be able to play my best. I had to choose between not working out or playing with extra difficulty.

A few years ago, I reached a point where I couldn't lift my right arm without great effort; playing to the frog was becoming nearly impossible. I consulted a sports doctor and she said that my rotator cuff muscles were very weak as a result of the larger muscles being over developed and over used. This is not uncommon for violinists, but I suspect that I was lifting incorrectly and not stretching enough. I've had two teachers over the years that tried to discourage me from doing this, but nothing caught my attention like this injury. So if you continue, maybe you could keep it light, throw in some rotator cuff sets and do a lot of stretching. You might want to get some advice from a sports doctor also.

January 21, 2006 at 07:28 AM · Robert, that is very interesting and distressing at the same time. At one point I found my biceps getting pretty big, and I started cutting because I don't want to lose flexibility, that and I hate the idea of being a meathead.

Rotator cuff exercises are sorely neglected by everyone, people only like to do millitary presses and flys, because they have the most visible impact on the shoulder. So, doing rotator cuff exercises is essential for anyone. I think it's good to be strong, but if it gets to a point where the size of your muscles inhibit motion, then it's time to stop.

January 21, 2006 at 03:57 PM · Yoga. Trust me. Weight-lifting and yoga go so well together, and yet I'm surprised at how few people regularly combine them. I think it's the diametrically opposed personalities they both tend to draw.

But yoga is soooo good for the body, particularly an aging one (and face it, after age 25, your body is aging. Trust me). Great preventative maintenance. It works muscles that seem completely unrelated, but after a year of doing it, you start noticing you don't have the same kind of injury/stress issues you might have been dealing with all your life.

January 21, 2006 at 05:51 PM · I would do yoga but I think I'll look rediculous. I'm just not a yoga person...

January 21, 2006 at 10:31 PM · I did it. I liked it, except for the humming part. I felt really silly. And not to be a wimp, but the "downward dog" hurt my wrists...

January 21, 2006 at 11:09 PM · I do a bit of yoga but my wrists can't hold up for some of it, which is a bit worrying since I had a tendon problem in my left wrist related to violin quite recently. I'm unsure whether it's a "good hurt" or not - it might be strengthening my wrists but on the other hand it might be screwing them up again. In fact, since I started yoga my left wrist has been grinding quite unpleasantly. I suppose I should stop doing anything which puts stress on my wrists (inc weights, which I also do)?

January 22, 2006 at 12:13 AM · Robert, your problems are the same as mine. My left arm muscles, especially my forearm get tight and are strained when I play. It especially affects my vibrato and ability to rotate my left arm over to the g string. It looks like I will just have to give up weightlifting which is sad because it has been my favorite hobby besides the violin.

January 22, 2006 at 10:49 PM · Whether you go to yoga classes or not (fear of looking 'ridiculous'), some of the gentle stretches are very useful and can be learnt in a few classes or even from a book or online. Stretching is not the prerogative of yoga practitioners only, and most stretching routines use yoga stretches or similar.

January 23, 2006 at 02:13 PM · Doug-

Lifting weights and violin playing are NOT a bad combination at all. Having muscle mass and THAT kind of strength is beneficial for the sake of endurance and particularly necessary if you're getting ready for an important round of auditions or concerts.

It is necessary, however, to balance the muscle building with increasing or at least maintaining your flexibility. There are many yoga poses that you can incorporate into a stretching regimen that will help keep the muscles long and flexible as well as strong - "don't want to do anything to make you tight" is what one of my teachers said.

This of course leads to a bigger discussion - "The Artist as Athlete"...anyone care to join in?

Peace,

Samuel Thompson

January 23, 2006 at 02:45 PM · What Susan (and Samuel) said. And Yehudi would agree.

January 23, 2006 at 11:52 PM · Doug, I’m going to jump back in here for a moment. In your initial post, you said that you “work [your] upper body about 3–4 times a week with weights.”

If you mean your whole upper body, I would say — and I’m sure any certified personal trainer out there would back me up on this — that three to four times a week is definitely overtraining and will lead to weakening of the upper body.

“Less is more.” In summer 1992, when I wrote out my then-current workout schedule — a six-day regimen — and showed it to my personal trainer, a former MR. MICHIGAN titleholder, he could see that I was definitely overdoing things. He wrote out a suggested four-day split routine. I’ve followed this and a number of variations since then — what an improvement.

Be sure also that you’re getting adequate sleep. That’s when the real muscle rebuilding takes place. I can tell when I’ve had enough rest, because my muscles — especially in the shoulders and back — feel really pumped up when I start the day.

Change routines periodically. I like to take a week off the gym after every six-week period of working out. Then the muscles really get a good chance to repair themselves. When I start again, I like to have a new routine — different exercises, different angles — so that I don’t get bored and so that I can maintain what the pros refer to as “muscle confusion.” If you just keep doing the same exercises, same reps, same order over and over, your muscles will reach the point of diminishing returns.

I hit the gym Monday through Saturday. I lift only four days: 1) Tuesday — chest, triceps, lower abdominals (abs); 2) Thursday — thighs, hamstrings, calves, upper abs; 3) Friday — shoulders and trapezius (traps); 4) Saturday — back, biceps, obliques. Upper limit: 60 minutes per session. Ideal duration (for me): 45 minutes. I’m eager to get back for music practice.

Be sure to use correct form in lifting. Have your trainer go over your form with you while you’re using light weights. If the pain persists, get professional help — I’d suggest an M.D. in sports medicine or a chiropractor who knows about weightlifting.

January 25, 2006 at 01:17 AM · Hi Doug,

I agree with everyone who has posted here, it's good to exercise and strengthen your upper body so you'll be stronger and able to hold the violin longer. Also, yoga is excellent for your entire body. But, you also need to look at massaging the muscles to flush out the lactic acid that forms from muscle action.

The body has the mechanisms to flush out a normal amount of lactic acid each day, however between exercising and playing the violin, you are creating far more lactic acid than normal. The body responds to this by causing the muscles to contract and stay in the shortened position. Also, excess lactic acid causes spasms to slowly develop, making the muscle fibers actually twist into a "knot."

I have been a massage therapist for 17 years and have worked with many musicians, athletes, computer workers, and people who have chronic pain from accidents and work related repetitive strain injuries. I've written several books that teach people how to self treat all of the muscles in the body, and the self treatments work perfectly.

I suggest that you work on your infraspinatus (on your shoulder blade), the teres minor and major (close to your armpit), all of your arm muscles (upper arm and forearm), and a muscle in your chest called the pectoralis minor. Each of these muscles will cause pain in the shoulder, or in the case of the forearm, will cause pain/numbness/weakness in your wrist and hand.

Massage is an important piece to add to your exercise and practice routines, you'll be very pleased when you see the benefits.

If you want more information you can come to my free forum at www.julstro.com and www.aboutcts.com

Wishing you well,

Julie Donnelly

January 25, 2006 at 06:14 AM · Thank you Julie, Jim, and Sam for your insightful comments. The workout routine I do is the basic routine recommended in Arnold Schwarzanegger's Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding. It is fairly intense. Day 1 I work the chest and back, day 2, the biceps, triceps, and shoulders, and day 3 the legs. I then repeat these 3 days and take 1 day for rest. This is what he recommends although maybe it is too demanding and I should cut down to 3 days a week. I have taken 3 days off lifting and I already feel less pain when I play so I'm almost positive the weightlifting is the main cause of my tension. I stretch plenty. Maybe I should look into yoga.

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