Why Musicians Need a Strong Core

May 12, 2012

When someone says to you “you need a strong core” or “you need to train your core”, does that leave you scratching your head in confusion?  I mean, what IS your core, anyway, and what on earth does it do? Is it your insides?  The middle of your body?  Your diaphragm?  Let me help you clear up all the confusion.

The core, in its simplest form, is actually the area of your body called the torso – therefore, not your arms, legs or head.  These aren’t just your abdominal muscles; there are LOTS of other muscles that make up the core.  In fact, some of the key players to core strength are in your back and lower back.

There are an awful lot of muscles in your core, and each one plays a role in how well you play your flute.  Yes, that’s right, your hip flexors, your back muscles, your abs; all those muscles have an impact on how you play.  How is that, you ask?  Well, the easy way to explain it is that all your muscles work together in any activity you do.

  • Standing uses your core muscles to keep you balanced and from falling over.
  • Driving uses more than your arms; your core is heavily involved. An indication of core weakness is pain in your hips or low back when you get out of the car.

The muscles in the front (your abs) serve to pull your body forward. These are the muscles with which you are probably most familiar, and as you know, spending most of our day in a bent over position works them plenty.  What this shows is that your back muscles may become weak from the forward-pulling motion of your abs. To have a strong core, this means that you must train your body to resist forward flexion and side to side twisting.

So how does this relate to playing your flute?  Like I mentioned before, you don’t just use your arms to play the flute.  Remember that old song “the head bone’s connected to the….neck bone” etc.?  It’s true.  Your body works as a whole.  It takes lots of different muscles to lift your arms, turn your head, hold up a flute and breathe to play.  And some of those muscles will get tired.  When this happens, other muscles take over.  If this goes on too long, you get what are called muscle compensations and imbalances, meaning that some muscles become weaker and allow other muscles to do their jobs for them.  This can lead to pain.

Each muscle is made to do a job whether that is its own job, the job of being a synergist (helping other muscles do their jobs) or an antagonist (the opposite of a muscle).  For example, your hip flexors are antagonists to your gluteus muscles.  If your hip flexors get too tight with too much sitting, your gluteus muscles become weak, eventually allowing other muscles (your hamstrings) to do the job of the glutes.  What happens then?  Your knees could hurt, or maybe your low back hurts from the stress of too much tightness in the front.  When your low back hurts because it is weak, this can translate to a weak upper back.  If your upper back is weak, it cannot support your arms which are doing a really hard job of holding up your flute, so when your arms tire, you’re just in pain everywhere, all because your hips are too tight, and guess what?  They’re part of the core!
So what to do?  I think by now we’ve established why you need a strong core to play.  When the body works well as a whole, you can play longer without compensating.  There are lots of good exercises to help with core strength.  My favorite exercise is the plank.

This can be progressed by lifting an arm or a leg, putting your feet on a bench or arms on a ball, or adding weight on your back, and can even be done on your side.  The goal is to keep your hips in line with your shoulders, so your body looks just like a plank; a board.  Even with the progressions: do not twist your hips or sag in the middle.  Hold for 30 seconds or longer, rest, and repeat.

Another of my favorite core exercises are 1) The Anti-Rotation Static Hold and its variation 2) Pallof Presses.  These are just fun, and it’s a great way to work your entire core without having to do a single crunch, or sit-up and if you have bad shoulders, these are an excellent choice without putting your shoulders into a compromising position.

To set up for both: 

Stand perpendicular to a cable station with a weight stack or a pole to which you’ve wrapped around a band.  Grasp the band or handle, pull it in front of you and then push it out in front of you, without twisting.  If you hold that position, that’s the static hold.  If you push it out and bring it back, those are Pallof Presses.  The goal with both of these is to avoid twisting (hence: anti-rotation) which you’ll feel all down the middle of your body. Make sure to choose a heavy enough weight so that the exercise is challenging.

This is a video of the Pallof Press:

http://youtu.be/JmcH0UsXRVw

If you hold the weight out without bringing it back, again, that is the Anti-Rotation Press.

If you are looking for a program of strength training that will train your core from every conceivable angle and get your entire body stronger in the process, I highly recommend a book called “The New Rules of Lifting for Abs” by Lou Schuler and Alwyn Cosgrove.  I’ve done the whole program myself and not only was it fun, I saw my strength increase by leaps and bounds!  They actually have a brand new book out called the “The New Rules of Lifting For Life”.  I just got it today and intend to read through it soon, but the gyst of it is that it is geared for non 20-yr olds, more towards middle agers and people who want to learn how to program their own workouts.

If you would like more exercises and more information, I actually have a longer blog post I’ve written about it with videos here: http://fluteangel.wordpress.com/2011/03/04/3-exercises-1-for-core-strength-and-stability/

As always, I have spots available for long distance training where I can write you a program to strengthen your core, improve your endurance and help you learn to play without pain.  You can find me via my website: www.MusicStrong.com and I’m always around on Face book: www.facebook.com/MusicStrong.  Come by and say hello, or send me an email with your comments and questions to angela@musicstrong.com  I look forward to hearing from you!

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